On July 2, 2015, Pat Riley lit a cigar somewhere in his Florida mansion and laughed to himself. Earlier that day, Miami Heat superstar Dwayne Wade had re-signed with the team for one year and $20 million, leaving money on the table to prove his devotion to the organization with which he has played his entire professional career. Riley has been president of the Heat since 1995, and is the closest the sports world has come to having its own Don Corleone. Distinguishable by his perpetually slicked back gray hair, crisp suit, and tan skin, the Godfather of what many have called the “Miami Mafia” has built an empire based on a culture of loyalty and reciprocity. Wade, since being drafted in the 2003, has been a shining pillar of Riley’s ethos. While guiding Miami to countless wins and three championships, he has consistently agreed to smaller contracts than he could have commanded from other teams in order for the organization to spend money on other high-caliber players. Most notably, Wade essentially agreed to a $15 million pay cut in 2010 to facilitate the signings of fellow stars Chris Bosh and LeBron James.
Wade is not the first Heat player to sacrifice money for the sake of the team, nor will he be the last. In recent history, Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Ray Allen, and Rashard Lewis, among others, have taken smaller salaries than they would have drawn on the open market in order to join or stay with the team. How has Riley been so successful in establishing a player-team relationship that seems so one-sided? For one thing, he has rewarded some players who, in his eyes, exhibit true loyalty. For example, Haslem has essentially been promised a managerial or front office job with the organization upon his impending retirement. Barring an unlikely falling-out or divorce, Wade is guaranteed a similar treatment when his playing days come to an end. Given that the NBA’s pension program does not adequately equip players to continue the lifestyle to which most of them have become accustomed, the enticement of a stable income has been especially effective in luring aging veterans to South Beach.
Perhaps more influentially, Riley has also convinced Heat players of their moral obligations to the team’s fan base. While some may argue that the Miami Mafia has perhaps perfected this art, it is not unique to Riley and his cronies. Teams like the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have also been critical of players who departed in free agency, primarily based on the idea that it shows a lack of appreciation to fans and teammates who have always been supportive. When Allen left Boston for greener pastures in Miami, longtime teammates Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were fairly candid about their unhappiness with Allen’s disloyalty. Pierce described himself as “bitter”, while Garnett told reporters that he deleted Allen’s number and cut off all communication. Boston’s front office did nothing to discourage this type of attitude, and it seems a fair assumption that Danny Ainge and the other executives may have internally echoed many of Pierce and Garnett’s sentiments. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was similarly outspoken when James announced his intent to leave the team and sign with Miami in the infamous “Decision.” Gilbert wrote an open letter to all Cleveland fans in which he called the signing a “betrayal” four times, while attacking James for being narcissistic, cowardly, selfish, and disloyal to the fans and the organization.
These tactics have been widely effective in creating loyalty in players to their respective teams. However, the organizations have been far less consistent in their commitment to the principles that they themselves promote. About a year after Allen’s departure, the Celtics shipped fan-favorites Pierce and Garnett to the rival Brooklyn Nets. Pierce, who had until then spent his entire 15 year career with the Celtics, has since said that he never wished to leave Boston. Gilbert and the Cavaliers have been perhaps even more blatant in their hypocrisy. Just months after basically attempting to cast a pox on James for his betrayal, Gilbert traded arguably his best remaining player, veteran Mo Williams. Since James’ exit, Williams had publicly commented on his desire to stay in Cleveland and disparaged James for his betrayal.
To be clear, the NBA’s hypocritical loyalty complex is not limited to these three organizations. In 2011, with just one year remaining on his contract, superstar big man Dwight Howard faced a crossroads with the Orlando Magic, with whom he was a charismatic fan-favorite. Howard initially maintained his desire to stay with the team, but decided to forgo an extension and instead try to re-sign with the team in free agency, in order to command a larger contract. Orlando’s front office and fans criticized Howard for not being a team player, citing examples of many other stars who had recently taken slight pay cuts in a sort of tribute to their organizations and fans. When this aggressive appeal led to increased discontent from Howard’s camp rather than an attempt at an extension, the team quickly changed course and started shopping Howard to teams across the league. After an agonizing, months-long saga that became known across the NBA as the “Dwightmare”, the team finally decided to put Howard out of his misery by trading him to the Los Angeles Lakers. Rather than being applauded for standing up against the unreasonable demands of his front office, the media and fans have derided Howard for his immaturity, largely based on the notion that Howard betrayed the team to which he was in some way indebted.
There are, of course, examples in which NBA teams do exhibit loyalty, though it often comes only in extreme cases. Kobe Bryant is one of the rare instances in which an all-time great has played his entire career with one team, in this case the Lakers. In return for his contributions to the team and the fans, Los Angeles signed Bryant, then 35 years old, to a $48.5 million extension in November 2013. It was widely accepted that Bryant’s age and recent play did not merit such a large contract, and his performance since then has shown this to be accurate. However, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak has said that the team does not regret the contract because of its symbolic meaning, and the fact that it was well-deserved by Bryant’s loyalty to the team throughout his career. However, Bryant’s status as one of the best players in NBA history makes this situation unique. In most instances, teams will not extend this type of devotion to less distinguished players, yet expect extreme fidelity in return.
This unfortunate relationship should not be regarded as a necessary evil, but rather as a mass delusion that can be corrected. Luckily, some players are waking up and smelling the roses. This summer, long-time Portland Trailblazer LaMarcus Aldridge headed to San Antonio in pursuit of a championship, despite pleas from Portland fans. Aldridge was met with extreme backlash from many media pundits and keyboard warriors on Twitter, but remained graceful in his exit. This summer, Oklahoma City Thunder megastar Kevin Durant will become an unrestricted free agent. In all likelihood, his hometown team, the Washington Wizards, will offer him a massive contract and all the necessary parts for a championship run. Ultimately, Durant’s decision will likely come down to his sense of loyalty to the team that drafted him and has been signing his paychecks ever since. If he does defect to the nation’s capital, it may set a precedent that allows many other superstars to feel less guilty in parting with their original team for better fits. However, we are still far from a world in which players feel as little loyalty to their organizations as their organizations do to them. For now, the tool of loyalty still rests firmly in the hands of the league’s front offices.
On November 10th, Riley orchestrated a deal that sent Mario Chalmers to the Memphis Grizzlies. Chalmers had played every game of his eight year career with Miami and was a key contributor in the Heat’s two most recent championship runs. In short, he was a major figure in the Miami Mafia, and the Godfather betrayed him. Just as he did on July 15, Riley smoked a cigar and laughed to himself, because he had won. Like many before him, Chalmers fell victim to a false sense of loyalty from Riley and paid the price. Perhaps one day, Wade will return home to find a severed horse head in his bed; alternatively, he may happily spend the rest of his career in Miami and simply be an example to which Riley can point in order to perpetuate his one-sided philosophy. It’s immaterial to the Godfather.