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An ode to Riley

Posted by Bob Ryan, Globe Staff  April 7, 2008 07:28 PM

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SAN ANTONIO — Before I get to the part where I knew him when, allow newly elected Basketball Hall of Famer Pat Riley to tell a story that might help explain why your Celtics are 61-15 and will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

‘‘I have a place in Malibu, and one day two or three years ago I was taking a walk with my wife when we ran into Kevin Garnett and his wife,’’ Riley explains. ‘‘This was 10 o’clock in the morning, and we started talking. About noon the four of us went back to our place to have lunch on the deck. We continued to talk all afternoon. Things like this don’t happen with opponents very often; they just don’t. Usually, it’s just a handshake and goodbye. And let me say I wasn’t recruiting him or anything. It was just something very enjoyable you rarely get to do.

‘‘He wanted to ask questions. We talked about winning. And you could tell that he was desperate to win. We wound up spending about eight hours together, and when it was over, I was thinking, ‘Man, would I like to coach that guy!’

‘‘I think the Celtics can do it, and what I like about it is that, even with Kevin there, and all he’s meant to them, it’s not about one guy. He won’t allow that. He wants to be over there on the side. They have a legit chance. My personal pick would be their defense against anyone else’s offense.

‘‘But what a trade,’’ Riley laughs. ‘‘They’re going to have to check out what happened with Danny [Ainge] and Kevin [McHale]. I’m not saying there was anything surreptitious, but keep an eye out and see if Kevin winds up working for the Celtics in five years.’’
(Attention, David Stern: the president and coach of the Miami Heat was just kidding).

Anyway, Pat Riley has been elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame to honor his five NBA titles, and has any new electee ever been more in need of a pick-me-up? As has been well-documented, he has been taking leave of his coaching duties of late to take an up-close-and-personal look at the obvious top lottery picks in the 2008 draft. In case you haven’t heard, his Heat, just two years removed from a championship, are the certified worst team in the NBA with a 13-64 record.

‘‘This business of personal scouting is an easy call,’’ he says. ‘‘If you’re going through the pain we are, and if we get lucky in the lottery, we must make sure we make the right first pick. We can’t have a Portland situation, picking first and passing up Michael Jordan.’’

The Riley image is so firmly fixed in the contemporary American consciousness — the Gordon Gekko hair, which is actually the Pat Riley hair appropriated by Michael Douglas; the expensive suits; the catch phrases, etc. — it’s a good thing there are a few of us around who remember Pat Riley long before he was a CEO. It really is as if there are two separate people.

When I first met the original Pat Riley, for example, he was the odd man out on the 1976 Suns playoff roster, the 13th man on a 12-man team. He was happy to hang around Paul Westphal’s pool, happy to have somewhere to go. It would have been a bit far-fetched to project that guy into the famed multi-millionaire celebrity coach he has become.

In addition to which .....

Do many young NBA fans, for example, know of his demigod status as a Kentucky Wildcat, or that he played for Adolph Rupp?

Do many young NBA fans know of his nine-year career or his role as a key sub on the 1971-72 Lakers, who won 69 games?

Do many young NBA fans know that he actually spent a year (1976-77) following his retirement from active playing out of basketball entirely, that he got back into the game as a color man for legendary Lakers play-by-play man Chick Hearn, who didn’t really need a color man, or that he was placed on the bench as an assistant in a chain of events that began when coach Jack McKinney, only weeks into his Lakers tenure, fell off a bike and suffered a major head injury early in the 1979-80 season, or that he assumed control in the 1980-81 season when Magic Johnson staged a (needed) coup to depose Paul Westhead, the man who had succeeded McKinney?

Riley admits there was a certain arrogance about him in those early days. ‘‘I had all these great players,’’ he recalls. ‘‘I had Kareem, Magic, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo, Michael Cooper, and I thought it was all about me. I was coach of ‘Showtime.’ All I can say is that I’m a lot different at 63 than I was at 35.’’

Here’s one Celtics fans will love. ‘‘I choked away the series in ’84,’’ he admits. ‘‘Game 2. We’re up 2 and we get the ball and I call timeout with the greatest ballhandler and playmaker in the game in possession of the ball. I call timeout to set up a great inbounds play, which might as well have been called ‘Throw it to Gerald Henderson.’.’’

There’s more. ‘‘I completely mishandled the McHale takedown of [Kurt] Rambis [in Game 4],’’ he says. ‘‘I realize all Kevin wanted to do was stop a layup on a fast break, but back then I was all fired up. I got in the huddle and said, ‘If Bird goes to the hoop, knock him on his ass,’ and I lost focus.’’

But he loved those days. ‘‘There was never a better hard-fought rivalry than the Lakers and the Celtics,’’ he maintains. ‘‘We were so competitive it was hard for us to even talk to each other. There was respect, but it was hard to like them. That’s why I was flabbergasted when Larry asked me to do the foreword on his book. That was a real rivalry. I don’t know that we have those kind anymore. I’m talking about something that had nothing to do with branding or marketing to get in the way. It was, pure and simple, about winning, with maybe an occasional commercial thrown in there.’’

You could write a book about how Riley went from the guy who coached ‘‘Showtime’’ in LA to the guy who singlehandedly may have turned the NBA into glorified sumo wrestling when he was with the Knicks, but there is no question he has been a compelling and influential coaching figure in basketball for nearly 30 years. There isn’t any debate about his qualifications to be in the Hall of Fame.

He likes the timing, too. ‘‘We are the luckiest class in Hall of Fame history,’’ he says. ‘‘With Dick Vitale as a member, we’ll be promoted every day for the rest of our lives.’’

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