I love this place," says Pat Riley, inclining his face to the sun, squinting a little, bathing in the light. He is sitting on a bench on a bluff overlooking Santa Monica Bay. Below is Will Rogers State Beach, known as State Beach to the volleyball players, sand-encrusted philosophers and other energetic malcontents who populate it, as Riley once did.
"I come here when I'm in need of inspiration. I think that way is north," he says, pointing west, up the bright path of the late September sun to the horizon, where steel-blue water becomes cottony air, and the canyons above Malibu come down to the sea in a misty joining.
Riley is deeply tanned and wrapped in soft sweats. The famous swept-back hair is lighter and drier than one might have expected after studying him standing in profile beside the L.A. Lakers' bench throughout every NBA championship series game for the last four years.
His has been a remarkable stewardship. The Lakers won the NBA title in 1982, his first year as their coach, defeating the Philadelphia 76ers. They lost to them in 1983, and lost to the Boston Celtics in the overheated series of 1984. Then last season, in the most gratifying circumstances possible, L.A. finished off the Celtics in Boston, 111-100, to win the championship four games to two. Before that game, Boston had won eight of eight NBA finals from Laker teams, dating back to 1959. More than half of the 15 championship banners hanging in the rafters of Boston Garden represented bitter Laker defeats. Riley ended that.
Yet little has appeared that might allow one to discover just how he did it. Riley's wardrobe has often been celebrated, as has his bizarre ascension to the Lakers' coaching job in 1981 at the age of 36. That a natty boulevardier was able to step from the broadcast booth to the bench often leads to the suggestion that Riley is a "caretaker" coach. With such talent as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin (Magic) Johnson, who among us could not go and do likewise? Even his splendid marriage of 15 years, says his effervescent wife, Chris, diverts the casual eye from the substance of the man and his achievement.
But Riley knows about diversion. "Life," he says from his bench above the sea, "is a very simple process, but we all get distracted from the universal rights and wrongs that we all know. A team can have its attention divided by peripheral opponents like the fans, the press, even players' families, though it seems wrong to call a family an opponent. Just now the distraction is all this talk about no team having repeated as NBA champions for 16 years."
Indeed, 10 minutes after the Lakers had whipped Boston, Abdul-Jabbar, at the apex of his exultation, was asked if the Lakers could repeat in 1986. It was a measure of the man's control that he refrained from even the mildest epithet. Instead, he said, craftily, "We're the only ones who can."
"I've written to the team this year," continues Riley, "about not letting the fact of other teams not being able to repeat influence us into not repeating ourselves. About not letting the perceptions or expectations of others bear us down."
It is natural then that Riley express a wish that any inquiry into his story involve only the essentials and not the side issues. "I guess I have been sort of shallowly characterized," he says. "The superficial image has seemed to obscure the deep-seated principles that any success is founded on."
So on the bench above the Pacific a deal of sorts is struck. Riley will speak of the motives and truths of his game, and life, and how he came to them. Thus entrusted, the listener will kindly get them right. This arrangement, it turns out, is not too different from the one he has with his players.
"All I care about," says Riley, "is creating an environment in which the talent can flourish. That means all 12 of our individuals. I have to know as much as possible about each one, to motivate them, to be able to draw them together, to know how to serve them best."
Service, mind you, need not be servile. "On a professional level, coaches feel responsible for a lot, but players have to be responsible, too. They are well paid. They are pure professionals. So we work on a basis of shared responsibility. I have a role: to organize, to direct, to put you, the player, in position to win. But then you're going to do that winning or losing, not me."
Professional basketball players are, in fact, different animals. They have risen for good reasons. Many are almost inhumanly gifted. Most are congenitally wild to improve. Yet, because they are so feted, their egos can race ahead of even their salaries. Many ways of dealing with them don't work. Riley's way, which does, is to trust them, tell the blunt truth and pay attention.
"The ideal coach-athlete relationship at all levels of basketball is mutual respect," says forward Kurt Rambis. "But that's especially true in the pros. A player will willingly do what a coach suggests if the coach will willingly listen to what the player suggests. You reach a happy medium."
