Prior to the Heat's game last Saturday against Toronto, the Professional Basketball Writers Association presented Chris Bosh with its annual Magic Johnson Award, which is given to the player who combines on-court performance with steady cooperation with the media.
Four nights after being honored for his cooperation with the press, Bosh rewarded them by following up his 35-point effort against Phoenix with this quote during his postgame sideline interview on ESPN:
Q: "Coach Spoelstra said over the last three days it's been like training camp, really taking you guys back to the beginning. What was the biggest message he sent over those those three days of hard practices?"
Bosh: "We got back to getting after it. I guess he felt he was loosening up just a little bit too much. And he knows he has to meet us halfway. He wants to work. We want to chill. But we're going to have to work to get everything down, to get our timing down and get our chemistry down."
By suggesting that he and his teammates share a lesser affinity for practice than Erik Spoelstra and the Heat coaching staff, Bosh committed what's referred to in political journalism as a Kinsley Gaffe: He told the truth by accident.
In an unfiltered moment, Bosh expressed a reality that's anathema to many fans and sportswriters, namely that there are things basketball players would often rather be doing than running through full-contact 5-on-5 drills and repetitive workouts.
In Miami, Bosh's remark has a more specific context. Erik Spoelstra is a direct descendent of Pat Riley's coaching tree. Though Spoelstra isn't nearly the taskmaster Riley is -- witness the irony of the Heat's having Thursday off before their Friday game against Charlotte -- Miami's current head coach has grown up in an organization that places a premium on grueling preparation.
In his 2001 book "Shaq Talks Back," published about three years before Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Miami and a little more than four years before Riley became O'Neal's head coach, O'Neal swore he'd never play for Riley. He relayed a common perception among players in the league:
I would never play for Pat Riley. Part of the reason was because he played me only twenty-five minutes at my first All-Star Game in Salt Lake City in 1992 ... Maybe an ever bigger reason is those five-hour practices he puts his teams through. Riley is known as a workaholic, and during the season he runs his team until they drop. I think Riley burns out his teams. All those suicide drills, where you run and run. It just takes too much out of you. I'm coming up on thirty years old. I don't need more than two hard hours. Watch some film. Tell me what you need me to do. That's it. Unless a team is falling apart, that's all a real professional needs to get ready for an NBA game. Trust Me.
I think Riley burns out his teams. All those suicide drills, where you run and run. It just takes too much out of you. Look at his Knicks and Heat teams and see how fresh they were at the end of the regular season. I'm not saying the man is not one of the greatest coaches to ever coach the game. I'm just saying as a hard-working NBA player I don't know how much my body can take.
O'Neal recently discussed his misgivings about his time in Miami with Riley with the Times Picayune.
It's no coincidence that when Sports Illustrated polled NBA players in the spring of 2008 about which coach they'd least like to play for, Riley was the decisive winner -- despite the fact that he'd coached five teams to NBA titles. What motivated the plurality of voters? Without exit polls, we can't possibly know, but O'Neal's comments offer us a hint. His opinions are notoriously overstated for effect, but they're not necessarily outside of mainstream thought in the NBA.
Spoelstra's posture with his team as head coach probably isn't as erect as Riley's, but if Monday and Tuesday came anywhere close to what the Heat's team president required when he was running practices, Bosh and his teammates' desire to chill isn't surprising. However unpalatable it might be to the fan watching at home, NBA players are more like any other working stiff than they are different. They tend to size up workplace conditions on a relative basis.
Bosh's misdemeanor on Wednesday night wasn't confessing he preferred a less demanding practice schedule than the one posted on the Heat's dry-erase board. It was saying it aloud in front of a very large camera.