Pat Riley

Coached nine seasons


Some people are just in the right place at the right time. Take Pat Riley, for example, who inherited one of the most talented rosters ever and ran with it. Then he ran with it some more--all the way to the Hall of Fame. Riley brought more than championships to Los Angeles, he brought an image. His greased-back hair, tailor-made suits and drill-sergeant mentality made him a perfect fit amidst the glitz and glamour of tinseltown in the 1980s. Riley's Lakers were flashy, they were entertaining, but they were also tough--a reflection of their coach, who's mantra was "no rebounds, no rings."

Riley still owns the highest winning percentage of any coach in Lakers history and his 102 playoff wins are also a franchise record. Remarkably, the Lakers reached the finals seven times in Riley's nine seasons, winning four titles and becoming the first repeat NBA champions since the Boston Celtics in the 1960s. Under Riley the Lakers won 54 or more games every season and 60 or more games five times. They won their division every year and his .685 playoff win percentage is tops among Laker coaches. "Riles" is remembered most for being the first Laker coach to defeat the Boston Celtics in the finals. That was in 1985, when the Lakers not only beat their nemesis for the first time in nine finals meetings, but became the first road team to clinch the title on the Celtics' floor.

After the firing of Paul Westhead, owner Jerry Buss announced that Riley and Lakers consultant Jerry West would share the head coaching position, with West running the offense and Riley the defense. At West's insistence, the dual-coaching idea was quickly abandoned and Riley assumed complete control of the team within a few days. The Lakers went 50-21 the rest if the way and won the NBA title in six games over Philadelphia--the first of the Lakers' four straight trips to the finals. Riley became only the fifth man to play for an NBA championship team and later coach the same NBA team to a title, joining Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K. C. Jones, and Billy Cunningham.

Riley's persona was one of machismo. He seemed obsessed with dispelling the league-wide stigma that the Lakers were "soft," not physical enough to win in the playoffs. Critics of "Showtime" claimed it's entertainment value, while great for boosting ratings, wasn't conducive to winning championships. Riley knew what he had, however, and wasn't about to change his team's style as long as the Lakers were winning. When he finally won his first Coach of the Year award in 1990, Riley told the Washington Post's Anthony Cotton that he had become a good coach "when I stopped worrying about things like recognition."

The fourth former Laker player to coach the team, Riley pored over videotape for hours, recording every game, analyzing every possession, looking for any possible edge. He was steadfast in his belief that effort is all that separates excellence from mediocrity. "Hard work doesn't guarantee anything, but without it you don't stand a chance," Riley said following the Lakers' 1987 championship.

With a roster full of all-star players and all-star egos, one of Riley's biggest strengths was his ability to motivate his players. Never was that more evident than at the victory parade following the 1987 Finals when he guaranteed that the Lakers would win it again the following year. No team had repeated as champion since the Boston Celtics in 1969, but the Lakers made good on their coach's promise by beating the Detroit Pistons in seven games.

"Coming out and saying that put a lot of pressure on us but looking back that's what we needed," said point guard Magic Johnson, who played on all of Riley's teams with the Lakers. "Fans on the street would remind us everywhere we went. We kept after each other all season because nobody wanted to let him down."

The next season, Riley referred to the Lakers' pursuit of their third straight championship as a "three-peat." He was so saavy that later he even trademarked the phrase.

Riley's drive often exceeded that of his players. He opted for two-a-days prior to the 1989 NBA Finals--a decision that backfired when Byron Scott suffered a hamstring injury during practice before Game 1 and Magic Johnson pulled a hamstring in Game 2. Both were lost for the series and the Lakers got swept. Once, he even got fined $10,000 for running an illegal practice New Year's Day.

Following the Lakers' loss to Phoenix in 1990 Western Conference semifinals, Riley stepped down as coach, ending the Lakers' winningest decade in Los Angeles.

After spending a year as a television commentator for NBC, Riley returned to the NBA to coach the New York Knicks. In 1993, he led the Knicks to their highest win total in team history and earned his second Coach of the Year award. An example of Riley's versatility was his change in approach when he arrived in New York. Knowing his team could not match Michael Jordan's Chicago teams athletically, he built a squad that would match the Bulls physically. Ironically, his Knicks played a similiar style to that of Detroit's "Bad Boys," whom Riley had once described as "dirty."

Riley took over as coach of the Miami Heat in 1995 and won his third Coach of the Year honor in 1997. He stepped down in 2003-04 but resumed coaching the Heat in the middle of the 2005-06 season and led them to their first NBA title. Yes, even beyond the Lakers, Riley enjoyed remarkable success. He had a winning record in his first 19 seasons and had a winning percentage of .610 or better in all but one of them. In 24 years of coaching, Riley made the post season 21 times. The three years he didn't were due to unforeseen setbacks: Alonzo Mourning was unable to play because of kidney problems and, in 2007-08, Dwyane Wade had to undergo season-ending surgery. He retired in 2008 and was elected the Hall of Fame later that year. He remains Miami's team president.

Riley has seven NBA championship rings--one as a player, one as an assistant coach, four as head coach of the "Showtime" Lakers, and one as head coach of the Miami Heat. Simply put, he has succeeded everywhere he has been. He won titles with two different teams and took a third to within one win of another championship (the Knicks lost in seven games to Houston in 1994). Riley is rated one of the top 10 coaches in NBA history.

A 6' 4'' guard, Riley averaged 18.3 points in three seasons under Adolph Rupp at the University Kentucky and began his NBA career in 1967. He averaged 7.4 points per game in stints with the San Diego Rockets, the Lakers, and the Phoenix Suns. He retired from playing in 1976, but not before winning a championship with the Lakers' 1971-72 squad, led by Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.

— Steve Galluzzo
Feb. 12, 2011