"Fear, incentive and self," intones Riley. "Those are all I work with. With some players, it's almost as if the work you demand has to be balanced by the incentive you offer. A guy will ask if it's going to be worth it. With others there's a similar equation, except it's fear that kicks them out of the comfort zone. But self-motivated players, like Earvin and Kareem, only care about winning. They are above the rest of the psychological wheeling and dealing. You get three or four of those and weave them in with the ones who need kicking or bribing, and you're O.K."
Even though Riley is forever leafing through inspirational literature, he is the furthest thing from a firebrand molder of human character. He's more of a nudger who reminds you of what you already know and who brings out the best in you. He's a realist. "You can tell a lot about a team's mood when you have your little chat before practice," he says. "Watch where the players are in that circle. If they're eager, they're crouched right in front. You can see their eyes. If they're indifferent, they get around behind you."
He follows with something most high school coaches would not admit. "I don't mind that," he says. "That's a natural phenomenon, being a human being. It's O.K. for a man to be on his own for a day, but after that it's too much. After that, our players won't let someone wander for long."
Riley seems to have altered the definition of coach, to have drained it of some of its solitary augustness. "I even had a problem being called coach my first year with the Lakers," he says. "I didn't feel I'd earned that, didn't feel I'd put in the years, paid the dues."
That was because he had come under the influence of Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Pete Newell in San Diego and Bill Sharman with the Lakers. And his father, Lee Riley, had played briefly for the Phillies and managed in their farm system for eight years, including a year each at Class A teams in Utica and Schenectady.
"Dignity, respect, pride. Those are what coaches are to me," says Riley. "My coaches come out in me. Their voices are there when my back is to the wall. I've come to feel better about being called coach now. I'm growing into it."
But so far, he seems by his own words to have given credence to the caretaker charge. Is there no discipline? "Of course there is," he says, "but again, the need for that is acknowledged by the players. Sometimes they ask for it."
One such request came last May 28, the day after the Lakers, intent on finally seizing the opportunity they felt they had wasted in 1984 ("We gave them the series in '84," says Riley), opened the NBA finals in Boston. "We'd planned and worked a year for that chance." In what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre, the Celtics blew the Lakers out in Game 1, 148-114.
"That game showed him where he'd been lax in his leadership," said Abdul-Jabbar. "Boston is a talented, tough and smart team. We had to match it. We had to get tough."
Riley did. At a team meeting he excoriated Abdul-Jabbar for sloth in his 12-point, three-rebound performance. The mutual respect held. The 38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar rose and painfully agreed, swearing that it would never happen again.
"After Game 1," says Riley, "the players all came in with whips, figurative whips, and handed them to me. We spent 2½ days purging that loss. If I didn't drive them, they said to go harder. It was a real cleansing experience for me, and obviously for them. We ran hours of transition drills, working on getting the big men back late but the first line holding the attack. Kareem was running himself into exhaustion. I knew the best thing was to save him, maintain him, but he wouldn't stop."
Riley calls the second game the most significant he has ever seen. "The team bus, we had decided, would be just for players. Kareem got on, and asked if his dad. Big Al, could ride along. I said fine. And as I watched them together. I began to think of fathers, of my father. In 1970 I'd just married Chris and was worried about my game. As my father was leaving the wedding reception, he stuck his head out of the car and said, 'Just remember, somewhere, someplace, sometime, you're going to have to plant your feet, make a stand and kick some ass. And when that time comes, you do it.'
"It turned out that those were his last words to me, because he died of a heart attack not long afterward. But as I sat in the bus I heard that voice again. And that became my pregame talk, that everyone has a father, everyone has a voice you respond to. And this was that place and that time. So let us all take that stand."
"When he spoke of fathers and voices," swingman Michael Cooper has said, "the score was already five to nothing for us before the start. That was appropriate. It was subtle. It was dramatic. It was true."
The Lakers won, 109-102. "Caretaker?" said Magic Johnson. "Sure, he's been blessed, but he took the good and made sure it stayed good."
