All they want for Christmas is last Christmas.
A lot has changed since the last time Shaquille O’Neal and the Heat played host to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers in what has become as much a rite of Christmas as the story of the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving.
For one thing, the Heat won a championship, the team’s first and O’Neal’s fourth.
For another, they’re now in the midst of the Title Defense From Hell.
In the first two Yuletide re-enactments of the Shaq-Kobe feud (which is technically over, not that that dissuaded ABC), Bryant and his fledgling Lakers arrived as if served up on a platter for O’Neal’s Eastern Conference powerhouse, which won both.
In their first two seasons apart, O’Neal’s Heat was 111-53, reached the East finals in 2005 and won a title last spring. Bryant’s Lakers were 79-85, missed the playoffs in 2005 and went out in the first round last spring.
For two years people said Lakers owner Jerry Buss committed the all-time gaffe, but the other half of the equation is revealing itself. The Lakers are one of this season’s surprises. Without O’Neal, so is the once-formidable Heat.
O’Neal is going on 35 and out till mid-January, and the Heat seems to get older every day. Happily for them, they’re in the East, where they were No. 8 when they were 9-13.
Unhappily, they’re used to better, none of them more than Heat Coach Pat Riley, who won four titles and went to the Finals two more times in his first seven seasons with the Lakers, back when he divided life into “winning” and “misery.”
Of course, that was with the Showtime Lakers, who would have needed straitjackets if they had started 9-13.
“My perspective is a lot different than when I was younger,” Riley said last week. “I was a little bit more fearful of the consequences and how I would be perceived and how the team would be perceived.
“We are who we are right now. ... I just want to keep it even until everyone’s healthy, and I know that’s not going to be for another month and a half.”
That night the Heat had to come from 11 points behind to beat the New Orleans Hornets, who were without Peja Stojakovic, David West and Bobby Jackson.
“I almost got to the point where I figured, ‘You know what, I’m just going to get thrown out of the game,’ ” Riley said afterward. “They don’t want to play defense, I don’t want to coach.”
Only 20 or 30 more shopping days until O’Neal’s back, they hope.
Last hurrah plus one
Of course, Riley could have gone out on top.
It wasn’t really feasible amid expectations, ticket-price increases and the fact he was not only the coach but president and 20% co-owner. But it did occur to him.
“I think you have an image of, this is it, man, this is great, let’s move on,” Riley said. “I don’t know, I felt a real responsibility to these players and they’re calling me all summer, begging me to come back. ...
“I don’t know how long I’m going to continue to coach, but I definitely felt it really was a responsibility to this team and this franchise to coach at least this year with these guys.”
This is not the driven Riley who became the NBA version of a movie star with the Lakers and the prince of the city in New York before his spectacular fall here when Alonzo Mourning’s illness cratered the franchise.
Riley is softer-spoken, often self-deprecating and, at least as far as appearances go, leaning toward leaving the sideline forever after this season.
He thought he was done three seasons ago when he turned the team over to Stan Van Gundy, savaging himself on the way out (“What is Stan replacing? A name, that’s all.”).
The next spring, Riley passed up a chance to return to the Lakers, an old dream but one that arrived too late.
Old habits die hard with Riley, who kept his watch on Pacific time all five years in New York. In the spring of 2004, it looked as if he might actually get that homecoming when Buss, who had just told Phil Jackson he wouldn’t be back, invited him to fly to Los Angeles for a chat.
Riley did, but as much as a courtesy to his old benefactor. Riley was interested only if it was an optimal situation with O’Neal and Bryant; he even volunteered to call both players and try to reconcile them.
As Riley described it, Buss let the matter drop and suggested they order dinner.
“I was with the Lakers 20 years, as a coach, as a player, as a broadcaster, as a traveling secretary, as an assistant,” Riley said.
“Yeah, the Lakers are always in my heart, but it’s been a long time. It’s been 16 years. And so even though there’s those delusions -- and I think it is a delusionary mind-set that you might go back there -- we’ve moved on.
“Everybody’s moved on. They’ve got a great coach. They’ve got a different organization. Even though at one time I did talk to them about it, I never felt it was going to happen.”
Instead, Riley wound up trading for O’Neal and, six weeks into his second season, returning as the Heat’s coach, insisting to a world of skeptics it was the last thing he wanted.
In any case, Riley never looked comfortable; a month later with the Pistons disappearing from sight at 37-6, he told ESPN he didn’t think he’d return this season.
