Amir Abdul-Jabbar peered down at the jumble of microphones that had suddenly appeared beneath his nose, and for a moment he looked as if he might cry. Cradled in his father's long left arm, little Amir sniffed at the electronic thicket as if it were a spray of flowers, and then very casually he leaned toward the microphones and did what any self-respecting 1-year-old would do—he tried to eat them. First he grabbed one from a cable sports network and gnawed on it, then he started in on microphones from local stations in Los Angeles. Every time someone thrust a mike into Amir's face, he took it in his two front teeth and started to chew. No one seemed to mind. It may have been a violation of the First Amendment or something, but the kid was obviously hungry.
Between bites, Amir frequently turned to gaze into his father's face, and on those occasions Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would look into his son's clear brown eyes and smile. It was Tuesday night, June 8, and Kareem stood quietly above the tumult and the shouting in the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room in the Forum. All around him geysers of champagne erupted as the Lakers celebrated their second NBA championship in three seasons. They had just won the title by defeating the Philadelphia 76ers 114-104 in the sixth game of their best-of-seven series, atoning for an embarrassing loss to Houston last year in a mini-series. "This is the ultimate comeback," Kareem said. "We had a whole lot of stumbling blocks in our path along the way, but we made it."
Meanwhile, someone had slipped the insatiable Amir a sucker, probably to keep him from snacking on more microphones. While his father was engrossed in answering a question, Amir amused himself by shoving the candy into the mouth of a nearby reporter. Then he took the sullied sucker back, examined it for a while, and before anyone could intercede, he popped it into Kareem's mouth with a move closely approximating a sky hook. At just that moment, the Laker center was asked how he felt about winning the third championship of his pro career. "This is sweet," Kareem said, little knowing whereof he spoke.
In another corner of the room, Pat Riley talked about a dream he had been having since becoming the Lakers' head coach 11 games into the regular season, following the dismissal of Paul Westhead, who had coached the team to the NBA championship in 1980. As Riley spoke, champagne dripped from his hair. At least it could have been champagne. With Riley's hair—which he wears swept back, matinee-idol style—you can never be too sure. Maybe Dom Perignon, maybe Dom Vitalis.
June 20, 1982
The dream always went pretty much the same, Riley said: It was Game 7, Riley on the bench in a white tuxedo, and the game down to one final shot for the championship. In each dream, a different Laker would take the shot. Once, to Riley's horror, trainer Jack Curran took it. "I was yelling, 'No, no, Jack, don't do it!' " Riley says. "I knew it was an ultimate game because even in my dream I could always feel the pressure. But I never knew who we were playing because I could never see their faces. The disturbing thing to me was that when the game was on the line, I always woke up. I never knew who won. If this series had gone to a seventh game, I thought I was going to have to wear a tux just to finally live the damn thing out."
The Lakers made certain that it never came to that, playing their finest game of the series on a night when Philadelphia seemed determined to make the dream die hard. Abdul-Jabbar, who had awakened that morning with a searing migraine headache, so thoroughly intimidated the 76ers in the opening moments that not one of their first four shots even drew iron, and they quickly fell behind 9-0. The Sixers didn't get back into the game until Darryl Dawkins ignited them with 10 points in a little more than nine minutes at the end of the first quarter, which concluded with the Lakers leading 30-26. They were the last points Dawkins would score before fouling out with six minutes left in the game.
As in each of the previous games they had won, the Lakers wasted no time getting their running game revved up. They converted on all eight of their fast-break opportunities in the first half, and wound up outscoring Philadelphia 31-16 on the break. The 76ers knew L.A.'s heartbeat was measured by the rhythmic pounding of its break, but they were unable to stop it. "They use their quickness the way other teams use strength," said Sixer Guard Maurice Cheeks.
Perhaps the most damaging blow to the 76ers' hopes came in the second period, when Laker Forward Jamaal Wilkes finally regained his outside shooting touch. Before Game 6 Wilkes was shooting only 43% from the field in the series, and had made but three of his usually deadly perimeter sling shots. "My jump shot went on vacation," Wilkes would later say. But when he got the ball deep in the corner with just under six minutes to play in the half, he was startled to see Julius Erving backing away from him. Wilkes held his ground for a moment, then brought the ball up over his right shoulder and fired a strike. "That shot was what really got me going," Wilkes said. "They were daring me to shoot." Twenty-two seconds later he squeezed off a 17-footer, and half a minute after that he nailed a 20-foot jumper from the top of the key. The Sixers were never the same again. "We were giving him the perimeter shot," said Forward Bobby Jones, "but he was hurting us so much we had to change our defense." Wilkes finished the game with a Laker-high 27 points.