Patrick Riley was born on March 20, 1945, in Rome, N.Y. and was named for the saint whose day had just passed. He was the youngest of the six children produced by Lee and Mary Riley—produced and carted around. "For years my mom had four boys and two girls in a wood-sided station wagon, following my father all over the East while he managed in the minor leagues," says Riley. "We were always in hotels. My early memories are of playing hide-and-seek in dark ballrooms, with rain against the windows."
They moved back to Schenectady in 1951, where Lee Riley managed the Blue Jays, the Phillies' farm team. He had also managed there in 1947-48, when it was a Class C team. In 1948, he had a pitcher with bags under his eyes named Tommy Lasorda. "Pat's dad looked exactly the way Pat does now," Lasorda says. "Lee was tough. He came to the mound once and said, 'Lasorda, I didn't hit .400 in the majors because I didn't get to face pitchers like you. Get off here.' " Lee Riley had had 12 at bats in the majors.
"When I was young, my father was never there much," says Riley. Lee Riley thought he had a chance to manage the Phillies, but when he was passed over, he left baseball in 1952 and later suffered business setbacks. Eventually he became janitor and baseball coach at Bishop Gibbons High in Schenectady. "The scars had healed by then," says Riley. "I have good memories of his last years, but that was late."
Early, things were less gentle. "When I was nine, my dad would always tell my brothers to take me to Lincoln Heights, the toughest part of town. They would, and I'd always get beat up. One day my dad asked my brothers how I was doing. 'He gets beat up, runs home and hides in the garage every day,' they said. 'Why do you have us take him down there?' "
Riley's father said simply, "I wanted to teach him not to be afraid."
This did seem to make Riley oddly fearless, though not in the ways his father might have hoped. "In the sixth grade, I wore pegged pants, a shirt a day and my hair like Elvis. I used to iron my own shirts, peg my own pants. I only had one pair of pants. I'd wash them, and if it was raining, I'd dry them in the oven. I dried them too long one morning, and for two weeks I had to wear pants with grill marks all over them. People would say, 'I'll have my hamburger well done, Riley.' "
With glee, Riley evokes memories of his rebellious youth. "I went to St. Joseph's Academy. Church every day for the first seven grades. I became an altar boy. We used to have a nun who opposed my duck's ass hair. 'Get it cut, get it cut,' she said. So I got a flattop DA. The next morning we were in double file to go to church, and she sees me from a distance, and she smiles. She's won. Then she sees me closer, sees this mass of grease and hair on the sides, and she pulls at it. 'That's not good enough. That's not good enough....' " Riley, 28 years later, still basks in the swirl of consternation he created.
"I was the baby of the family. Everybody was going away from me. I felt oppressed by Catholic discipline because it went beyond discipline to arbitrary enclosure. Later I would come to believe that it was founded too much on guilt."
Which wasn't quite enough to keep Riley in line. "Some friends of mine and I broke 45 or 50 windows in a school, Lincoln Elementary I think, and got into the cafeteria and ate all the ice cream. The police came to St. Joseph's and took us to the station. 'We won't book you this time,' they said."
Riley would give them other chances. "Central Park Pond was where you skated in the winter. In the summer, people would put down a blanket on the grass and leave their clothes on it when they swam. We came along and lifted the blanket—clothes and all. 'Just keep carrying that,' said a voice, 'right over to the station office.' That's how I met Patrolman Dominelli and Sergeant Monaco."
Riley does not now believe that he was on a course toward genuine wrongdoing. "Everything I did was un-hard-core, good fun," he says. "I did have a discipline problem. I was not really introduced to organized sports at that time."
But when his sixth-grade class beat the ninth grade in basketball, Riley was the star. "Sister Mary Samuel of the Greasy Hair Laments said, 'See what it can do for you?' " recalls Riley. "That was when I began to realize you could get an identity by what you did on the court. I suppose you could call what I had been doing a search for some acknowledgment, for respect."
So in high school, Riley gradually shifted his focus from rebellion to sports. He played quarterback and forward for Linton High. "We had a great running back, Mike Meola. He'd run and run, and when we were on maybe the three-yard line, the coach would send in another running play for him. I'd check it off. I'd call 'Blue-99,' and he'd stand up in the huddle and go 'Aw, dammit, Riley.' "
Blue-99 was a quarterback sneak. "I loved to score," he says. "I rushed for about 50 yards that year and got 18 touchdowns."
