It's Christmas Eve, and Pat Riley is toiling away in his palatial office at American Airlines Arena. As the resurrected Miami Heat coach goes over plays in the dimmed room, a strange coldness grips his shoulder. He turns to see an eerie specter from the distant past.
"It can't be you!" he cries.
There before him is the hazy apparition of Adolph Rupp, his old basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.
"It's me," says the ghost.
"But Coach Rupp, you're dead."
"You don't say."
"Why have you come back?"
"I'm your Christmas ghost."
Before he can get another question out, Riley is floating through the dark night air with Rupp at his side. In seconds, they're standing in a locker room at the old Great Western Forum in Los Angeles. All the Lakers greats from the Showtime era are there: Magic, Kareem, Worthy, Cooper, Scott. And they're all soaked in champagne.
"Hey, Coop," Magic calls out. "Same place, same time, next year."
And there's a younger Riley, with darker hair and a kid-like exuberance, getting splashed with the bubbly. "They should give every champion the whole next year off," he says. "I'm going to guarantee everyone we're going to repeat. "1
A smile appears on present-day Riley's face as he watches the younger version of himself.
"It's 1987," he whispers to the ghost. "We just beat the Celtics for my third ring."
"Hey, we did repeat," Riley shoots back.
"It's not quite so hard when you have Magic Johnson in his prime, eh? I could have used him back in the day too."
"Yeah, too bad you didn't recruit black players. Real foresight there, Coach."
As much as he wants to keep basking in old glory, Rupp takes Riley back into the night air. This time, they alight on a Carnival Cruise ship on a beautiful day in Biscayne Bay. They see a more aged Riley standing on the stately boat, flanked by Heat owner Mickey Arison and other executives. He addresses a press gathering.
"I imagine in my mind about the symbolic championship parade," he says. "Maybe right down Biscayne Boulevard. "2
Rupp looks at present-day Riley.
"You remember that? You said you'd win a championship in five years."
"It was a good day, though," Riles says. "It was my introduction to Miami ten years ago."
"A long and dreadful ten years ago."
"Well, I wouldn't say "
Woosh. Before Riley can collect his breath, he's standing courtside watching Miami battle the Charlotte Hornets in a playoff game. Former Heat forward Jamal Mashburn is destroying Riley's team.
As he watches his dejected younger self on the sideline, Riley begins to seethe. "Thanks a lot, Adolph this is my worst moment as a coach, when the Hornets swept us in 2001."
"A little humiliating, huh?"
"You're enjoying this, aren't you? You always did have a mean streak, come to think of it."
In a snap of the fingers, they're watching circa-2001 Riley looking frazzled and rather skeletal, trying to explain the Charlotte disaster to the press. "This year is just a feeling of being outcoached, outran, out-everythinged. It's like a basketball coach that bottoms out. I need a 12-step program. I need to do some deep searching to find out how to coach the Miami Heat. "3
Riley nearly yells at Rupp: "Why are you torturing me? What did I do to you?"
"It didn't get much better after the Charlotte disaster, did it? Two terrible losing seasons in 2002 and 2003."
"That's why I quit and let Stan Van Gundy take over."
"Speaking of which..."
Instantly, the two are in a corridor of American Airlines Arena watching the Riley of two years ago speak to the press.
"That's been one of the problems here the regal runway presence, the aura, too much Pat Riley," he's telling reporters. "Removing my name gives the team a freedom and freshness that has been smothered by my name. I did nothing here. Everything I get credit for I did 14 years ago. "4
Rupp nudges present-day Riley, who seems transfixed.
"No truer words were ever spoken," the legendary Kentucky coach says. "And bringing in Van Gundy was one of the best decisions you made. He made the playoff run in 2004 and would have made the Finals last year if Dwyane Wade hadn't been hurt."
"Stan did a great job, no doubt."
"So why did you sabotage him?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Then they're back in the sumptuous Heat office, watching Riley on a conference call with the media. A reporter asks if he misses coaching.
"I've missed it at times. There were moments in the playoffs where... you want to jump back in the fray... I'm never going to rule it out... I may take a little more of an active participation in some of the things. "5
Rupp watches the scene play out in disbelief.
"You put a cloud over everything Van Gundy did this season. If you wanted his job, why didn't you take it like a man instead of all that backhanded, dishonest garbage?"
"That's not true. He quit because he wants to spend more time with his family. Remember? He said he wanted to go look at Christmas lights."
"OK, then. Let's return to the present day."
They land in the living room of the Van Gundy household. The former coach, his wife, and four children open Christmas gifts.
Six-year-old Kelly looks up from opening a present. "Hey, Daddy, a kid at school said that you got fired by Pat Riley."
"Oh, honey, you know that's not true," Van Gundy says as he puts a hand on her shoulder. "I quit my job to spend more time at home with you."
"Oh c'mon, Dad, we know he pushed you out of your job," interjects his oldest daughter, 14-year-old Shannon.
"Now, Shannon," cautions Van Gundy's wife, Kim. "Coach Riley is a great man."
"He's greedy," the teenager continues. "He already has a bunch of championships, and now he wants all the credit when Dad did the work. It's not fair."
"Well, Coach Riley is used to glory, sweetheart, and he wants a little more of it," her father gently explains.
"He's a Scrooge!"
"And besides, think of all the Christmas lights we've seen the last two weeks," Van Gundy says. "We've been out to see a lot of Christmas lights, haven't we, kids?"
"Every night, Dad."
Shannon gets a call on her cell.
"Dad, it's Billy on the phone can I go out for awhile?"
"No honey, it's Christmas Eve; this is a family night."
"Oh my God! Every single day is a family day! You're here all the time now! I'm going to my room and never coming out!"
As she runs off, Van Gundy, in an unsettling monotone, reassures the other children.
"Kids, there's nothing wrong with every day being a family day," he says. "Tomorrow we're going to string popcorn for many, many hours. And I've been thinking of a candy-cane-based project of some kind. Maybe a candy-cane Jesus. Yes! A candy-cane Jesus. That beats coaching a massively talented basketball team on national television any day."
His forced smile begins to quake before his head collapses into his hands. "Who am I kidding?" he mutters.
"According to the newspaper polls, about a third of the population," Kim says.
Riley eyes Rupp's ghost with horror.
"Get me out of here," Riles says.
And, voilà, they're back in Riley's office.
"Actually, I tried for weeks to talk Stan out of leaving his job. I didn't want any of this to happen."
"You don't have to B.S. me. I'm dead, remember?"
"So what if I did? What if I did push him out? It was the right move. Van Gundy is grunt; I'm glory. It's glory time, baby. Hey, how's that for a book title? Look, Coach, the players wanted me. I know how to handle massive egos. I got one myself."
"Now I can go in peace, Pat. I just needed to hear some truth from you. Somewhere between being one of my runts and getting that regal runway presence, you lost track."
"Aren't you taking me to the future? We're going to win it all, aren't we?"
"Winning is great, but I was wrong when I told you it was the most important thing. Just look at me. When I died, I was regarded as the greatest college coach of all time. Today, I'm seen as some kind of racist nut, and I'm cursed to wander the Earth for eternity. Why? Because the Great Scorer didn't like the way I played the game."
"But I've won four championships!"
"So did I. Karma's a bitch, ain't it?"
1 June 15, 1987, Los Angeles Times.
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2 September 3, 1995, Miami Herald.
3 April 28, 2001, Miami Herald.
4 October 23, 2003, Miami Herald.
5 June 20, 2005, Sun-Sentinel.