Perhaps more than that of any other player, Wilkes's season epitomizes the kind of year it was for Los Angeles: begun in frustration, then teetering on the brink of collapse after only a few weeks, surviving an emotional convulsion and finishing with a rush. Jamaal and Val Wilkes had lost their 8-day-old daughter shortly before the Lakers opened training camp, his second child to die in infancy. Wilkes's poor performance in the playoff defeat to the Rockets carried over into the start of the new season, culminating in a miserable 128-102 loss at San Antonio on Nov. 10, a game in which Wilkes shot 1 for 10. It was at that point, he says, that he came "very close, too close" to walking away from basketball until he could put his life in order.
"It had gotten to the point where everything, personal and professional, was interrelated," Wilkes says. "I was totally frustrated, out of sync, and the game had become very complicated for me. I had just played one of my worst games as a pro, and we were going to Houston the next day. I'd thought about taking some time off, and even talked to a couple of players about it after the game."
Riley, who was then still an assistant coach, sensed that things were far from smooth with Silk and approached him before the Houston game. "I wanted to let him know that nothing is completely won or lost at the beginning of the season," Riley says, "and that whatever he decided to do, we supported him." Wilkes played well against the Rockets, and though he was still thinking about quitting for a while after that game, he began to see "a glimmer of light" in the cloud that had been following him around. He finished the season averaging 21.1 points a game and shooting 52.5%.
The Lakers got their next opportunity to self-destruct when Magic Johnson said, on Nov. 18, that he wanted to be traded, and then a day later Westhead was fired by owner Jerry Buss. At a press conference to announce that Riley and special consultant Jerry West would be co-coaches, Buss implied West would be in charge, but West said he would be working for Riley, who emerged with the top job. West left the bench after two weeks. "Considering the circumstances under which Pat took the job," says Wilkes, "you didn't know who the coach was—Riley, West, Magic or even Buss." Even if no one else was sure, Riley was. "I knew I was the only one who could coach the team at that time," he says. "I proceeded with the attitude that the job was mine."
Riley learned the value of assertiveness on the concrete basketball courts near the Lincoln Heights projects, at a slum playground not far from his family's home in Schenectady, N.Y. "The game was very aggressive there," Riley says. "I had knives pulled on me, got my butt kicked." Riley remembers himself as a tough kid who wore pegged pants, kept a pack of cigarettes rolled in his sleeve and was already staying out half the night by the age of 12. As a seventh-grader, Riley and some of his friends smashed 47 windows at St. Joseph's Academy, vandalized classrooms and then ate all the ice cream in the cafeteria. He was caught and, later, expelled from school, which bothered him not a bit. "The whole time it was happening, Mother Superior kept saying, 'I knew he was a bad guy,' " Riley recalls. "She used to whip my tail every day with a paddle."
As roughhewn as Riley had been in his early teens, that's just how straight an arrow he became as the golden boy of Linton High. A high school All-America quarterback, Riley was offered a scholarship at Alabama by Bear Bryant. He was also co-captain of the Linton basketball team when he was a junior. That year Power Memorial Academy of New York City had a big freshman center named Lew Alcindor, who would go on to become the father of Amir Abdul-Jabbar, among other things. In one of the rare losses Alcindor's schoolboy teams would suffer, Linton prevailed 74-68 as Riley scored 19 points.
Riley went to Kentucky to play basketball for Adolph Rupp, where he was three times the team's MVP, and led the legendary group known as "Rupp's Runts" (no starter over 6'5") in rebounding the year they went to the NCAA championship game against Texas Western (now UTEP) and lost. He was a good enough athlete that the Dallas Cowboys drafted him as a wide receiver, even though he hadn't played football in four years. "I told Tom Landry I wanted to play quarterback or it was no deal," Riley says, "but they were loaded at that position." In 1967 that position was filled by Don Meredith and Craig Morton.
During his nine seasons in the NBA, Riley was never more than a journeyman. He played on the 1971-72 Laker team that won 33 games in a row—still a league record—and went on to win a championship. In 1976, after suffering knee problems in the final year of his Laker contract, Riley was traded to Phoenix. That season the Suns made it to the NBA finals against Boston, but Riley never felt a part of the team. After a contract squabble he was suspended for almost three weeks, and when the season was over he was released. "I was really damaged goods by then," he says, "and it turned out to be a very bitter time."
Riley spent the next 15 months "mourning a loss," trying to adjust to the fact that the best thing that had ever happened to him—his career as a player—was over. He went to the beach and scrawled out his rage on hundreds of notebook pages, and at home he channeled his anger into compulsive carpentry. He built tables and a sun deck, put up an eight-foot fence around his Brentwood home and covered the walls and ceilings with trelliswork. One day he got carried away and tore down a stucco cabana behind his house, later rebuilding it of cedar and converting it into a video workroom. Riley's wife, Chris, remembers him hammering away at his frustrations for an entire year while she was studying for her master's degree in psychology. "I really felt she was going to group therapy meetings and telling them about me," Riley says. "I suffered from a real lack of self-esteem at that time.
