ROHIT WALIA IS a 36-year-old real estate agent and actor from West Virginia, now living in Los Angeles. He is not a doctor, but he really has played one on TV, most recently on Grey's Anatomy. "I've played a lot of doctors," he says. Pat Riley is the 68-year-old president of the Miami Heat. He usually plays the role of winner. Walia and Riley are seemingly different men, playing different parts, but by quirks of their imaginations and U.S. trademark law, they find themselves united. Both men want to see the Heat win this year's NBA championship -- and next year's too.
Riley semi-famously holds the trademark to the word "three-peat." That doesn't mean you can't say "three-peat" or I can't write the word on this page. It does mean that if you or I wanted to sell a T-shirt or a cap with the word "three-peat" on it, we would have to pay Riley a royalty. Riley filed his trademark application in 1988, when he was the coach of the Lakers and, as the story goes, he heard Byron Scott use the word to describe their team's aspirations. That takes a certain kind of man with a certain kind of brain. While his Lakers did not three-peat, the Bulls soon did, and Riley reportedly earned about $300,000 in licensing fees.
"It's like going out there and picking up a penny on the ground," Riley told ESPN's Darren Rovell in 2005. (Riley declined to be interviewed for this column, but he confirmed through a spokesman that he still holds his trademark.) He picked up many more pennies when the Bulls re-three-peated, and the Yankees three-peated, and Phil Jackson's Lakers three-peated. Now it seems the team with the best chance to three-peat is once again Riley's own.
Rohit Walia believes in Riley. He also happens to be that certain kind of man with a certain kind of brain. For instance, Walia has collected millions of air miles by perfectly legal if obsessive means, a gaming of the system he's documented on MileNerd.com. (His strategies include a new raft of credit cards every 91 days.) "I always hated the idea that I was in a little box," Walia says. "Why can't I do this? Why can't I be an actor? Why can't I win a car?"
About winning a car. When Walia was in college, he decided he could win a car on a game show. Not only could he win a car, it was his destiny to win a car. He went to a taping of The Price Is Right and, of course, found himself playing for a car. He was heartbroken when he had to settle for a desk instead. Years later he appeared on The Price Is Right again -- if you want to get on a game show, Walia says, make sure you answer with a "Woooooooooooo!" whenever production assistants ask you how you're doing -- only to fall short a second time. But in November 2011, he showed up on Let's Make a Deal, trading in the motorcycle he'd already won for the chance to choose one of the three big doors at the end. Walia picked Door No. 1. And there was his car, just as he'd dreamed.
Only weeks before, Walia had completed the yearlong process to win his first and only trademark registration. "I guess I was in the zone," he says with a laugh. He had watched LeBron James count how many championships he was going to win in Miami, and suddenly the word, this new word, popped into Walia's head: "three-Heat." He checked, and nobody else had trademarked it, including a certain team president. Because he plays doctors on TV and collects millions of air miles and wins cars on game shows, because he sees opportunities where others do not, Rohit Walia trademarked a word that will be worthless unless so many uncontrollable things fall into place. But if and when they do? Jackpot.
"I was pretty bummed when they lost that Finals," Walia says, speaking of the Heat's loss to the Mavericks in 2011. He felt the way he'd felt when he'd won a desk instead of a car on The Price Is Right. But now, even after the Heat's big scare against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, he feels closer to the way he did on Let's Make a Deal. In front of him there are doors, and so long as he believes, sooner or later all of them will open, one, two, three, and behind them will be a few of Pat Riley's pennies, shining on the ground.