In the old days, by which I mean the 1980s, there were few better interview subjects than Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley. It sometimes took a while to get him, but, once you did, it was always worth it. He was candid, smart and funny. I remember talking music with him, too, and, off the top of his head, knew how many “yoo-ooos” were at the end of the great Skyliners’ song, “Since I Don’t Have You.” (Twelve, as you can see for yourself.)
You’d expect as much from someone who arranged to have the Four Tops play at his 50th reunion at Linton High School in Schenectady.
[[Third in a series of stories about the interviews that went into the writing of GOLDEN DAYS. Buy the book HERE.]]
But over the years Riley, especially after he became president of the Miami Heat, has become increasingly elusive, and it is rare when he gives extensive interviews. I missed the old Riley and hoped, when I told him I was writing a book that was partly about the 1971-72 Lakers and Jerry West, that he would say yes. Riley and West (shown above with 1971-72 teammate Gail Goodrich, left, and coach Bill Sharman) were best friends on that team, not to mention the vessels for so much shared NBA history over the last five decades.
Riley said yes, and our two-hour session was possibly the best interview, outside of my sessions with West himself, that I had for GOLDEN DAYS.
Even without adding the drama of the Lakers 33-game win streak and their subsequent championship, Riley’s story alone is a compelling one. The Lakers had plucked Riley off the waiver wire for a hundred bucks the year before that memorable season, largely because Chick Hearn, the team’s legendary broadcaster, had noticed his hustle. Riley was about to get axed from the Portland Trail Blazers after a preseason game against the Lakers when he heard Hearn’s voice. “Don’t worry, kid,” Hearn told him. “In a couple days you’ll get a call.” And he did. Such was the power of Chick Hearn.
“Getting to the Lakers changed my life,” says Riley today. He looked around his palatial Heat office and waved his hand. “If I didn’t get there … who knows?” he said. “Maybe none of this.”
He and West bonded on that Lakers team, one an 11-year veteran and a certified immortal, the other a desperate 26-year-old just trying to hang on. They trained together by running the Santa Monica Stairs, and one of the money shots captured after the Lakers beat the Knicks in five games to win the title shows Riley and West running off the court together, the former “looking a lot more excited than I do,” as West puts it.
A few years after that championship Lakers team broke up, Riley went to play for the Phoenix Suns, and West, going through marital difficulties, was living in his apartment in L.A. It was onto Riley’s carport that West’s first wife, Jane, dumped West’s stuff after an argument. (It should be noted that West has been happily married to second wife Karen almost 40 years.)
Something else awkward happened after West became coach of the Lakers and Riley, released by the Suns, called him up for an opportunity.
“I told him, ‘Jerry, I had patellar tendinitis and had surgery, but I’m good to go now,’” Riley told me. “‘I know I’d have to try out but give me that chance.’”
Riley smiles at the memory, though it’s a rueful smile. “Jerry told me no,” says Riley.
“Well, what he said was, ‘You know too much about me,’” answered Riley. “But probably, at the end of the day, I think he was trying to protect me from what he was probably going to have to do, which was cut me. I was probably done, and he knew I was done.”
That wasn’t the end of their awkward moments together. The press conference to introduce Riley as head coach in 1981 was one of the strangest in NBA history. Unbeknownst to both Riley and West, owner Jerry Buss went to the podium and, while introducing Riley, also noted that West would be Riley’s “offensive coach.” The new “co-coaches” looked at each other in confusion–the above photo catches a rare moment of them on the bench together–and, after a couple of weeks, West drifted back to the front office, where their real conjoined history with the Showtime Lakers began.
One of the things Riley talked at length about—and I didn’t expect it—was his separation from the Lakers in 1990. He offered this brutal assessment of himself and the fissure that took place between him and the Lakers, and, by extension, West:
“I made the mistake in 1987 and 1988 of taking too much credit after our championships,” Riley told me. “All of a sudden everybody was talking to me, and I was getting all the attention and all the speaking engagements and all the book offers. I fell into the trap. These days I always tell coaches that before you put yourself out in front of the players you have to be thinking how it impacts the team, what they think of what you’re doing. I didn’t always do that. Coaches are part of this great circle, but they should be on the perimeter, not the inside.
“Jerry knows these things. He always sees the other side of the coin. He sees everything about a franchise. He sees what needs to be right to build a team. How owners should act. How coaches should coach. How practices should be run. How public relations staffs should run. And when he sees something he doesn’t like it drives him nuts.”
There’s lots more Riley in GOLDEN DAYS, including his feelings about the current Warriors, and some of the current Warriors who are ex-Miami players feel about Riley. I was fortunate to get Riley on a subject about which he had much to say. I wish he did it more often.