The Miami Heat joined the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1988 (along with the Charlotte Hornets). Like any other expansion team that is formed in professional sports, the Heat struggled to consistently win at the highest level early on starting from scratch.
The Heat were feeling the pressure to overcome their struggles sooner rather than later because the city of Miami had been spoiled with winning tradition, specifically from the Miami Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes football teams. Eventually, baseball (the Marlins) became relevant in South Florida as well thanks to their winning ways.
In this article I take a closer look at the success the Dolphins, Hurricanes, and Marlins all had in their respective leagues. The Miami Heat were then tasked with following suit and continuing to build a top-notch organization that would thrive in a city full of champions which was made possible by one man and one man only… Pat Riley.
The city of Miami had always been football crazy, years before the thought of an NBA team in the area was ever a possibility. Led by Hall-of-Fame head coach Don Shula, the Miami Dolphins were a professional football powerhouse in the early 1970’s. The 1972 team became the first (and still to this day only) squad to ever finish a season undefeated, that year a perfect 17-0. The franchise followed up their first Super Bowl championship in 1972 with another the following season in 1973.
When the glory days of the 1970’s had came and gone, Dolphin fans were rejuvenated when a kid by the name of Dan Marino out of Pittsburgh somehow fell in their lap with the 27th overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. Marino went on to have 17 incredible seasons in the NFL, all as a member of the Miami Dolphins. Not only was Marino one of the best players in the game during that era, he is without a doubt one of the greatest players the league has ever seen.
The Dolphins only experienced two losing seasons from 1970-2003 – a run that is unmatched in professional sports. When you consider Super Bowl championships followed up with the likes of a Dan Marino led organization, it’s no wonder why the city of Miami beloved their Dolphins.
In addition to professional football, residents of South Florida were spoiled by the college ranks of ball too with the Miami Hurricanes’ success. Their nine Conference Championships (1991-1996, 2000-2003) and five National Championships (1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 2001) rank amongst the country’s elite college football programs.
While the ’72 Dolphins are mentioned as one of the greatest teams in NFL history, the ’01 Hurricanes team is widely considered the greatest college football team of all-time. The Hurricanes stormed through the competition that year with a perfect 12-0 record en route to the National Championship. Their one serious challenge came late in the season at Virginia Tech when they squeaked out a 26-24 victory, the only game all year long that was decided by single-digits.
Consider the championship jewelry and the fact that the Miami Hurricanes have been pouring out elite NFL talent for decades now, it’s easy to see why the Hurricanes football team has been so popular in Miami through the years.
Miami (Florida) Marlins
Major League Baseball was well aware of the rapid growth football had in the city of Miami so they too wanted to explore franchise possibilities in their sport. The Florida Marlins (later known as the Miami Marlins) played their inaugural season as an expansion team in 1993. It didn’t take long for the Marlins to gain the respect of not only fans in Miami, but also those around the country on a national level.
Yes, the Marlins were yet another example of an expansion team who was terrible out of the gate. They failed to finish .500 or better in any of their first four seasons and did not contend for a playoff birth in any of those years. With that said, their fifth year of existence proved to be a season that no one can honestly say they saw coming.
The 1997 Florida Marlins went on to win 92 games and ultimately captured the World Series Championship, defeating the Cleveland Indians in seven games. Following five sub-par seasons from 1998-2002, the Marlins once again rose to the top and defeated the heavily favored New York Yankees in the 2003 World Series. Two championships in ten years for an expansion franchise is unheard of and suddenly, Miami was building football and baseball tradition.
The inaugural 1988-1989 season for the Miami Heat went poorly, to say the least. That year the team finished with a 15-67 overall record that by most accounts, those around the league anticipated for the expansion franchise.
The next two seasons saw improvement in the win-loss column (albeit nothing drastic). The Heat went on to win 42 games the next two years combined before then head coach Ron Rothstein was replaced by Kevin Loughery following the 1990-1991 campaign.
