Lakers I Miss: Pat Riley

Kurt —  July 24, 2008

For the newest of NBA fans, Pat Riley is the guy with the slicked-back hair who slid Stan Van Gundy aside to win a coaching title in Miami a couple years back.

For somewhat older fans (and those younger ones who watch NBA TV classic games), Riley is the coach with the slicked-back hair who led Magic, Kareem, Worthy and the Showtime Lakers to four titles in the mid 1980s.

But there was a time, before Dep ever touched his hair, that Pat Riley was a very good basketball player, a guy who was a key role player off the bench for the championship 71-72 Lakers team. It is that Pat Riley that I miss sometimes — and it is a player like that Pat Riley that the current Lakers team could use.

Riley may have always seemed like an urbane, big-city guy as a coach, with the Armani suits and tailored look, but he was born in quiet upstate New York. Rome to be specific. He grew up in Schenectady, where by the time he was at Linton High School he was already a standout athlete and a two-sport star in both basketball and football.

Even in high school Riley was gaining notoriety on the court. His Linton High team played a game against the legendary Power Memorial High team led by a tall, skinny sophomore named Lew Alcindor. (For those of you who are new to Laker and basketball lore, Alcindor later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and was the anchor for all Riley’s Laker championship teams.) Riley’s Linton team won, by the way. A decade ago, Linton renamed its high-school gym after Riley.

After high school Riley had two very different scholarship choices — he could go play football at Alabama for Paul “Bear” Bryant or go play basketball at Kentucky for Adolph Rupp. Two legendary coaches. But also two men who were old-line Southerners and were slow to incorporate African-American players into their programs. And both learned a lesson about that the hard way.

Riley, obviously, chose Kentucky, where he played from 1963-67. For three seasons he was voted team MVP and in his junior year averaged 22 points a game on a team that was the top-ranked in the nation.

“I don’t know anybody I ever played with that I thought was a better athlete. I mean, he could run, he could jump, he was very, very quick.”
—Larry Conley, teammate at Kentucky.

Riley was the star of the 1966 team that was 27-2 and ranked number one going into the NCAA tournament, then made it all the way to the NCAA Finals. It was there that Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team, “Rupp’s Runts” as they were called, faced a Texas Western team that had five black starters. If you don’t know how that game ended, go rent the movie Glory Road. Regardless of the outcome of that one game, Riley is still a legend in Kentucky basketball and had his number retired there for his efforts as a player.

Believe it or not, in 1967 Riley still could have played in the NFL — the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the 11th round of the 1967 draft.

But Riley was also the seventh overall pick in the 1967 NBA draft, being the first player ever taken by the expansion San Diego Rockets. He played three seasons in San Diego before going to the Los Angeles Lakers for the 1970-71 season. In moving to that Laker team, Riley was joining a squad that for a decade had as much or more talent than any team in basketball, but could not get over the hump and win a title. In that first year things were not much different, the Lakers won the Pacific but lost in the Western Conference Finals to a Kareem-led Milwaukee Bucks team.

But Riley was just the kind of player you needed to get over the championship hump. He was gritty, a sparkplug guy off the bench who played hard defense matching up on the opposing teams shooting guard or small forward and being asked to shut him down. He knew how to pass the ball (for his career 15.5% of his possessions ended in an assist) and scored a little (7.4 per game for his career on 41% shooting). He was playing 13 or 14 minutes a game that season but was considered a key contributor in those limited minutes.

Think the 2008-09 Lakers could use a gritty wing defender off the bench who is a sparkplug of energy? Think they could have used one back in June?

“Pat Riley’s aura of arrogance helped make him a feisty over-achiever.”
—Charlie Rosen

The 1971-72 Lakers may have been the best team in franchise history. It won an NBA record 33 consecutive games and the NBA Championship. That squad broke the curse of the Lakers in Los Angeles and opened up the floodgates for the championships that have followed through the decades. Riley’s contributions to that team off the bench should not be overlooked.

Riley stayed with the Lakers four more years but finished his playing career with the 1976 Western Conference Champion Phoenix Suns. For his seven years of service in the NBA, Riley earned about $400,000. Total. For all those years.

So there could be no retirement to a beach somewhere. Instead, it was on to the broadcast booth. And from there (on the advice of Chick Hearn) on to the Lakers coaching seat and from there on to history. But none of that would have happened without Riley the player.

to Lakers I Miss: Pat Riley

  1. Love the history here, Kurt. Good old Riles. I’ve never known much about him as a player, but I’m very happy he became part of the Lakers family as history has treated him (and us) quite well because of that union. Also, that’s one hell of a ‘Stache/Shorts combo.


