MIAMI – It's a little thing, a detail, but the quest for excellence is found in issues big and small, and Shane Battier noticed it his first Heat practice. This was three seasons ago, and at the anointed starting time all his new teammates' shoes were laced, shirts tucked in and knee braces on.
"You'd be surprised how few teams are like that in the NBA,'' Battier said. "Usually at the start of an NBA practice, guys are shooting half-court shots, messing around, not really ready. Here there's a culture of discipline."
The Knicks come to town Thursday night amid another year of disappointment giving way to embarrassment with Raymond Felton's arrest on gun charges. And with the Heat in line for a third title there's no better test-case to grasp how the difference between excellence and embarrassment often is the impact of one man.
The Knicks foolishly lost him. And Tuesday afternoon Heat president Pat Riley sat in his usual side-court seat with the man who hired him, team owner Micky Arison, watching his creation by the bay all these years later rather than New York.
Here was the view: Coach Erik Spoelstra spending extra time working with guard Norris Cole on a drill at one end of the court. LeBron James and Ray Allen had a 3-point shooting contest at the other end. A couple of one-on-one games were happening
Riley had a piece of paper before him, taking an occasional note.
"There's a palpable difference when you just walk in our gym,'' Battier said. "We're about business. We're about working. We're about winning. And if you're not about that, you're in the wrong place."
Let's not diminish Spoelstra's work in this culture. He's grown beyond just being Riley's disciple with two titles and weathered storms. But he'll also always be Riley's disciple, as everyone is inside this organization.
"It's kind of like the show, 'Undercover Boss,' where the boss goes in and see what's happening on the ground floor,'' Allen said. "Pat's been there. He's done it all. He's won it all.
"He knows what to expect from the coaches, from every corner of the organization. Sometimes you put guys in who charge who thinks they know everything and they don't. It's like a player who says he wants to win. OK, but do you know what it takes to win?"
"Pat knows what it takes to win. He's a no-excuse guy, just like me. You lose, you lose. You look at the people he's assembled in this team, everyone's like that. That's not how many teams are."
The Knicks are at the front of the line for spending money. That's not just this season. Pick a year. Pick 2008. They had a league-high $125 million payroll and the most expensive general manager/coach combo ever with Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas.
They still didn't make the playoffs. As they haven't much. Two springs ago, when they beat the Heat for their first playoff win in 11 years, they dropped confetti inside Madison Square Garden, a cheer for not getting swept in the series.
Since the last of Riley's disciples, Jeff Van Gundy, left New York, the Knicks have remained lost. Now they have questonable players, front-office turmoil, questions for the owner.
It's not just the Knicks, though. It's the Lakers. It's the Celtics. It's the Dolphins, Panthers and Marlins in South Florida. They don't have the one voice of impact. They've lost their way in some cases for years.
You rarely hear from Riley anymore. The LeBron signing. The victory rides. The last time he made national noise was a year ago when Boston general manager Danny Ainge told LeBron James to quit crying about officiating. Riley released a quick statement telling Ainge to shut up, spiced with an expletive.
Asked later about that, Riley told a story. He loves stories. He has racehorse stories and soldier stories and his famous burn-the-ship story where invaders would burn their ships so they had no other way out but to win the fight.
Regarding Ainge, he told the story of a young warrior who was sent blindfolded into a forest as part of some age-oriented rite of passage. He had to pass the night, alone, standing on a tree stump. A night's strange noises enveloped him.
Scared? The idea was he had to be. The other idea was when the sun rose the next morning he had passed some test and was stronger for it. Of course, he never saw standing over him, protecting him all night, was the chief.
That's the idea for these Heat. The man watching on the side is still where you start explaining their winning.