He gave his high school basketball coach, Walt Przybylo, fits. "The first time I talked to him, in the ninth grade, I still had a little hood in me," Riley says. "I had cigarettes folded into the sleeve of my T shirt. He said, 'You'll never make it at Linton with that stuff,' and laughed and walked away."
Every day for half an hour before practice, Przybylo lectured the team on some element of life completely apart from basketball. "One day he'd go off on attitude," says Riley, "and another, on the injustice he'd suffered getting his car serviced. One night he gave our manager, Howie Lorch, and me a ride home from practice. On the way, he stopped into Flavorland to get a six-pack. It was snowing, and there were big banks of snow piled up. You couldn't see, and Howie said, 'Let's hide the car.' He got behind the wheel and drove the car into a fire hydrant and got it stuck there. The next day Walt Przybylo lectured the team about what these two idiots did to him the night before.
"Only now," continues Riley, "do I appreciate that. They slip into your subconscious, those voices. They stay in there, waiting."
Upon graduation, Riley declined an invitation from Bear Bryant to play football at Alabama and accepted one from Rupp for Kentucky basketball. "I used to have a hard time with coaches who were loud and demonstrative," says Riley. "I found it distracting. I operated best in a sea of tranquillity. The environment created by Rupp, his blinding emphasis on basketball, was work—but quiet, undistracted work."
You teach as you were taught. "Rupp's style of play and organized methods have carried over to the way Pat instructs," says Bill Bertka, Riley's assistant on the Lakers.
Riley brought along to Lexington an antic, edge-seeking unpredictability. He had a feathery jump shot, but he also committed more fouls than any three-year player in Wildcat history. Riley, who is Kentucky's 11th-leading career scorer, played on the 1966 team—Rupp's Runts, so named because no starter stood taller than 6'5"—that lost in the NCAA championship game to Texas Western. Riley, at 6'4", won 50 straight center jumps that season against men usually a head taller. He was no great leaper, but he had guile.
"On the dip of the ball," Riley says conspiratorially, "the tendency is for both players to flex and go. I would flex first and jump first. I would put my elbow out, the other guy would go up and lift me. Henry Finkel of Dayton was seven feet and he lifted me a half body above his head."
A more enduring lesson was bestowed on him by his teammates. "Tommy Kron and Larry Conley sacrificed for Louie Dampier and me to be All-Americas," he says. "I may have done a disservice in not fully realizing it then, but they taught me the value of role players." That was a lesson that would serve him well in the NBA.
Riley had a herniated disk in 1966, and Kentucky went only 13-13 in his senior season. After off-season surgery on the disk, he broke into the NBA in 1967 with the expansion San Diego Rockets. "Jack McMahon drafted me first because he had had the same operation I did," says Riley. "He said, 'If he can play with a slipped disk, he's good enough for me.' "
But Riley wasn't, at first. He sat. (Years later with the Lakers, he would become one of the Pine Brothers. "It's a fraternity, with rules. You can't sit casual. You gotta sit tense, elbows on knees. My back went out on me doing that once.") By his second year, Riley had made the switch from forward to guard and was averaging more than 13 points a game. "Then I tore up a knee." After that, injuries would never quite leave him alone.
In 1970 he married Chris Rodstrom, was claimed by Portland in the expansion draft, stayed three weeks, and after a quiet word to the front office from Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn, was bought by L.A. For the next five years he arrived at training camp each September having to prove he belonged on the roster. "I played out of fear," says Riley. "I was always afraid of losing my position. I'd do whatever I had to do to stay on the team. But the Lakers with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West were a hell of a team on which to be a role player."
In 1971 Sharman replaced Joe Mullaney as coach.
"You want a job?" Sharman asked Riley.
"Keep West in shape."
Riley says, "I've never played against a greater guard."
