How Riley saved his playing career and is paying it forward

Miami Heat president Pat Riley shares some experiences about former Miami Heat player Shaquille O'Neal at a press conference before the Heat retires his No. 32 jersey during a special halftime ceremony of the Miami Heat vs Los Angeles Lakers Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Fla. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

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Miami Heat president Pat Riley shares some experiences about former Miami Heat player Shaquille O'Neal at a press conference before the Heat retires his No. 32 jersey during a special halftime ceremony of the Miami Heat vs Los Angeles Lakers Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Fla. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

It is the combination rarely heard from human resources.

"You're hired."

"Now get in shape."

And yet it is a message Pat Riley has carried through his five decades in the NBA, now to the gratitude of another generation, even in these toughest of times.

"I don't think any player is worth his salt unless he attempts to get in world-class condition," Riley says in his Miami Heat executive office overlooking Biscayne Bay. "And that's the least that we should ask of a player, to be in great shape."

The surprising part is that for some on this reconfigured Heat roster, it is the first time the message has been delivered as passionately and as pointedly.

"Without destroying every other GM or coach, it's Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra telling you to do that," forward James Johnson says in the hallway that leads to the Heat locker room and the team's training facilities. "When they're telling you you have the chance to play on this kind of organization if you can get in the primal shape of your life, you do it."

So Johnson has done it. Wayne Ellington has done it. Dion Waiters has done it. Derrick Williams has done it. All have significantly cut weight, reduced body fat and put themselves in the best shape of their journeyman careers, offering unsolicited testimonials over these past six months. While on-court performance has been a struggle for the Heat, and while injuries have been an issue, conditioning has been conquered by the team's newcomers.

"I'm definitely in the best shape that I've been in since college and I feel like it," Ellington says after a recent practice session.

If you didn't know better, you'd swear these were testimonials for weight-loss products.

"On other teams, you kind of work early in the preseason hard and as the season gets here, you kind of ease off it a little bit," Ellington says. "Here, we continue to grind through the season and continue to get in better shape, even during the season. I think that's the difference."

For Johnson, Ellington, Waiters and Williams it started almost immediately after they signed in July. Each has played for multiple teams, which meant multiple training programs, multiple promises of peak-performance potential.

For Johnson, the program designed by Heat strength coach Bill Foran and stressed by Riley, Spoelstra and trainer Jay Sabol has been an epiphany.

"When I saw my before-and-after picture," Johnson says, "I texted my fiancee and said, 'I'm sorry that you even had to be with this guy.' "

Again, not paid product pitchmen.

"I keep mentioning my college days," Ellington says, "because that's when I was really shooting it well, I was really moving well, I was getting up and down the floor without the ball. And that's what I'm getting back to."

For Riley, the conditioning zeal takes him back to the start, such a transformative element of his playing career that he has at times been iron-fisted, such as suspending Antoine Walker and James Posey just months after they had helped lead the Heat to the franchise's first championship in 2006. Now Riley is merely incredulous when one of his athletes accepts anything less.

"It starts with me, because that's what happened with me, in my career," he says, referencing 1970 and his arrival to the Los Angeles Lakers. "Going into my fourth year, (coach) Bill Sharman met with me and he said to me he had watched me, he liked me. He said, 'The only way that you're going to be able to make the team is if you're the best-conditioned player in training camp. Because what I need you for is I'm going to need you to practice against (Jerry) West and (Gail) Goodrich and (Elgin) Baylor and (Jim) McMillian every day. So I need you every day to practice against them hard.' This was when we used to practice, really practice."

Just as Riley does now with his new arrivals, Sharman presented Riley, then 25, with an offseason workout regimen. So Riley went home to his wife, Chris, and essentially started anew.

"I went to work, going to the beach. I did hills. I did stairs. I did weights. I did basketball every single day," Riley says. "I can remember Chris and I took a drive up the coast, about a week before training camp, a last getaway, and as we drove up the coast, I'd pull over the car over the side of the road and I said, 'Drive five miles,' and then I would run five miles and I'd meet her. It was terrible."

And it was great. He made the team. A career was extended by five seasons.

"When I came to training camp," Riley says. "I had an eight-pack. I didn't have a six-pack, I had an eight pack. I remember (assistant coach) Bill Bertka saying, 'God, what'd you do?' I said this is what it's going to take. And I made sure. I won every sprint. I won the mile. I won everything and then I played against those guys every day. And I made the team."

And now he pays it forward, even to those who believe they already are in shape, already have tested their limits.

"Like Ike Austin," Riley says of the former Heat center. "You go back when Ike was 323 pounds. And I watched him every day on the bike over at La Salle (High School in Miami, the team's former training facility). After, before practice, at night. And he went to 260. He lost 63 pounds. And he became the Most Improved Player in the league, and signed a $15 million contract.

"And then Shaquille did that same thing. Shaquille was 370 pounds when we traded for him. And then by the playoffs, he was 323 pounds, so he lost 45 or 50 pounds himself. We know how to do it."

Understand, when Ike Austin was winning the NBA's Most Improved Player Award in 1997, Waiters and Williams were 6, Johnson and Ellington 10. And when slim Shaq was rounding back into championship shape for the Heat, none of those four had completed high school.

No, what has sold them, continues to sell them is Riley. There is no denying Riley's passion with this cause.

"I think, personally, it's the number-one obligation — obligation — of an organization and a coaching staff and a training staff, is, 'We can get you there, and we really believe this will help you in your game.' So why wouldn't you want to do it?' " he says.

"It's an overall discussion about them, on how good they want to be. I always use the words, 'world class.' Do you think you're a world-class athlete? You are a professional basketball player. But you can't be truly great until you get to what Usain Bolt got to, unless you get to what LeBron James gets to, unless you get to what Kobe Bryant got to, to what Steph Curry gets to."

"What is so strange about it is most of them, when you start talking about it — like James Johnson was 271 pounds and 14 percent, and Derrick Williams was 265 and 12 percent, Wayne Ellington was 220 and like 12 percent — and I said, 'Does that mean being a world-class athlete?' That's being an average basketball player or getting by on a career. Now, what do you want? So as much you challenge them about what is world class."

The Heat commitments to Johnson, Ellington, Waiters and Williams can be as minimal as just this season, each with the option to return to free agency next summer. It is not the same as the long-term investments the team has to Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and others.

But because of what 25-year-old Pat Riley was able to achieve, he'll be damned if he's going to allow any of these fledgling careers to stall because there is an easier way out.

And, so, he pushes. In his view, subtly. To the respect of his players, relentlessly.

"I have 14 different lifts I never did before in my whole life, not my basketball life, my whole life," Johnson says.

A few days ago, Ellington and Riley crossed paths. Riley praised his 29-year-old guard for the quickness he is showing coming off screens _ and then he upped the ante.

"He wants me at six percent body fat,' Ellington says with a grin. "And I'm working toward it. The best I've been is like 5 1/2 and that was coming out of college."

Riley laughs. But doesn't relent.

"What most of 'em say," Riley says, "is, 'I've never been on a scale.' Some of 'em say, 'I've never had my body fat tested.' They don't know. They don't know how. Nobody has ever pushed."

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