MIAMI >> Pat Riley often was forced to wonder if his time in the NBA was over. Like when he got pulled out of a drill in his first training camp with San Diego and was told he had to get better. Or when Portland cut the newly married Riley a week after his father died. Or when he realized that his playing days were finished.
The fears were always unfounded.
A half-century later, he’s still in the game.
Riley’s NBA debut was exactly 50 years ago this weekend — on Oct. 14, 1967, he started a Hall of Fame career that saw him go from player to broadcaster, broadcaster to coach, coach to executive. The Miami Heat president has stockpiled nine championship rings, became a best-selling author and motivational speaker, transformed the fashion sense of NBA coaches and left an indelible mark on franchises in Los Angeles, New York and Miami.
And he’s not done.
“He’s still going,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, Riley’s former assistant who replaced him as head coach nearly a decade ago. “I think that is the ultimate sign of true greatness, his sustainability and ability to constantly adapt and stay ahead of the curve. He’s always three, four, five steps ahead of the competition. His thought process is always ahead of the norm.”
The anniversary isn’t an enormous deal to Riley: He doesn’t consider this his 50th anniversary season, since he wasn’t in the league for a couple of those years. He’ll celebrate on Oct. 14, albeit for a different reason — his son is getting married, a happy coincidence in dates.
“I’m tremendously proud of being able to hang in, because this is what I wanted to do, hang in under all circumstances,” Riley said. “I went from a player to a head coach and once I became a head coach that changed the direction of my life and my thinking forever. I became a different person than I was. Becoming a head coach pushed me through the door of ultimate, incredible responsibility.”
Riley doesn’t remember much about his first game: He had 10 points in San Diego’s 99-98 loss to the St. Louis Hawks. But the rough moments from the early years remain etched in his mind, like when Rockets coach Jack McMahon told him he was the worst dribbler he’d ever seen, how his first two seasons were dogged by injuries, and how he wondered if his career was done when Portland cut him in 1970.
Fate intervened at that moment. Riley and his wife Chris were walking out of the arena into the rain — “walking through the parking lot to nowhere,” Riley said — on the night he got cut, when former Lakers broadcaster Chick Hearn just happened to be nearby and offered a word of encouragement. A couple days later, Riley was with the Lakers. He suspects Hearn had just a little something to do with that.
“If not for Chick Hearn, I don’t know what would have happened,” Riley said.
Here’s what did happen: Winning championships and being part of a 33-game winning streak with the Lakers as a player, winning four more titles with the Lakers as a coach, going to the Knicks, famously resigning by fax to take over in Miami, winning another championship as a coach there in 2006 and two more as president in 2012 and 2013, and generally being considered one of the best coaches ever to grace a sideline.
Those are just the highlights.
“Pat puts more attention on details than anyone I’ve ever been around,” said Los Angeles Lakers President Magic Johnson, who played for Riley during the “Showtime” Lakers’ era in the 1980s. “He’s the best motivator there is. So many of the things he said to us back then, we didn’t realize how right he was until years later. But you know what? He was always right.”
At 72, Riley is no figurehead in Miami. He still can relate to players.
“He understands the meaning of evolution,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “Not only as a coach, but as a businessman and as a leader. He understands the evolution of this game. Part of being a good leader is kind of knowing when to step back, and he knew when it was time to let Spo become the coach that he is today.”
He is, perhaps, as relevant as ever. Riley doesn’t speak publicly anywhere near as often now as in past years, almost preferring to stay out of the spotlight. He wants others in the organization — CEO Nick Arison, general manager Andy Elisburg, assistant GM Adam Simon, among others — to feel like they have big voices now as well.
That’s why this week, with the Heat finishing their preseason, Riley could be away with family for his son’s wedding. There was a time when he wouldn’t have missed basketball for anything. He even turned down an invite for a 40th anniversary celebration of Rupp’s Runts — the Kentucky team that would lose to Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA title game — because he couldn’t bring himself to missing a Heat practice.
He regrets that decision now, and is finally at a place where he can strike a balance between family, friends and work.
After 50 years, he figured it out.
“Life, right now, is really good,” Riley said. “And if I were to leave tomorrow, there’s not going to be a blip on the radar screen here. None. That’s what I’m most proud of.”