West, now Riley's boss as the Lakers' general manager, says, "I don't know if he played hurt a lot, but when we practiced, I played hurt a lot. The one piece of advice I repeated more than any other was 'Go guard Goodrich.' "
"I worked at it," Riley says with a fierce sort of laugh. "No one ever had to tell me to work. I used to get to the arena at four and shoot in the dark for two hours, just to shoot. I used to say, 'If I do poorly, it's never going to be because I don't play regularly.' So when I did get to play, I played well. Once for 13 or so straight games I hit my first shot off the bench."
But his duty lay, to use a Riley word, in service. "I learned quick," he says. "My first year with the Lakers I got to play in a game that was tied with 10 seconds to go. Obviously, West was to take the last shot. Just as obviously the defense had said, 'Forget Riley. Double-team West.' The ball went around the horn, and I got it. I took the shot, and everybody groaned. I missed, I wasn't the hero. But it was that groan I've never forgotten."
For it was the voice of good basketball. "Later Wilt said, 'You got in the way. Just because West was covered didn't mean that you should have gone to the open area. He'd have found a way to get the ball.' After that, he had a way. I got it to him."
"The one thing that tells you most about a person," says West, "is the ability to make transitions. His adjustment to his role was incredible, frankly."
Riley was part of the most glorious year in Laker history, the 1971-72 season, when they won 33 games in a row ("a feat that absolutely cannot be duplicated," says Hearn) and the championship. In 1973 he and Chris bought a small, embowered house in Brentwood. In 1975 he had knee surgery in the summer and was judged slow in coming back. Such is the fickleness of pro ball that he was traded to Phoenix for the draft rights to John Roche and a future draft choice.
His hunger to keep playing verged on desperation. "I used to take novocain and cortisone shots for quadriceps tendinitis," he says. "It was dumb. Once when I was with Phoenix, blood was running down my leg after two injections, one on either side of my knee. I couldn't feel anything below my thigh. That was the mentality then—whatever it took. Players are more careful now of their careers. I never thought, 'What's the worst that could happen to my knee?' Never."
He had sealed himself away from consequences. Basketball and Riley had grown together like two trees, but one was about to die. Riley was waived. He went unclaimed and quit. He was 31.
He went home to Los Angeles, to State Beach and the house in Brentwood. He built an eight-foot fence around it. "I closed myself in," he has said. "I was hiding my bitterness and rage."
Now, in West's test of a man, Riley faced his greatest adjustment. He had to come to terms with a good part of himself being torn away. "It was a year of mourning," he says. "A year of reflection and grieving. I'd spent my whole life with the game as my main force. When it was gone, there was a terrible, aching hollow."
"You see the broken lives of players who don't have careers after their sports," says Chris Riley, who that same year, driven from the house by Riley's 18-hour-a-day carpentry projects, finished her master's degree in educational psychology. "And people say, 'Why didn't you develop something while you were playing?' But I had seen that it took every ounce of what he was to simply make it as a pro, and he would have been silly not to, because the rewards were so great."
That kind of loving support let Riley understand that his anguish wasn't punishment. He hadn't done anything wrong. Like other deaths, this one was inevitable. "It was the best time for me," Riley says, rather bravely. "A necessary time."
The energies that had flowed into the game for so long would not stay bottled up. He made over the house, sheathing it in roughsawn cedar, knocking out walls, opening up ceilings. But he left the doorways at 6'4". "I built it this way," Riley says now, "so the players would have to bow to me as they entered." By the time he was done showing the 7'2" Abdul-Jabbar through the house, Riley had assumed a sympathetic crouch. Chris left one morning expecting Pat to remove some ivy that had overgrown a little garden cabana. When she came home, he had leveled the whole building. He rebuilt it into a video workroom.
He hung out at the beach and made a new set of friends. He wrote a 400-page book about life in basketball and his thoughts on the game; it has never seen a reader outside the family. And once he went to watch a Laker game.
He didn't want to go to the dressing room. He knew he couldn't force the old intimacies back into being. But at least he could stroll through the press lounge. He was met at the door. "No ex-players," he was told. He turned and walked, raising his hand to his face, looking at his world championship ring. "That was about a hundred pages in the book right there," he says.
But not everyone wished him away. "In 1977, when I was wandering," says Riley, "Chick Hearn called. He got me back into basketball as his color man on TV and simulcasts." Riley threw himself into this new craft with all the old thoroughness. He learned video. He took voice. He began to produce insightful studies of players and wonderful halftime pieces of plays set to music.