  2. wasn’t he also the inspiration for the writer/director, (Robert Towne, long time friend of Jack Nicholson) of “Tequilla Sunrise”, for the role of Kurt Russell playing the cop nemisis(and old time friend) to Mel Gibson’s drug dealing character?

    I think they might have even offered Riles the part, but rumor has it he turned it down to stay in coaching, the film was released in 1988.


  3. this is from imbd pro-
    • In one scene, Matt LeBlanc appears on the television in a commercial.
    • When the film went into production, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers at the time, Pat Riley, was offered the role of Nick. When he turned it down, it went to ‘Kurt Russell’ . Russell’s look for the role was influenced by Riley.
    • When Robert Towne was reworking the script for the Roman Polanksi film Frantic, he had all but finished the script for this film in which Frantic star Harrison Ford immediately became interested and agreed to star in the film, but eventually dropped out at the very start of pre-production because of personal conflicts with the role. Robert Towne and Thom Mount then flew to Australia to meet with Mel Gibson to talk about the role and immediately agreed to star.
    more »


  4. here is a good article by roland lazenby about bringing kwame back and the tumultuus relationship between jeanie and jim buss.


  5. I still remember that 1971-72 team- watching the games in the playoffs (home games) at closed circuit venues because there was no fox sports west back then- Hell there was no cable period. Riles was a favorite- he fought for every loose ball and gave 110% every second on the court. I remember him grabbing a stunned looking Jerry West as the clock ticked down on the last game of that season vs. the Knicks for the championship. Wow, what a history Riles has in relation to modern basketball from 1963-2008. Thanks for the focus on history. These players now are standing on mighty shoulders- and all should know that history!


  6. i love the background of the card. i wonder what hallway outside of a locker room that was taken…

    Riley was also a disciple of Bill Sharman and adopted his style of hard practices with a lot of running, making sure that no team would ever beat his team because of conditioning. That ethos has been passed through Riley and is now a solid foundation for Byron Scott’s Hornets team…


  7. Totally unrelated to Riles, but the L.A. Times has a video posted that has some Laker Girls (or wannabe Laker Girls) who were asked to spell Vujacic.

    An old Howard Stern trick, for sure, but it’s basically just as amusing as when Stern’s cronies went around asking strippers to name the current vice president or which president was buried in Grant’s tomb.


  8. Funny how semi-decent players who decide to coach end up being much better than great players who decide to coach – with a few exceptions.


  9. 8) MannyP,
    Yep – The only “great” player I can think of that made a “great” coach was Lenny Wilkens.


  10. Off Topic
    Garbajosa signs with Russian power BC Khimki
    MOSCOW (Ticker) –, forward Jorge Garbajosa officially found his new home Thursday.

    Russian Basketball Super League power BC Khimki announced the signing of Garbajosa to a two-year contract, ending a tumultuous two-year stretch for the 6-9, 245-pound Spaniard


  11. Pat lead the Lakers to 4 titles, not 3.


  12. la times reporting sasha may leave for europe


  13. Just a great post! Riles was/is always a big part of Laker History. 3-Peat or not!


  14. 12.

    Its in slovenian language, Sasha to Europe? And we know euro dollars are worth more than american dollars these days? this is gonna get interesting.


  15. Xodus, you are right, it is four not three. Change made. When I double checked it I was looking at a list that had Westhead as the coach in 81-82, which he was to start but I spaced about how that ended.

    And, by the way, the 74 Riley basketball card is out of my personal collection.


  16. As for the Sasha thing, I may do a post on this tomorrow if I have time (or if there are more developments), but remember this is someone in the Vujacic camp talking to the Times. Not that he doesn’t have an offer, he may well, but if I were his people I’d be ratcheting up the pressure on Mitch. And telling a fan base that just lost Turiaf they could also lose Sasha is a good way to do that.


  17. From Friday’s LA Times

    Kupchak says he agrees that the [Sasha] situation should be resolved in the next few days.

    “When the free agency period rolled around,” he said, “Sasha needed to get a feel of what the market would be like. After 20-something days, he’s had enough time to get a feel. It’s time this came to a conclusion.”

    So, Kupchak is saying ‘now he knows he ain’t getting $5mil a year for 6 years from anyone and it’s time he for him to come to his senses and accept our offer of ____ years at $___ mil per’.

    Question is how much? Four years @ $4mil per? Too much, too little?,0,1857797.story


  18. Does anyone here have the opinion that Restricted Free Agency is probably going to die?

    After seeing Josh Childress go to Greece and the possibility of Sasha Vujacic being contacted from European teams, that the players have regained some power since they can just leave for Europe, Asia or other markets.

