It’s easy to forget that Pat Riley was not born to coach.
He was born the son of a coach, yes. But few remember that, after Riley’s NBA playing career ended, he became part of the Los Angeles Lakers’ broadcast corps. It was from there that he was hired as an assistant coach, a promotion that paved the way for his ascension to head coach two years later.
His first season, the Lakers won the NBA championship. Soon, the man with so little coaching experience would become a giant.
“A silver spoon,” Riley says, “was shoved in my mouth.”
No, Patrick James Riley did not take the typical coaching path, for certain. Still, on Monday in San Antonio, his status as one of the game’s legends should become official: The Miami Heat coach likely will be beckoned to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The pride of Schenectady, a college star at Kentucky, a nine-season NBA player and one whose coaching fingerprints are on two of basketball’s proudest franchises — the Lakers and the New York Knicks — will be stamped as a great. His seven championships and 1,200-plus wins will be detailed on a wall in Springfield, Mass., a coach’s highest honor.
“I get choked up just thinking that honor’s going to be placed upon him,” says Ed Maull, Riley’s right-hand man with the Heat, a former NBA player himself who wiped away a tear when asked to imagine what the moment Monday would be like. “Him personally, even though he has that hard, crusty Irishness to him, I know that when he gets that call, it’ll hit him and he’ll get emotional.”
There’s a problem, though: Riley, who has an ego that some would consider boundless, doesn’t believe he’s worthy of the Hall.
The word “coach” is hallowed by Riley, who speaks with reverence when talking about people such as John Wooden and Bob Knight and Red Auerbach and Adolph Rupp and Don Haskins — five of the 80 coaches already enshrined. Riley’s father, Leon, was a baseball man most of his life, a success both as a player and manager.
“I really believe in the coaching profession and what the word coach means. . . . They are deserving, and I don’t belong,” Riley says.
He doesn’t say that solely out of modesty.
Unlike his dad, Pat Riley never toiled for years in places like Beatrice, Neb., light years from the big leagues. He started in basketball’s big league, and has been one of the NBA’s most galvanizing personalities ever since.
“I never coached a CYO team,” Riley said a few days ago while detailing all the reasons why he doesn’t consider himself Hall-worthy. “I never hauled a group of wannabees in the back of a truck to Central Park and worked them out from dawn to dusk. I never took a kid home in my car and treated his athlete’s feet in my house when I was in high school. I never did the 8 million hours of work that a student manager, assistant coach did. I never did any of that stuff. I was pushed through a door . . . That’s how I got my start, and most of the guys that are in there did it the other way.”
He inherited a team that, as he sees it, almost anyone could have led to a title. Magic Johnson.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jamaal Wilkes. Norm Nixon. Michael Cooper. Bob McAdoo. They went unbeaten through the Western Conference playoffs that first season under
Riley, then beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games for the 1982 championship.
“He orchestrates the system,” Heat center Alonzo Mourning says. “He has the respect of players that when he asks it, they do what he asks them to do. That’s probably the hardest thing to do these days, to put together a system and get 12 or 15 guys to follow that. But that comes when players see your name, see your track record and say, ‘OK, here’s a guy we can follow.’”
And people do follow Riley, who became Heat coach and president in 1995.
Oh, sure, he’s ruffled more than a few feathers over his quarter-century coaching in the NBA, from the epic marathon practices that he was known for until a few seasons ago to his direct, my-way style that some players don’t find endearing.
His Hall call, if it comes Monday, will be an interestingly timed one.
It’ll be Riley’s greatest honor. But with the injury-ravaged Heat at
13-63 entering today, it’ll come in his worst season.
“If something happens positive, it’ll be an irony,” Riley says.
Those closest to Riley know he’s already in deep thought about next season. His trusty blue pads are filled with notes on free agents and possible lottery picks, ideas and notions that he believes could get Miami back into the playoff picture next year.
Even though his career is rich with accomplishments, perhaps his greatest challenge awaits.
“This season has humbled him. He sees things differently,” Maull says.
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