Early in the 1979-80 season, Laker coach Jack McKinney was seriously injured in a bicycle accident. He was replaced by his assistant, Paul Westhead, who in turn asked Riley to be his assistant.
"I was so involved with video by then that I hesitated," says Riley. But Hearn, who also holds the title of assistant general manager of the Lakers, had detected coaching tendencies in his color man. "I told him he ought to try it," says Hearn. "I saw a question in his eyes. I guaranteed he'd always have a contract in the booth if it didn't work out."
So Riley went back to the pine. The Lakers, uplifted by Westhead, a Shakespearean scholar, and by the flowering genius of the 20-year-old Magic Johnson, went on to win the NBA title in 1980. Riley studied and, saying he was tired of the page-boy look, began combing his hair back and spraying it into glossy obedience. This worked a dramatic change. Before, his cascading locks and bushy mustache made him look like a guy headed for the Kentucky coal mines, or maybe a forklift driver in a bonded warehouse. Now he looked like his father. Now he looked like a coach.
In 1981 the Lakers, trying to repeat as NBA champions, lost ingloriously to the Houston Rockets in a first-round playoff miniseries as Johnson, on Westhead's orders, took the final shot and missed everything. The following fall, 11 games into the '81-82 season, Johnson asked publicly to be traded. The next day, Laker owner Jerry Buss fired West-head. The problem was said to be Westhead's patient, half-court offense. It was, though Westhead had found disfavor in other ways. Witness West, who, explaining the hunt for a replacement, said, "We wanted someone who was familiar with what we were doing, but with a different personality."
They picked Pat Riley—sort of. In a weird press conference, Buss announced that West and Riley would co-coach. But West, who had already had a thoroughly dissatisfying three-year stint as the Laker coach, then stepped to the microphone and said, "No, Riley's the coach."
"I was numb," said Riley at the time. "I thought the firing was terrible." He spoke loyally of Westhead, even defended his offense. But quickly Riley's Lakers got back running. "Riles played to our strengths," said Norm Nixon, then the Lakers point guard. The team won 17 of its next 20 games.
"Then we went 18 and 14, and I became more of a coach," said Riley. "I realized it was O.K. to demand things of them." He got a splendid response. The Lakers beat the 76ers in six games to win the 1982 championship.
"Experience has nothing to do with it," said Abdul-Jabbar, who had played against Riley as far back as high school. He meant formal, paid-up-dues coaching experience.
In fact, experience was all. The events of Riley's life, his defining embrace of basketball as a kid, his acceptance of role playing, his exposure to great teachers, his determination to keep learning, his tempering year away, his polishing of his communicative skills, perhaps even the childlessness of his marriage, and yes, the hair and the clothes, all combined to assemble a coach of deftness and charm.
"It's like he was groomed for it," says Bertka.
"Sure, he inherited a situation where he should be able to win," says West, "but not only has he won, he's won with fun."
Everyone speaks of what kind of team Riley inherited. That's always the word—inherited. It is as if someone, a father figure at that, has to die before a team can be passed on. Of course Riley has been absurdly fortunate about who gets delivered to him to nurture, and be nurtured by. It was obviously a full lifetime's luck that he came up with Chris, and then there were Rupp and then the Lakers, and now that the Rileys have adopted a baby, 8-month-old James turns out to be the most amiable child who ever stared bug-eyed at a world of people as tall as his house.
"Now that the baby has given him another interest, that will be good," says Bertka, who sees Riley's drive as both asset and potential liability. "I'm with him day and night during the season. I hear the engine. His mind never leaves the game. Thank God he goes to movies."
This Riley does often, in the afternoons, when all that can be done has been. Of course, given his town and his Gentleman's Quarterly style (he recently turned down an invitation to be photographed for that magazine), Riley has himself come under scrutiny for movie roles. In this way he met screenwriter and director Robert Towne.
"I was considering him for the part of a cop in a script I'm working on called Tequila Sunrise," says Towne. "I went to a game and introduced myself and said, 'The look in your eyes is right.' "
"That's fear," said Riley.
