EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. (AP) — Pat Riley got a kiss from a 5-year-old girl with a yellow ribbon tied in her hair, then climbed the steps toward the cockpit of an F-15 fighter.
It’s not easy for Riley to be awed.
This scene more than did the trick.
Training camp became basic training for the Miami Heat on Thursday, when the team’s players, coaches and staff spread across two U.S. Air Force bases in Florida’s Panhandle for events with airmen, including simulated ground combat, meet-and-greets with families and seeing how bombs get loaded onto jets.
“I think it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever experienced,” said Riley, the Hall of Fame coach and Heat president. “I hope the players take a lot out of it, too.”
Seems like that’s the case.
Around the time Riley took a seat at the controls of the jet — “I had my finger on the trigger,” he proudly said afterward — LeBron James had a hand over his heart in another area of Eglin Air Force Base, listening to The Star-Spangled Banner. Over at Hurlburt Field, where practices have been held, Dwyane Wade and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra visited a youth center and toured a flight simulator.
An afternoon without basketball might have been the best part of Miami’s day.
And it was something their hosts won’t soon forget.
“It’s cool,” said All-Star forward Chris Bosh, one of the touted Heat newcomers this season. “I mean, it’s really cool. They’re excited to meet us and see us and everything, and the service that they do, the level of sacrifice for our country, I think it’s very important and it just makes it cool that they’re happy to see us.”
Sadie Grissom, 5, was upset with her parents when they decided Monday night’s arrival ceremony for the Heat at Eglin was too late for her to attend. So when Tech Sgt. Matthew Grissom and his wife Meredith heard that some Heat players were coming by Thursday, that quickly got added to their calendar.
Riley gave Sadie an autograph. Sadie gave Riley a kiss.
“I am flabbergasted,” Meredith Grissom said. “It’s absolutely unreal that they would do something like this.”
The Heat came to Eglin and Hurlburt for the first week of their season for many reasons, one of them being the franchise’s desire to continue honoring members of the Armed Services. It’s been a personal passion of Riley’s for many years.
They broke out all the stops. Much like the “15 Strong” cards Riley ordered during Miami’s run to the 2006 NBA title, more cards got broken out on this trip. One side said “Home Strong” with a photo of an American flag, the other side said “Forever” — accompanied by a photo of the NBA championship trophy.
The Heat even had coins — for a military handshake ritual — made up. Gold in color with a textured edge, one side says “Home Strong” across the top, “Supporting The Troops” across the bottom and has the Heat logo in the middle. On the back, “2010-11” is in the center, surrounded by logos representing each branch of the U.S. military.
“One of the cool things about coming here and being here, we get to go out and experience something we only hear about and see on TV,” Wade said.
Much of what the Heat experienced on Thursday is part of what the Air Force uses for recruiting and educational purposes, said Jeremy Webster, a public affairs specialist at Hurlburt Field.
Still, it’s rare that such events get greeted with this kind of fanfare.
“It’s been a morale booster for everyone here,” Webster said.
More interaction with the Air Force hosts is scheduled on this Heat visit, first with a scrimmage with some invited airmen guests serving as fans on Friday, then another event Saturday following Miami’s final practice at Hurlburt Field before heading home.
Riley has often called sports “the toy department of human affairs.”
This week, that phrase has had particularly significant meaning to the Heat.
“We take what we do seriously too, as you know,” Riley said. “And in talking to a lot of these heroes, they love it, they’re fans, they come and support us. What they do counts and matters to them. What we do counts and matters to us. But there’s a huge divide there. … We’re a country at war. I don’t know if a lot of people think about that. It’s such a different kind of war. These men and women understand what’s going on.”