Despite an unimpressive 38-44 record, the 1991-1992 Miami Heat group will always hold a spot in Heat history because that season marked the first time they had qualified for the playoffs since entering the NBA. They would return to the playoffs two years later in 1993-1994 – the first time the Heat had finished with a winning record (42-40).
Just when it seemed as though the Heat were building towards becoming a legitimate contender, the franchise took a major step backwards in 1994-1995. Alvin Gentry stepped in to take over for the floundering Kevin Loughery and Miami Heat roster. The team did not fare much better under Gentry’s leadership, finishing the season a disappointing 32-50.
It was at this point in time where many around the NBA wondered if the Miami Heat would ever be able to get over the hump. Heat fans, and those who resided in the Miami, Florida area were especially concerned with the franchise’s future – I can’t say I would have blamed them. It was clear that the organization needed more than just a spark, but rather a savior…
… in came Pat Riley.
Riley joined the Miami Heat prior to the 1995-1996 season. The move has always been one of the NBA’s biggest controversies because Riley bolted the New York Knicks by resigning when he was still under contract for one more year (the Heat were accused of tampering). Whatever the case may be, the Heat eventually got their guy and the rest is history.
If the Miami Heat were ever going to be relevant in the NBA, they needed some championship pedigree – something Pat Riley was all about. Riley’s first title came as a player when he was a member of the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers team that defeated the New York Knicks. Eight years later (1980) the Lakers would again capture an NBA Championship with the help of Pat Riley, this time as an assistant coach.
Riley soon worked his way up to the head coach position of the Los Angeles Lakers prior to the 1981-1982 season. In his first year at the job, he led the Lakers to victory in the 1982 NBA Finals over the Philadelphia 76ers. In the matter of a decade (1972-1982), Riley had been a key part of three championship teams in three different roles (player, assistant coach, head coach).
Riley would go on to win three more championships as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers (1985, 1987, 1988). He was already a 6x NBA Champion before the Miami Heat franchise even debuted. Suddenly, the championship credentials of the Dolphins and Hurricanes (and later Marlins) didn’t look so unattainable.
Big changes within the Heat organization happened immediately once Pat Riley took control of the decision-making. Arguably the most important trade in Miami Heat history occurred shortly after Riley was introduced as the new head coach when the team traded for Charlotte Hornets star center Alonzo Mourning. The Heat gave up Glen Rice and a couple of other pieces in a trade that looking back, the Heat won decisively. The franchise had spent eight long years searching for a franchise player – Riley accomplished this with basically the snap of his fingers.
With Mourning on board, the Heat were close to becoming the formidable foe Riley had envisioned, but they still needed more. Not long after stealing Mourning from the Hornets, Riley set his sights on his point-guard of the future. Somehow, someway, Pat Riley pulled off a trade that sent Golden State Warriors All-Star Tim Hardaway to the Heat in exchange for Kevin Willis and Bimbo Coles.
Seemingly overnight, the Heat were a championship contender thanks to the brilliance of Pat Riley. The franchise won its first ever playoff series in the 1996-1997 season when they defeated the Orlando Magic. After knocking off the New York Knicks in the Conference Semifinals that same season, the Heat were taken out by the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls in the Conference Finals.
Over the next few years, the Miami Heat would consistently battle but ultimately come up short in the NBA Playoffs. The team had the unfortunate luck of running into the Chicago Bulls dynasty a few years and then experienced some heart-breaking losses in the final seconds vs. the New York Knicks in others.
Although he did not accomplish his goal of bringing an NBA Championship to the city of Miami in his early years with the Heat, Pat Riley did deserve tremendous credit for the positive impact he had on the franchise. The Heat were no longer the laughing-stock of the NBA struggling to stay relevant – they were now one of the more well-respected organizations in the league.