"No," said Towne. "Fear is paralyzing. It's desperation that lets you be calculating. You're a desperate man, Riley."
Riley did a double take. He wasn't interested in making a movie, but he and Towne became friends. When Towne was married last year, Riley served as his best man.
"We soon found, as director and coach, that we had the same sorts of problems in exercising authority," says Towne, "especially the art of the aggrieved outburst."
"Going temporarily insane," Riley calls it. "The thing you do once a year. That's often enough to keep me embarrassed about it."
"We decided that there were rules for it," says Towne. "You must never vent your anger on a single person. That would be destructive—always. And there had to be some luck going your way. At the moment you knew something had to be done, there had to be something you could do. You're like a nozzle on a hose under pressure. You have to figure how to release it, in what direction."
Towne tells his favorite Riley explosion story: "They've lost to San Antonio, and not only that, in the last couple of minutes, instead of watching Pat diagram a play, some players have been watching Dancing Barry."
"And the girls," says Riley, wearily.
"So they've lost, and in the locker room he's steamed. He's going to blow up."
"Even though it might be calculated," says Riley, "you have to show how passionately you care."
"But what can he do? He has a videocassette in his hand, and he thinks, 'I can throw this through the front of the TV,' but no, it might explode and the glass might hurt someone. You don't want fate to intervene and make your gesture fall flat."
"Fred Schaus once kicked a trash can and it had a cement block in it and he broke his toe," says Riley. "Once I tried to throw a folding chair, and it folded up on my hand, on my finger, and hurt like hell, and it only went about two feet."
"Then, in comes a man with a tray of about 40 Cokes, in paper cups," says Towne. "Riley thinks, 'I can clear this tray.' He's been deliberating so long, the team is about dressed by now, but he does it. He sweeps his arm across the tray and sprays Coke and cups all over, including Abdul-Jabbar's seven feet of new suit. And Riley has the satisfaction, while he makes his case for how terrible they are, of being able to crunch around, grinding the ice cubes into the carpet."
"There isn't anger in the world," says Riley gently, turning his own behavior into an object lesson. "All there really is, is truth. In the Bible it talks about the Kingdom of God being of truth. When anger gets in the way, you don't get to the truth."
Magic Johnson puts it slightly differently: "If there have been rough spots, I have made it rough. If it's chewin'-out time, I know I deserve it."
Since Sharman, the Lakers' president, West and Buss make front-office decisions, Riley judges talent and hustle. "Recognition of effort," says Bertka, "is an instinct in him. He knows what a guy can and can't give him. I've seen him compliment players when we have lost, because he knows they gave it their best shot."
"My background is in psychology," says Chris Riley. "But Pat is so stable, he'd be a better therapist than I. When there's a problem, he's good at finding out about it early."
"There are so many things people say are problems that aren't," says Riley. "So many things they can control but won't. Peace and contentment are inside. Feeling comfortable with your environment, not being judgmental, not being victimized, not procrastinating, those are all inside."
And all are the signs, he believes, of a team that has grown together. "The four teams that have dominated the league in the last six years, Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and the Lakers, have all made covenants with each other," he says. "As you mature, players begin accepting territories. They tolerate each other's idiosyncrasies. They begin protecting each other."
On the Lakers that includes protecting the coach. "When Magic took such heat for dribbling the clock down and not passing to Kareem until there was no time to get a shot off in Game 2 in the '84 finals," says Riley, "he never said that the coach told him to control the ball. I should have given him a second option, but he never once said anything about that. He took it all on himself and lived with that all summer."
Says Johnson, "I might have protected him a little. We all go to bat for each other so much, it's hard to say how much of a factor it was. The play didn't have a lot of options, but I could have done some other things."
"Not really," says Riley. "A great player has his own expectations of himself. If he doesn't meet them, he'll always blame himself first."
The role players on the Lakers, the bangers and rebounders like Rambis, the defensive specialists like Cooper, are naturally Riley fans. "He made me see the light," says Cooper. "He made me see I was an integral part of the team. A lot of coaches try to outshine the team—not him."
