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Riley, Pat(rick) James

RILEY, Pat(rick) James

(b. 20 March 1945 in Rome, New York), professional basketball coach who led the Los Angeles Lakers to four National Basketball Association championships in the 1980s and went on to coach the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat.

Riley grew up on the streets of Schenectady, New York, and saw his life transformed by the game of basketball. He was the son of the minor league baseball coach Leon "Lee" Riley and Mary Riley. Lee Riley ordered Riley's older brothers to take him to tough neighborhoods to play baseball, to make sure that Riley grew up strong and unafraid. Riley counted his father among the three biggest influences in his life; the other two were his high-school and college basketball coaches. At Linton High School his coach Walt Przybylo opened every basketball practice session with words of wisdom about life and how the game related to it. After graduating from Linton in 1962, Riley entered the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he played ball under the legendary coach Adolph Rupp, whose practice regimen of hard work and discipline served as a model for Riley as a coach.

At six feet, four inches tall, Riley was a member of the 1965–1966 Kentucky team known as Rupp's Runts, because no starter was taller than six feet, six inches. Playing center, Riley helped to lead the team, all of whose starters were white, to the National Collegiate Athletic Association title game, where they were defeated by Texas Western with its all-African-American starting team. In the 1967 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft, Riley was the first-round pick of the San Diego Rockets. A waterskiing accident left Riley with an injured disk that required surgery and made his rookie season with San Diego a painful nightmare, but one that he saw his way through with courage. Over nine seasons with the NBA, Riley played for the Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, and Phoenix Suns, averaging 7.4 points per game. In 1970 Riley married Chris Rodstram, a family therapist; they had two children.

Riley's playing career ended in 1976 when the Phoenix Suns cut him from the team. His attempts to find a job coaching college ball were unsuccessful, and he was about to go into the athletic shoe business when he was offered a job as a color analyst with the Los Angeles Lakers' broadcasting team. For the next three years, Riley threw himself into broadcasting, learning all he could about video. This knowledge proved useful when he finally broke into the ranks of coaching. In 1979, when the Lakers coach Jack McKinney was injured seriously in a biking accident, Paul Westhead took over as the head coach and asked Riley to become his assistant. When Westhead lost out to the star player Magic Johnson in a battle of wills early in the 1981–1982 season, Riley moved into the head coach's job. His debut season as a coach started and ended with a bang: Riley coached the Lakers to victory in eleven of his first thirteen games, and the team took the NBA title for 1982. During the 1982–1983 season the Lakers won fifty-eight games but were stopped in the finals by the Philadelphia 76ers, triggering a crisis of confidence for Riley. Tempted at first to quit because of the loss, the coach eventually decided to tough it out, only to face a similar disappointment in the 1984 NBA finals, when the Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics.

Revenge is sweet, and Riley tasted it in 1985 when the Lakers bested the Celtics to take a second NBA title. The Lakers became the first team in two decades to win back-to-back NBA titles, in 1987 and 1988. Throughout this period, Riley developed a unique coaching style that inspired his players to work on improving their performances. Using his knowledge of video, Riley put together tapes of game action, adding sound tracks of rock music. Late each summer, well before the start of the season, he sent each player a letter detailing the goals he wanted the player to pursue individually. To help players focus on the team's goals, he created seasonal themes and snappy slogans, such as "the career-best year" and "no rebounds, no rings."

After nine seasons with the Lakers, Riley was forced out in June 1990, when his once-loyal players began to tire of his increasingly dogmatic lectures and coaching style. A year later he signed to coach the New York Knicks, a team marked as classic underachievers despite the presence of the star center Patrick Ewing. In fact, Ewing had become so disillusioned by the team's lackluster performance that he was trying to bolt the team as a free agent, a defection that Riley was able to prevent. For the next four years, he helped to shape the Knicks into a real team and not just a group of players wearing identical uniforms. Under Riley the Knicks twice fought their way into the NBA finals. In 1995 Riley became the head coach for the Miami Heat, a team he co-owned. Under his tutelage the team blossomed into a potent threat in the NBA's Eastern Conference.

By the late 1990s Riley's face was familiar to most Americans, flashing across the television screen frequently in countless commercials and talk-show appearances. A three-time recipient of the NBA's Coach of the Year award (1990, 1993, 1997), Riley holds the record as the coach with the most play-off wins (137 at the beginning of the 2001–2002 season). There is little doubt that Riley will be remembered as a gifted player, and as an even more brilliant coach who was able to coax the very best from his players. In a 1983 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Riley explained his drive and passion for the game that changed his life: "If you're really into winning, there's only two things: winning and misery. If there's complacency or acceptance, I don't think you're passionate about it."

Riley dissects the 1987 championship season of the Los Angeles Lakers in Show Time: Inside the Lakers ' Breakthrough Season (1988). In his second book, The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players (1993), Riley lays out his eleven-step plan "to glory in all of life's pursuits." The winning ways of Riley as a coach in the NBA, as well as some of his earlier incarnations, are explored in Mark Heisler, The Lives of Riley (1994).

Don Amerman

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