Legendary Coach Pat Riley: Life between Leadership and Athleticism – a documentary

December 10, 2022
Pat Riley documentary

Pat Riley has won titles as a player, a coach, and an executive over the course of five decades. He has guided illustrious offenses and resolute defenses. He’s also in a position to win his ninth total trophy as team president of the Miami Heat. One of the best basketball coaches in NBA history is Pat Riley.

Riley had success as a coach with the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers, where he later worked as a front-office executive. Riley was given the NBA Coaches Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

Table of Contents

Early Life 

Patrick Riley was born in Schenectady, New York, in 1945 and graduated from Linton High School there. His father, Leon “Lee” Riley, played baseball professionally. Therefore, he came from a sporting family. In 1944, he was an outfielder and catcher for the Philadelphia Blue Jays. Later, Leon Riley worked as a minor-level manager for the Blue Jays organization. Lee Riley, a brother of Pat Riley, was an athlete. From 1955 to 1960, he was a football player with the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Detroit Lions of the National Football League. In 1961–1962, Lee also participated in American Football League games for the New York Titans.

High School Life

Pat Riley played basketball for head coach Walt Przybylo at Linton High School. He contributed to the high school’s spectacular victory over the New York-based Power Memorial in December 1961. Lew Alcindor of Power Memorial and Riley, who would eventually become his coach, was the game’s two standout performers.

One of the few athletes in Kentucky to be selected to two or more First Team All-SEC teams was named First Team All-SEC in 1965, his junior year, and was named again in his senior year.

NBA Career

Riley attended the University of Kentucky in 1963 after finishing high school. Riley excelled as a basketball player and won three times the Most Valuable Player honor for the school team. He received his Kentucky diploma in 1967.

Riley played four seasons of varsity basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats, including one on the first-year team. He was selected to the Teams for the A.P. Third Team All-Americans, NCAA Regional Player, Player of the Year (SEC), First Team All-SEC, and All-NCAA Tournament Team. While a junior on the 1965–66 Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball squad, helping the Wildcats reached the NCAA championship game in 1966. Adolph Rupp was the head coach when the U.K. fell to Texas Western (now UTEP), a match depicted in the film Glory Road. Riley was one of the few players in illustrious Kentucky basketball history to be named to the First Team All-SEC twice during his senior season when he made the First Team All-SEC.

Riley was selected in the first round of the 1967–68 NBA Draft to play for the San Diego Rockets basketball team after receiving his undergraduate degree. Riley didn’t play collegiate football, but the Dallas Cowboys selected them as a wide receiver in round 11 of the 1967 NFL Draft. Before the Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the 1970 NBA expansion draft, he played with the Rockets for three seasons.

The Blazers moved Riley to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he spent five years as a player. Riley was a vital reserve on the 1972 Lakers NBA Champion squad. 

The Lakers won 33 straight games in his debut season with the franchise, an NBA record at the time. The Lakers continued to win the NBA title that year as well. Riley spent his final season as a player in 1976 with the Phoenix Suns. Throughout his nine seasons in the league, he averaged 7.4 points per game and left the game in 1976.

Coaching Professional Career Los Angeles Lakers (1979–1990)

In 1977, Riley returned to the NBA as a Lakers broadcaster. Riley was appointed as an assistant coach by Paul Westhead in November 1979, taking over for the team’s head coach Jack McKinney, who had been hurt in a dangerous cycling accident.

 In the 1980 NBA Finals, the Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in six games thanks to rookie guard Magic Johnson and stalwart Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, earning Westhead and Riley title rings in their first season as the team’s head coaches. The Houston Rockets, headed by Moses Malone, defeated the club the following season in the playoffs.

Magic Johnson declared he wanted to be traded six games into the 1981–82 season because he was dissatisfied with Westhead. Jerry Buss, the owner of the Lakers, fired Westhead shortly after. Buss appointed West head coach at the next press conference while Jerry West stood at his side. But when West resisted, Buss awkwardly sought to designate him as the “offensive captain” before announcing Riley and West as the co-coaches. During the press conference, West showed that Riley was in charge and would provide assistance. Riley then served as the acting head coach until the team permanently filled his position.