Riley has indeed said, "No matter how long I stay, I don't ever want to hear of a 'Pat Riley-character team.' That means you've stepped out in front."
There are two instructive photos of the bedlam after the final buzzer closed out the '82 and '85 NBA championships. In each, the Laker players are seen running to each other and embracing. In each, Riley is by himself in a wide-footed stance, fists clenched at eye-level. He might as well be holding a video camera. "The last 10 seconds of the first championship," he says, "I just wanted to run out to the free-throw line and watch everyone have fun." Even then—as high as a man ever goes—he was the steward. His description of that celebration was what he wrote in his welcoming letter to the team the following season.
"You'll feel you know him," says Cooper, "and then he'll do something that startles you. He'll show you something from that little box way inside that you only open up every once in a while."
Cooper is a connoisseur of unpredictability. Last March, late in the evening, at Riley's unusually fancy 40th birthday party, Cooper suddenly collapsed while gyrating on the dance floor. When he tried to stand, he made it only halfway and then sat down, sweating. Other players gathered around, concerned. Trainer Gary Vitti parted the crowd, knelt and ran his fingers over one of Cooper's knees. Vitti rose, and there was Riley. "Torn ligament," Vitti whispered. Riley turned to chalk.
"I just stood there, feeling sick," says Riley, "and Michael got up and moon-walked away from me. He had me cold."
He laughed a trembling, relieved laugh, and swore to Cooper that he would get him, and he may. But how could Riley not be perpetually vulnerable to such an attack? It was founded on a mutual knowledge of mutual need. It would never be tried by a player unsure of his own usefulness.
"Even Riley's putative narcissism," says Towne, "down to the knot in his tie, is effective in dealing with talent. He's cool, shameless in the best sense of the word, in exploiting his charm."
"Hell, yes, his way of dressing had an effect on us," says Rambis. "He made us wear sport coats and slacks on the plane."
"Dress is a decorum I have to keep as a coach," says Riley. "My father was always very natty. But I've changed. My first year I was slacks, coat, tie, very soft. Then it began to change to more authority, and suits. But never a vest. That's too much. That's too sincere. And no pinstripes. The only pin-striped suit I ever wore was during the steam-bath game, Number 5 in Boston in 1984. It was silk, and pretty soon it was soaked. In the middle of the third quarter, Bertka leaned over and said, 'Your pants have lost their crease.'
"So I'm trying to run my fingers along the silk and preserve the crease. We're having fun, keeping sane in a game where they're blowing us out. But it ruined that suit. I went back to the guy who sold me the fabric. 'It was no good,' I said. 'No, it was your sweat,' he said. 'Your fabric should be able to take my sweat,' I said."
A description of Riley that he prizes, uttered by Tom Calloway, a friend, is: "Just because you're a street fighter doesn't mean you have to look like one or act like one."
West says, "You could coach in a clown's outfit if you want, but you gotta coach." West gets emotional about how lightly Riley is taken in L.A. "It's damn time he got some credit. You never see the Coach of the Year coming from the better teams, but there is a reason why those teams are better. He's inventive, he makes good, quick adjustments in games, he handles the losses real well, he has the faith of the team and the knowledge to design an offense for the players and not the coach. He has tremendous belief in himself and his sense of his role here. He is the perfect temperament at this time for this team."
That last sentence turns a testimonial into something that sounds disturbingly fleeting. "I do hope he understands how fickle this job is," says West. "I mean the institution of pro basketball coach. In this league you are judged on wins late in the season."
Riley, with the sunset before him, the mists rising toward his promontory, ponders all this. "I know," he says. "The first thing to change is always the coach. I don't think about it. But I know what it's like on the other side, too, and it's not bad. Anonymity is a very pleasant space." He is quiet for a while.
"I like the heat of being with such a great team. Being out there, exposed, tested, it's all been very positive. Not to say that I crave it, for me. But—and I've never put it in quite these words before—what has come to me because of the team's success is respect. That's what I always played for. Role players work desperately for appreciation. They're always saying, 'Hey, look at me. I played well, too.' Even in charge, I think of myself as a role player. I probably always will." He watches the volleyball players straggling off the beach below. "I guess there's some irony in there somewhere."