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.”
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.