It caused a furor, which Riley didn’t like either. “What I said, there’s some truth to that and maybe there might not be any truth to that,” he told the beat writers. “However you want to deal with it, deal with it.”
There was no resemblance to Riley’s old gung-ho teams, led by zealots Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing and Mourning. The Heat finished a distant second in the East, 12 games behind Detroit.
Then they almost got taken out in the first round by the Chicago Bulls. When the Heat came back to win the deciding Game 6, Riley couldn’t hide his admiration for the gritty Bulls, calling them “Cinderella,” noting with relief his team “was able to break the glass slipper.”
In the biggest surprise of all, the Heat reached the Finals, where it proceeded to come back from an 0-2 deficit ... after rallying from 13 points behind in the last 6 minutes 15 seconds of Game 3.
Riley danced at the parade while O’Neal and his teammates went into convulsions. Riley’s wife, Chris, told the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson, “I’ve never seen him as happy as this moment. Never has it been sweeter than this.”
That last dance was a long time coming. Riley, who didn’t know the difference when he won his first four titles, got this one the hard way.
“Pat said it all when he said he was 219 pounds when he took over as coach and 197 at the end of the season,” assistant coach Ron Rothstein said later. “This was not a magic-carpet ride.”
An old soul, getting older
“Is there an athlete with more positive energy than the 24-year-old guard? He pulled the Heat out of a playoff hole, helped put the shine on a tarnished league and lifted his mom out of her personal hell.”
-- Sports Illustrated, naming Dwyane Wade its sportsman of the year
Into every dismal situation, a ray of sunlight falls. For Riley, who was 25-57 in the 2002-03 season that he thought was his last, it was a late-blooming, fast-arriving rookie he drafted that summer named Dwyane Wade.
Wade’s rise in three seasons outstripped even LeBron James, who went No. 1 overall to Wade’s No. 5. Of course, Wade was lucky enough to be paired with O’Neal instead of Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Now Wade has a title and a Finals MVP award. After arriving with nothing while Nike gave James $70 million and Carmelo Anthony $25 million, Wade is soaring commercially too.
James is short with the media, and Anthony has a penchant for trouble. Wade’s age of innocence is over too, with an array of agents and publicists around him, but he’s still the answer to a commissioner’s prayer.
Wade’s accession was just capped by being named SI’s sportsman of the year. Scott Price’s profile revealed a new Wade who acknowledged his rocky childhood and his mother’s drug addiction that led to two jail terms.
Jolinda Wade has since pulled her life together and is to be ordained as a Baptist minister, but the story explains a lot about her low-key son.
“I had a child at a young age,” says Wade, who got married when he was 20 and has a 3-year-old son, Zaire. “My sister raised me and I kind of raised myself. I was always to myself a lot. ... I guess it was just the way I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be young and dumb.
“I think Coach says I’m just an old soul, the oldest youngest soul in the league. ...
“You know, it’s a running joke. ... We all say, ‘You’ve got to add an extra year for every year in Miami that you’re down here.’ ”
If Wade’s soul was old before, it may be geriatric after last spring’s playoff run that went into June, and a July and August spent with the U.S. team for the world championships in Japan.
When the Heat’s camp opened, Wade said he felt as if he had already played 60 games, and that was before O’Neal went out and Wade had to shoulder the entire operation.
For a defending champion, they’re dismayingly thin. Jason Williams, coming off knee surgery, has a shooting percentage in the 30s, as does Gary Payton, who’s 38. Antoine Walker, who makes $7.6 million, is averaging 8.8 points and no longer even starts.
Riley, whose forte was always defense, has stepped it up, decibel-wise, although he is picking his spots.
“Otherwise it becomes a bloodbath,” he said, “and I’ve done too many of those.”
Though O’Neal is expected back next month, it may be mid-April before he’s ready. Riley has signaled his concern, saying he hopes O’Neal “tries to almost reinvent himself physically ... to come back a lot lighter, a lot leaner. Those kinds of things are really important now.”
On the other hand, O’Neal is still O’Neal, which makes him one of a kind.
“As long as that guy steps between the lines, he’s a beast,” said Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy. “He takes up space in your paint. You’ve got to send double-teams at him. He creates shot opportunities for his teammates. ...
“His presence defensively in the paint -- I’ve never seen anything like it.”
It’s not over until the big guy gets in shape, which the Heat hopes happens before the fat lady sings.