At last year’s Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame dinner, guest speaker Pat Riley revealed that he keeps a “forever card” in his wallet, a simple reminder of his roots in the city.
Riley has a dizzyingly extensive basketball resume — high school and college All-American, one NBA championship as a player and five as a head coach with two different teams.
It didn’t come as much of a surprise when he was selected this spring for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in the first year he was eligible. Riley will join Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Adrian Dantley, Cathy Rush, William Davidson and Dick Vitale for the class of 2008 ceremonies to be held today and tomorrow.
Through it all, Riley has never forgotten where he started, on the streets and courts and fields of Schenectady. A 1963 Linton High graduate who was inducted into the school district hall of fame in 2000, Riley has been back as the guest speaker twice since then and is expected to attend the organization’s induction ceremony on Monday at Proctors Theatre.
“He’s given us a lot to be proud of,” said Bob Pezzano, co-chairman of the school district athletic hall of fame.
Riley’s professional career and stature as an NBA icon are common knowledge for even those with a superficial interest in basketball.
His GQ magazine cover style — the slick hair, the flawless Armani suits — became the trademark of the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, when the team developed an intense rivalry with the Boston Celtics.
Under Riley, the Lakers made four straight NBA Finals appearances, winning the championship in 1982 and 1985.
After missing the Finals in 1986, Riley and the Lakers, led by future hall of famers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, won two straight in 1987 and 1988, beating the Celtics and Detroit Pistons, respectively.
By then, Riley was used to the sort of feud the Lakers and Celtics enjoyed, because he grew up with it.
It mirrored the stormy and intense relationship between Linton and Mont Pleasant decades before the schools merged to become Schenectady High School in the Linton building on The Plaza.
When the refurbished school athletic facilities were dedicated to Riley and renamed the Pat Riley Sports Complex in 1997, Riley attended and spoke to the school body.
He told the media, “The Linton Blue Devils and the Mont Pleasant Red Raiders — that was life. I don’t see why it [the merger] can’t work, but I’ll never forget Linton High School. I’ve got the yearbooks to prove I went to Linton High School, and I think that it can become even greater.”
At the school district hall of fame induction last year, Riley thanked co-chairman Craig Brown for continuing to send him clippings and updates on the high school’s basketball exploits.
Considering Riley’s high school career, it’s not much of a surprise that he remains so attached to his hometown, despite having hopscotched the country to cities like Los Angeles, New York and Miami as an NBA player and coach after a magnificent college career at the University of Kentucky under legendary coach Adolph Rupp.
Besides the rivalry with Mont Pleasant, Riley played in a 74-68 victory over Power Memorial from New York City in 1961 in which the Blue Devils squared off against Power Memorial’s dominating center, Lew Alcindor, who would eventually change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and be coached in the NBA by Riley.
In a 1991 interview, Riley called it “One of the greatest games in the history of Schenectady basketball.”
That was a singular moment, though.
Linton-Mont Pleasant was ongoing and never ended, at least not until well after Riley graduated.
Riley, also a football star who would be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, played basketball for coach Walt Przybylo.
During an appearance in Rotterdam in the late 1980’s, Riley said, “Walt Przybylo forgot more about basketball than I’ll ever know.”
His love of sports was instilled at a young age by his father, Lee, a long-time minor league baseball player who appeared in four major league games with the 1944 Philadelphia Phillies and was the manager of the Schenectady Blue Jays.
Riley told the school district hall of fame attendees last year that one of his fondest memories as a 9-year-old was following the 1954 Schenectady Little League team that won the world championship and was later honored with a parade down State Street. That team included 2008 inductee Joe Loudis.
He also recounted how he used to tangle with Barry Kramer, another basketball star who preceded Riley at Linton, on the Central Park courts. Kramer, another school district hall of famer, also spoke at last year’s dinner.
“Pat spoke about being a bit of a wayward young man, and playing against Barry in Central Park,” Pezzano said. “He talked about how Barry knocked out one of his teeth and how Barry kicked his butt.
“He told the story about playing for Walt at Linton, and referred to people in his life who put him in the right direction, like his father, and he mentioned Goose Hill several times. He’s had 16 coaches, and he said they were all different.”
Przybylo provided the kind of discipline that helped make Riley one of the toughest-minded coaches in the NBA, a taskmaster with notoriously difficult practice schedules.
After coaching the high-flying Lakers, Riley was head coach of a New York Knicks team that included Ewing and was known for its tough defensive style.
He reached the finals with the Knicks and coached the Miami Heat to the NBA title in 2006 with players like Shaq O’Neal and Dwyane Wade.
His NBA career is mostly defined by his work with the Lakers, though, and their tempestuous matchups against the Celtics. Riley, who stepped down as the Heat coach in the spring but continues as team president, joked during the 2007 Schenectady hall of fame dinner that “I hate those guys” and “I don’t take their calls,” referring to former Celtics and current NBA executives Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge.
It echoed back to Linton-Mont Pleasant.
“He talked about the tradition of the Linton and Mont Pleasant rivalry and how it was filled with passion,” Pezzano said. “He compared it to the Lakers and Celtics.
“He never lets go of that rivalry.”