With his running style, Riley helped the Lakers usher in the “Showtime” era, which featured Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar as prominent players. Riley rose to fame, becoming a style symbol for his Armani suits and sleek hairstyles that fit the team’s glamorous image.

Riley was inventive on defense and used the up-tempo Lakers style pioneered by McKinney and Westhead. Riley was also one of the first coaches to quicken the game with a 1-3-1 half-court trap. The Showtime Lakers were famed for their offense, but their defense helped them win titles. They had one of the best defensive guards in the game Michael Cooper. Lakers were thought to play with finesse and lack physicality to prevail in the playoffs by most of the league. No rebounds, no rings were Riley’s catchphrase, emphasizing the necessity of fighting for rebounds to win championships.

The Lakers made four straight NBA Finals trips under Riley’s leadership. In his debut season, he defeated the Philadelphia 76ers to win his first championship. The following year, both teams made it back to the Finals, but this time Riley’s Lakers were defeated by the 76ers. In 1984, the Boston Celtics defeated the Lakers in the Finals, this time in seven games. Riley won his second NBA championship with the Lakers in 1985 after defeating the Celtics in a rematch from the previous season. The Houston Rockets ended the Lakers’ four-year winning streak in the Western Conference the following season.

Riley led a Lakers squad that was regarded as one of the strongest in history in 1987. The Lakers ended the regular season with a 65-17 record, third-best in franchise history, thanks to future Hall of Famers Magic James Worthy, Johnson,  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Byron Scott, A. C. Green, Mychal Thompson, Kurt Rambis, Cooper. Similar results were achieved in the playoffs, as they defeated the Celtics in six games to give Riley his third NBA championship.

When Riley promised the crowd a repeat title during the Lakers’ championship parade rally in downtown Los Angeles, it became one of Riley’s most notable moments (he first made the assurance during the post-victory locker room celebration). The 1988 Lakers won the NBA championship despite having fewer regular-season victories than the 1987 Lakers, making them the first team in 19 years to win it twice.

Riley delivered his promise when the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Detroit Pistons in the 1988 NBA Finals in seven games. Riley is one of only six players—George Senesky, Bill Russell,  K. C. Jones, Tom Heinsohn, and Billy Cunningham—to play for an NBA Championship team and then coach the same NBA club to a championship.

Riley would make no additional promises, but his Lakers set out in 1989 to win their third straight title despite this. He adopted a three-peat championship for this new objective because Riley had successfully claimed a repeat victory the previous year; Riley trademarked the term three-peat through his corporate organization, Riles & Co.

The Pistons drifted the Lakers in the NBA Finals 1989, a replay of the previous season’s finals series.

For the first time, Riley won the NBA Coach of the Year award in 1989–90, but he resigned as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers after their playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns. Riley was the top NBA coach at the time of his departure, enjoying notoriety unmatched since Red Auerbach.

New York Knicks (1991–1995)

Following his resignation, Riley agreed to work for NBC for a year as a television pundit before being hired as the New York Knicks head coach for the 1991–92 season. Commentators praised Riley’s versatility in adapting his “Showtime” style to the fast-paced Laker teams in the 1980s while working with the muscular, deliberate Knicks.

On their way to winning their first championship in 1991, the Chicago Bulls quickly swept the Knicks. The Knicks forced the reigning champion Bulls to play seven games in the Eastern Conference playoffs in 1992 because of Riley.

Riley and Bulls head coach Phil Jackson got into a fight over the refereeing, and the Knicks’ rough style of play after the Knicks’ physical defense of Chicago Bulls stars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the 1992 playoffs. Riley won his second Coach of the Year title in 1993 after helping the Knicks to their outstanding record for the regular season in team history (tied with the 1969–1970 squad). After winning the first two matches at home, the Knicks faced the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals but fell short in six games. Despite Riley’s brilliance in 1989, