Pat Riley would always show up for Linton High School basketball practice early, work hard and then stay late.
His tireless work ethic and determination produced a career in basketball from Schenectady through the professional ranks. But it wasn’t until Riley picked up a coach’s clipboard with the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers that his motivation propelled him to national fame.
“It’s either win or fail,” he told The Daily Gazette in April 1984, as the Lakers were gearing up for the playoffs. “There’s no in between . . . no other short-term goals would satisfy the people out here.”
The Daily Gazette offers its congratulations to new Basketball Hall of Famer Pat Riley in an editorial you can read by clicking here.
Though he was unsuccessful that year, Riley won five championships as a coach in the National Basketball Association. Stints in Los Angeles, New York and now Miami have earned him 1,208 victories and rank him third all-time among NBA coaches.
On Monday, Riley was selected for induction into the National Basketball Hall of Fame. He and others selected this year will take their places during a ceremony at the Springfield, Mass., hall in September.
“He always had a strong desire to achieve the greatest heights and he was always successful doing it,” said Mike Meola, a former teammate of Riley and a retired city teacher. “He’s a hard-nosed guy who knew what he wanted and went out and worked for it.”
Riley was among the top Schenectady-area ballplayers during the 1960s and 1970s. He was preceded at Linton by Barry Kramer, a former NBA player, and followed by Sidney Edwards, a former member of the Harlem Globetrotters.
But Riley, a 1963 graduate of Linton, quickly showed he was in a league of his own. In his three years with Linton, he scored more than 1,000 points and helped guide his team to a 46-7 record.
“Those of us who played with him knew he was destined for great things,” recalled Warren DeSantis, a friend who played high school basketball with him. “Every day instead of being the star of the team, he worked out like he was trying to make the team.”
Though he never played high school ball with Riley, Kramer, now Schenectady County Surrogate Court judge, was keenly aware of his determination. He said Riley’s competitive streak would come out whenever he’d take to the court. Kramer faced him in recreational play.
“That was his nature as a player, and I think that’s still his nature as a coach,” he said.
Riley’s acclaim traveled with him from Schenectady to the University of Kentucky, where he was an All-American and helped the team to reach the NCAA championship game in 1966. He was selected as the seventh overall pick by the NBA’s San Diego Rockets and later joined the Lakers, whom he helped win a championship in 1972.
It wasn’t until a decade later that Riley began his most significant contributions as a coach. At the age of 36, he led the Lakers to a championship in his first year.
Riley never forgot his roots. While the Lakers were planning their victory celebration on the West Coast, their coach was traveling back to Schenectady to put on a basketball clinic and an assembly for the city school district, recalled Bob Pezzano, a retired teacher and chairman of the district’s Athletic Hall of Fame committee.
“He was just as generous as he could be with his time,” he said. “That’s when I noticed how committed he is.”
Riley’s visits to the city haven’t stopped. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he helped school districts in Rotterdam and the city establish Project DARE programs.
When Schenectady High School dedicated the refurbished gymnasium to him in 1997, he attended the ceremonies and used the attention to urge the district to remember the great coaches of Schenectady. The district established the Athletic Hall of Fame the following year and inducted Riley in 2000; he has since returned twice as a keynote speaker during the group’s annual dinner.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” said Schenectady Mayor Brian U. Stratton. “It’s a deserved and fitting honor for Pat Riley and the hometown he’s never forgotten throughout his professional career.”
Riley’s parents, Leon, a baseball manager, and Mary Riley, are deceased.