If it’s the NBA Finals, chances are Schenectady native Pat Riley is involved

Pat Riley speaks into microphone

Miami Heat team president Pat Riley speaks to the media following the 2021-22 NBA season. (AP file photo).

In 1972, Jerry West was such a fixture in the NBA that a silhouette of him dribbling a basketball had already been incorporated into the league logo for a few seasons, even as his playing career was still in progress.

His Los Angeles Lakers made the NBA Finals that year, and a complementary teammate from Schenectady via Linton High School did his part off the bench, averaging 5.0 points and 1.8 assists in 16.2 minutes per game.

That player would go on to appear in 500-plus games over 10 NBA seasons, and never start once.

But no one has established himself as a fixture in the NBA Finals like Pat Riley has, and his presence will grace the league’s seven-game championship series once again, for the 19th time, when the Miami Heat take on the Denver Nuggets starting on Thursday.

The Heat team president since 1995, Riley seeks One for the Other Thumb, as he has won nine NBA championship rings as a player, coach and executive. His 19 appearances in the Finals represent almost 25% of the total number of series to have been contested, since the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the NBA, first crowned a champion in 1947.

Here’s a glance at Riley’s 19 Finals:

1. 1972, Lakers def. Knicks

L.A.’s Wilt Chamberlain played Game 5 with a broken wrist, and the Lakers pulled away after the teams had played to a tie at halftime. West averaged 8.8 assists per game for the series.

Along the way, the Lakers beat the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals, a team that featured league MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Riley actually played against Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, in high school, when Linton beat Power Memorial (ahem, more on Kareem later).

Fun fact: Luther Rackley, a former All-American at Troy High, was on the Knicks roster for the 1972 Finals.

2. 1973, Knicks def. Lakers

The Knicks, with a lineup that included Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere — and Phil Jackson — quickly got their revenge against the aging and injury-riddled Lakers, in five games.

Riley played just one minute in one game of the series, a prelude to the end of his NBA playing career three seasons later …

3. 1976, Celtics def. Suns

… When Riley had an identical stat line as a Phoenix Sun in their Finals series against the Boston Celtics.

The Lakers traded Riley early in the season, then missed the playoffs entirely. Riley, meanwhile, got one more ride to the Finals, then retired.

4. 1980, Lakers def. 76ers

Riley was in his first season as an assistant coach under Paul Westhead and arrived just in time for … a lot of stuff.

The Finals featured an unveiling of the Sixers’ Julius Erving’s graceful and gravity-defying behind-the-backboard baseline reverse layup, and a transcendent performance by Magic Johnson in the series-clinching Game 6.

Abdul-Jabbar did not play because of a sprained ankle in Game 5 that left him back in L.A., so the 6-foot-9 rookie point guard Johnson played center and totaled 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.

5. 1982, Lakers def. 76ers

Westhead was fired 11 games into the regular season, Riley was promoted to head coach, and the curtain rose on Showtime.

Magic won another series MVP, capped by a 13-point, 13-assist, 13-rebound in Game 6.

6. 1983, 76ers def. Lakers

Revenge for Philadelphia was as much sweep as it was sweet, for the Sixers.

Moses Malone averaged 25.8 points and 18.0 rebounds, and the 76ers made short work of the Lakers in four games.

7. 1984, Celtics def. Lakers

In the first of three L.A.-Boston Finals matchups in a span of four years, during which the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry crystallized, the teams waged a titanic battle that went to a Game 7.

Cedric Maxwell came up big with 24 points for the Celtics in a 111-102 win.

8. 1985, Lakers def. Celtics

Kareem and Magic spearheaded what was the Lakers’ first Finals victory over the Celtics in nine meetings to that point.

Riley gave James Worthy the starting small forward job, and L.A.’s Showtime offense took off in a new, devastating way. 

9. 1987, Lakers def. Celtics

Another Finals MVP for Magic, another ring, giving him four.

He still trailed Riley in that department, compliments of the Lakers’ win over the Knicks in 1972.

During the victory parade in downtown L.A., Riley promised Lakers fans that there would be a repeat in 1988.

10. 1988, Lakers def. Pistons

Promise fulfilled.

The Lakers faced the counterweight to their high-flying Showtime offense, against the Bad Boys Pistons.

The hard-fought series went to a Game 7, and the Lakers prevailed 108-105 when Isiah Thomas ran into Magic while trying to catch a long desperation pass from Bill Laimbeer for a 3-point attempt. By then, fans were already storming the court in celebration despite two seconds on the clock.

During the champagne-soaked post-game interview, Brent Musburger asked Riley if he was prepared to start off with another repeat promise, at which point Kareem gleefully stuffed a towel in Riley’s mouth …

11. 1989, Pistons def. Lakers

… Which wasn’t nearly enough to keep Riley from later popularizing the term “Three-peat.”

He trademarked it and has enjoyed the royalties that came with it for years, but not the fulfillment of a third straight championship.

With key players hurt and hobbled, the Lakers were ripe for the picking, and Detroit swept in four in what was the 42-year-old Kareem’s swan song. Riley pulled him with 28 seconds left, and even the Pistons gave Abdul-Jabbar an ovation.

12. 1994, Rockets def. Knicks

Different style, same result: NBA Finals.

Riley stepped down as Lakers head coach in 1990, then returned to his home state and got the Knicks back to the Finals for the first time since they beat the Lakers in 1973 (when Riley played just a single minute).

This was an entirely different vibe from Showtime, Riley coaching a team known for a bruising, pugnacious, defensive style, but it got the Knicks to the Finals.

It didn’t get them a championship, as Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets beat Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in seven.

13. 2006, Heat def. Mavericks

Riley left New York for more control of the operation in Miami, and after suffering multiple playoff defeats at the hands of his former team, he coached the Heat to a six-game Finals victory over Dallas, led by Shaq and Dwyane Wade.

14. 2011, Mavericks def. Heat

LeBron James made “The Decision” to take his talents to South Beach, and plenty of fans decided that he was a self-absorbed narcissist because of it.

Meanwhile, Riley had handed over the head coaching duties to Erik Spoelstra and became Heat general manager, engineering the moves that brought James and Chris Bosh to join Wade in Miami.

Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki beating Miami served a measure of schadenfreude for the LeBron haters. The Heat would be OK. And soon enough …

15. 2012, Heat def. Thunder

The Big Three of LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh assembled by Riley rolled past the Thunder in five games.

16. 2013, Heat def. Spurs

Miami had a much tougher time with the second leg of a potential three-peat, needing seven games to get past San Antonio.

The Spurs missed two chances to tie Game 7 in the final minute before a jumper by LeBron helped Miami pull out a narrow win. 

17. 2014, Spurs def. Heat

A San Antonio team with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard was just too good, beating Miami in five games.

18. 2020, Lakers def. Heat

LeBron again, this time as a Laker against his old team, and in the COVID-mandated “Bubble” in Florida, behind closed doors and in front of no fans because of the pandemic.

19. 2023, Heat vs. Nuggets


Few observers are giving the Heat a chance against the Nuggets, but Miami uses a proven formula shaped by rigorous training and preparation to put everyone, including the lesser-known bench players, in a position to play an important role.

Sound familiar?

Contact Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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