    I think that if David Stern wants his “two years out of high school before NBA” rule, he should propose that all free agents will be unrestricted during the next CBA negotiations.


  19. It appears now that Sasha had his best chance to sign with the Lakers for his best NBA deal in the first week. Since that time, no NBA team has given Sasha an offer sheet; he’s switched agents; many NBA teams have spent their free agent money.

    Sasha’s apparently wanted $5 million per season, with the Lakers holding to the qualifying offer of $2.4 million. Unless Sasha has a formal Euroleague offer, the situation remains unchanged.

    With or without a Euroleague offer, I think that it will be hard for the Lakers to meet the demand for $5 million per year–and impossible for them to give Sasha a 6 year contract. I wonder if the Lakers would go as high as $4 million for three years? If Sasha has a Euroleauge offer comperable to $5 million per year, would it be structured like the Josh Childress deal, so that Sasha could opt back into the NBA each year?

    I had sympathy for Childress, who clearly could have gotten substantial sign and trade offers if Atlanta were willing to cooperate. I don’t have similar sympathy for Sasha. I’m not convinced he has similar market value. Without Sasha, the Lakers would have interesting free agent and trade possibilities.


  20. You say that Rupp and Bryant were “Two legendary coaches. But also two men who were old-line Southerners and were slow to incorporate African-American players into their programs.”

    While it is true that Rupp at Kentucky and Bryant at Alabama were relatively late in terms of having black athletes play for them (relative to the rest of the country, not really in the context of the historic southern schools), I don’t know how fair it is to lump them in with ‘old-line Southerners’ which to me suggests they generally opposed integration.

    Rupp was for integration, his sin was not speaking out strongly enough about it. But he did speak out in a number of national articles in the early 1960’s about his desire to recruit black players, he did request to the UK administration in the late 50’s and early 60’s to recruit black players but was denied until mid-1963 and he was the first SEC coach to recruit a black player (Wes Unseld in 1964).

    People have over the years tried to insinuate that because Rupp was unsuccessful in signing a black player (AND having him stay long enough to suit up in a varsity game) until 1969 that he was racist. The facts don’t support this. If anything, Rupp was well ahead of his peers (ie coaching black players in the 1920’s, helping black athletes obtain scholarships elsewhere when he himself was prevented (due to state law or university policy) from being able to offer, hosting integrated teams on UK’s campus starting in the late 40’s (when no other SEC team did so until the mid 1960’s) along with willingly participating in integrated post-season tournament (ie NCAA) (again when many of his SEC rivals chose not to).

    I could go on but hopefully you get the point that there’s a lot of information which calls into the question the lazy and ill-informed presumptions made by people who don’t know all the facts.


    PS, Also, it’s interesting to me that so many of his critics seem to want to point out (oftentimes scapegoat) UK’s struggles in terms of integration but seem resistant to the idea of looking at their own school’s and institution’s struggles with regard to integration. I can assure you that EVERY established institution in America has had to grapple with this issue at some point in their history. Why not point out these things ?


  21. if we lose Sasha, is Pargo still available?


  22. Melvin
    Most of the RFA’s who are think they are getting shafted are on their rookie contract. If RFA is done away w/,expect the owners to either ask for less money for top draft picks or simply keep the yr and do away w/Restricted Free Agency.
    Let’s not get too carried away w/the evils of RFA. Notice that the majority of elite franchise rookies are getting extended. The players do have the option of playing out the yr and becoming unrestricted FAs. The RFA allows borderline stars and players to get a feel for their market value. In this cycle teams aren’t willing to spend what players think they are worth. So? Everybody knew going in there were going to be numerous FAs and not very many teams w/money. In a couple of yrs there will be a ton of teams w/money to spend and FAs will likely get overpaid for what they contribute. It’s hardly the CBA and RFA clauses’ fault certain yrs are bad for FAs.


  23. It appears that mo evans is now available since the warriors resigned azabuke


  24. Melvin, there is a balance that needs to be struck regarding the concept of the RFA and the rookie contract scale, and that of unrestricted free agency.

    While allowing unrestricted free agency after a shorter time makes some market sense for the players (and owners in some cases), there also is an advantage for the league to have teams keep their players, or at least their key ones, over a period of time. It’s a bad situation baseball finds itself in where a number of teams are little more than high-level farm teams for the Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers etc. They draft good players, train them, then once they are good have to send them to the big markets to get paid. Over time that will kill fan loyalty. Teams like the Rays may be able and smart enough to make it work for a while, but it is not a viable long term business model.