Pat Riley, being the highly intelligent basketball man that he was, realized that he needed to take a step back and look at the bigger picture if the Heat were ever going to become champions one day. He decided to remove himself as the head coach and let assistant Stan Van Gundy take over prior to the 2003-2004 season. His new role within the organization would be general manager – something he had control of before but would now devote all of his attention to.
His first true test as a general manager came in the 2003 NBA Draft when he drafted guard Dwyane Wade out of Marquette University (you may have heard of him before) with the 5th overall selection. Needless to say, the selection of Wade helped the Heat soar to new heights in the years to come.
The significance of the trade that brought Alonzo Mourning to the Heat has always been overlooked. The significance of the trade that brought Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat in 2004? Not so much. Yet again, Riley pulled off a deal that was widely considered one-sided (the Heat gave up Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, and a first-round pick for the future Hall-of-Famer).
The Dwyane Wade led Heat were good enough to win a playoff series or two, but not good enough to win an NBA Championship. With O’Neal joining the young star, the Heat were now ready for the elite teams in the NBA. In his first press conference as a member of the Miami Heat, O’Neal promised the city their first NBA championship.
The Heat were one game away from the NBA Finals in the 2004-2005 season before being upset by the Detroit Pistons in a decisive Game 7 at home where they led late despite Wade’s obvious injuries. The pain of coming up short after being so close carried over into the following season when the Heat got off to a less than acceptable 11-10 start to the season.
In typical Pat Riley no nonsense fashion, he once again assumed the role of head coach for the team after 2+ years in strictly a front-office position. To the surprise of no one, the Heat stepped up their game and finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference (52-30). After eliminating the Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets, the Heat would have a rematch from the previous season against the Detroit Pistons with an NBA Finals birth on the line.
With Pat Riley at the helm, the Heat would not be outdone this time around. The Pistons were dethroned in six games and the Miami Heat were heading to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history – the favored Dallas Mavericks awaited.
Despite dropping the first two games of the series, Pat Riley wouldn’t let his team give up or lose sight of the prize. The Heat responded by winning the next three games in Miami to take a 3-2 series lead before the series shifted back to Dallas. If the Heat were going to win their first championship in franchise history it would have to come on the road – something many “experts” were skeptical they could do.
Thanks largely to the heroics of Dwyane Wade and the in-game adjustments of Pat Riley, the Heat were able to get the job done in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to earn the title. Riley laughed in the faces of all those who doubted not only himself, but the group of men he was coaching and teaching every single day throughout the season.
One of the greatest post-game quotes in NBA history came from Riley following that Game 6 victory when he told reporters that he only packed one suit for Dallas – implying the Heat were going to win the championship without the necessity of a winner-take-all Game 7. It was this kind of self-confidence that made Riley one of the greatest coaches in NBA history as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers – this was now true of the Miami Heat as well.
Pat Riley once again turned over the head coaching duties following the 2007-2008 season, this time to Erik Spoelstra, a man who was groomed for the position over the years. He returned to his front-office duties in the Miami Heat organization.
Without a doubt, the highlight of Riley’s tenure as a member of the Miami Heat came in the summer of 2010. That year he shocked the sports world when he signed free agents LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. It was a move that not many around the league saw coming and even fewer thought was possible.
From 2010-2014 the Miami Heat went to four straight NBA Finals – only the third franchise in history to do so (joining the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics). They captured two more championships (2012, 2013) and accomplished many other historic feats, most notably a 27-game winning streak during the 2012-2013 regular season.
Before Pat Riley came to Miami, the Heat were nothing more than an afterthought, just another franchise in the world of sports. The city had always been diehard football fans between the Miami Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes success; later, baseball took its turn in the spotlight with the Marlins’ championship runs.
In order to be relevant in a location that was so used to winning, the Heat had to find a way to make their own history – they did so by bringing in Riley. In recent years, the Dolphins, Hurricanes, and Marlins have all struggled to win at a consistent level while the Heat have continued to contend year after year.
Miami is officially a basketball city. Thank you Pat Riley.