"Even when things were going well, I always found myself pretty unhappy," Riley continues. "When I was a player, fear was my prime motivation. I was so afraid that I was going to be out of basketball. Even now I think I remember the disappointment of losing more than the pleasures of winning. For every moment we spend in celebration, the disappointments are a thousandfold." When the Lakers collapsed in the playoffs last season, Riley, an assistant coach, was so ravaged by stress that he developed pain in his left arm and had to wear a neck brace on and off for six weeks.
That isn't in keeping with the Riley image. Riles, as he is known to his friends and Chris, is the very picture of California good looks and laid-back elegance. An impeccable dresser who designs many of his own outfits, Riley has always been fastidious about his appearance. Even as a kid, when he had nothing to wear but hand-me-down shirts and pants, he insisted his mother wash and iron them daily. That's Riles.
Riley's carpentry binge ended in August 1977, when he was hired to be Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn's on-the-air sidekick. After two seasons in that job, he became Westhead's assistant when Jack McKinney was injured in a bicycle accident during the 1979-80 season. When he took over the team this season, Riley was at times reluctant to demand too much of his players. "At first he was very lax," says Wilkes, "like one of the guys." But after a March 12 loss to Chicago at the Forum, Riley began to turn the screws. "He said, 'If we're going to lose, we're going to lose my way,' " recalls Wilkes. "From then on he gave us a very subtle kind of guidance, which is what we need because we're a team of superstars. He's not just out there fronting now. We know he won't back down."
Riley was determined that the Lakers wouldn't back down from the 76ers in Game 6, despite having suffered a demoralizing 135-102 loss in Philadelphia two days earlier. He awoke at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the game, worked out the things he would go over with the team during that morning's shootaround, then headed to the Forum. The practice turned out to be one of the worst the Lakers had had in months. Abdul-Jabbar didn't show because of the migraine headache, and Guard Norm Nixon arrived a half hour late. Riley went home and washed his Toyota. Then he began to work on his pregame talk, a brief but impassioned pitch in which he hoped to convince his players that this was "their day, the day they had worked all year to get to." Just before he left the house, Riley went to his closet and put together a second outfit he could wear if the first one became soaked with champagne. He neatly folded the clothes and put them in his briefcase, making sure that when he walked into the arena no one would know how confident he was.
Philadelphia trailed by nine at the half, but Erving rallied the Sixers, scoring eight points in less than two minutes at the beginning of the third quarter. The Lakers' lead had been cut to a single point when Erving came screaming down the lane with a chance to put Philadelphia in front for the first time all night, only to have his layup blocked from behind by Bob McAdoo. Then L.A. started a fast break that ended with a Kareem dunk. The block was one of three McAdoo would get that night to go with 16 points and nine rebounds. When all the other Laker players had finally faded into the night following the team's victory party two days later, McAdoo was still out on the dance floor reveling in the championship of which he had been so much a part. He hadn't joined the team until Christmas Eve, when he was signed to replace the injured Mitch Kupchak, who was hurt Dec. 19. L.A. was his sixth club in six years, during which he had been branded a loser. No one will ever call him a loser again.
After the game a middle-aged woman somehow made her way into the Lakers' locker room and to the cubicle where Magic Johnson was seated. Johnson had been named the MVP of the series for his consistent play, rather than for the kind of showmanship that had won him the award in 1980. In the final game he had 13 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists and four steals, a line that typified his new blue-collar work ethic. To make herself heard, the woman leaned down and put her mouth near Magic's ear. "I was one of the ones who booed you when the coach got fired," she said. "I wanted you to know that I'm sorry now, and I'll never boo you again. I thought I ought to tell you that. I thought you ought to know."
For Erving there was little consolation in the fact that he had scored 30 points that night, or that the Sixers had once again shown character in defeat. It was Philadelphia's third trip to the NBA finals in the six years he has played for the team, and he is still without a championship ring. In the gloom of the 76ers' locker room, he remained strong. "Unless you dare to put yourself at center stage, dare to be great, you never can be," he said. "I'm going to keep daring. As I dared in the past, I'll dare in the future."
At the team's hotel, about 20 of the Sixers' staff and supporters gathered in the lobby. They were joined by Erving and teammate Steve Mix, along with Pittsburgh Steeler Wide Receiver Lynn Swann, a close friend of Erving's. They stayed until 5:30 the next morning, singing R&B standards like Under the Boardwalk, My Girl and La La Means I Love You. Somebody in the group began to sing the refrain from Que Sera, Sera. The Doctor sang along.