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Yturralde: Understanding the legend of Pat Riley

| Monday, September 7, 2020

Pat Riley was destined to be a sports icon from the very beginning. The basketball legend was born in Rome, N.Y., on March 21, 1945. Riley was immersed in sports from the moment that he was born. His father, Leon Riley, was a professional baseball player; he played 22 seasons of minor league baseball and appeared in four games for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1944.

As a young person, Riley played basketball for Linton High School in Schenectady, N.Y. One of the most memorable games of Riley’s high school career was a 74-68 victory over New York City Power Memorial. The game was particularly special because it featured a young Lew Alcindor, soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playing against his future coach, Pat Riley. This duo would come to meet again, many years later, when Riley began coaching the Los Angeles Lakers.

After high school, Pat Riley attended the University of Kentucky. There, he was a member of both the varsity basketball and football teams. Although he never won a championship at Kentucky, Riley had an illustrious career as a Wildcat. He was named First Team All-SEC, All NCAA Tournament Team and SEC Player of the Year. There are no questions as to why Kentucky retired Riley’s number, 42.

Riley was selected as the seventh overall pick by the San Diego Rockets in the 1967 NBA Draft. The young guard went on to play with San Diego for three years, after which he moved north and joined the Los Angeles Lakers. In 1972, the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Championship, with Riley coming off of the bench. It is said that Riley played a key role in preparing Jerry West by guarding him well in practice. Riley left the Lakers after a five-year stint, in 1975, barely missing the arrival of former rival and future legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Riley ended his playing career after playing the 1975-1976 season with the Phoenix Suns.

After college, Riley played in the NBA for nine seasons. That being said, in 1967, the same year that he was drafted by the Rockets, Riley was also drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 11th round of the NFL Draft. He was drafted as a wide receiver.

When his playing days concluded, Riley did what many retired athletes do, turn to broadcasting. Riley became a broadcaster for the Lakers in 1977. Looking back at his career, this moment in Riley’s professional trajectory was huge in helping him to manage the media as a coach and executive.

During the 1979-1980 NBA season, Lakers assistant coach Paul Westhead took the reigns and became head coach. In part with this transition, Westhead recruited Riley to be one of his assistants. The former championship winner was now back on the court, in a new and improved role.

That year, under Westhead’s leadership, with the strength of rookie sensation Magic Johnson and with Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers won the 1980 NBA Championship.

After two years as an assistant with the Lakers, Riley was named head coach in 1981. This was the start of a storied nine-year stretch. Riley fit in perfectly with the Lakers narrative. The fans and media all raved about his Armani suits and slicked back hair.

There is no doubt that everything in Pat Riley’s career had led him to being who he was. He embodied the ever-growing NBA and the championship pedigree of the ‘80s Lakers.

Riley and his Lakers won the NBA Championship in 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988. He almost hit .500 in terms of winning NBA Championships as the Lakers head coach. By this point in his career, Riley was an NBA Champion as a player and five-time NBA champion as a coach.

To most, this would be a more than acceptable point at which to call it quits, but Riley was only getting started. Of course, Riley was a heck of a player and coach for the Lakers, but his true genius did not reveal itself until later in his career when he made the move to South Beach.

Over the course of 25 years, Riley has transformed the Miami Heat into a true NBA team. It takes a culture to make a winning team. Before Riley came to South Beach, the Heat had no idea what that culture was. Today, there is no doubt that the NBA world knows what the Heat are all about and how different players gel in that environment.

Pat Riley was a product of his environment and the Miami Heat are a product of him. Before understanding the Heat, we first have to understand the legend that is Pat Riley.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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