    Whatever shakeups are made in the next CBA, I like the fact that someone like LeBron is going to have to leave money on the table to leave Cleveland (one fewer year and smaller increases per year). Yes, in his case endorsements may more than cover the difference, but he is an exception. I think it is best for the league that young players may not move as often, giving fans in a city a chance to grow up with and bond with that player. I think that is good for the league long term.


  25. JPS, point taken.


  26. drrayeye, I wonder if years are really an issue for the Lakers with Sasha. They might well go four or five, he is just 22 still. I think Sasha had to acceot that he was not going to get the MLE or even $5 mil a year before negotiations could really move forward. But something that escalates, maybe 4 at $18 or $5 at 22 seems fair for a solid bench guy.


  27. anybody know if this guy is on our radar? after losing Ronnie, and having a need to a back up big, (from hoopsworld)-
    The Best Big Man Not Under Contract?: If you did not get a chance to read Travis Heath’s piece on “The Other Elton”, you should. Elton Brown’s story is such an interesting tale, much like Jamario Moon’s story last year. Elton has been everywhere trying to prove he belongs, and after leading the D-League in rebounding and double doubles and winning a championship in Europe, you’d think a NBA team would want to bring him in. He played strong in Vegas during summer league (13.4 points, 10 rebounds in 24 minutes per game), and it was shocking to us to hear that Denver passed on him, after he played so well. Word is a half dozen NBA teams are looking at him, but it’s not like Elton is an unproven guy. Elton could start on some lottery teams and could be that missing big for a playoff team, and it’s not like he’ll be expensive. League sources say Elton should be signed before training camp, I find it hard to believe he’s not signed now.


  28. Elton Brown? Isn’t he on the Food Network? Oh, wait, that’s Alton…..


  29. Kurt,

    I’d use Trevor Ariza as a marker. Trevor is earning $3.1 million this year. I’d have a hard time going much over that for Sasha. That’s not enough to sign him, so I might go as high as $4 million just to keep the Laker chemistry alive, but I wouldn’t like it. Above 4.0 million is excessive overpaying in my view.

    Since no NBA team would give Sasha an offer, I’d be leery of giving him a long offer at more than he’s worth, so I’d stick to 3 years. One also needs to consider that Coby Karl and Sun Yue might come available within three years for that position.


  30. The Lakers offered Sahsa a 3 year $12M contract.

    The Lakers offered Vujacic a three-year deal worth about $12 million, a salary that would pay him $4 million per season.

    Vujacic, 24, is seeking a deal that will pay him between $5 million and $6 million per season, similar to what Jason Kapono (four years, $24 million from Toronto), James Posey (four years, $25 million from New Orleans) and Mickael Pietrus (four years, $25.1 million from Orlando) got.

    “If there is a deal to be made, the deal will be made,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said in a phone interview. “If there is no deal to be made, there won’t be a deal.”

    We will have to wait and see if that satisfies him.


  31. Come on Machine, take the $12 miliion! We really like you….


  32. Question (I don’t know if it’s been asked)….

    If Sasha actually got an offer from a Euro team, do the Lakers have the option of revising their qualifying offer, or does it have to stay as it is?


  33. the other Stephen July 25, 2008 at 10:52 am

    sasha is trying to escape, guys.


  34. wondahbap,
    The qualifying offer is the premise that gives the Lakers it’s right to match other teams offers and ensures that they keep negotiating rights. The dollar amount of the offer can not be changed as it is set by the league as part of the Collective Barganing Agreement.

    If Sasha signs the qualifying offer he’s ours for 1 season and next season he’s an UFA, while he can obviously still sign a long term deal with us for whatever we want to sign him for (up to the maximum of course) because we own his Bird Rights. If he signs an offer-sheet from another team, the Lakers have the right to match based off the fact that they issued the qualifying offer. If Sasha signs with a European team (like Childress) the Lakers hold onto his rights as a RFA and if Sasah ever returns to the NBA they’d hold his rights upon his return and we can do this whole song and dance again with him and his agent because he’d still be a RFA.


  35. I didn’t realize how much I was on the same page with Mitch. Three years at $4 million is at the high end for the Lakers, but is worth it to maintain the team chemistry. Sasha may already have forgotten how patiently the Lakers helped him develop.

    As this free agent period has gone on, new trading opportunities for the future have emerged. The Lakers need to make a Sasha decision ASAP so they can move ahead either way.


  36. Reed has a new, good think-piece post up on Sasha.


  37. Thanks Stephen and Kurt for your thoughts. I kind of changed my opinions on the subject of RFA after reading them. I agree that RFA is a good system to check the worth of borderline star players and if the player doesn’t like his offer, he can sign for 1 year then become unrestricted. Kurt, the baseball analogy was perfect. The MLB system is, in my opinion, a disaster…unless your a Yankees fan.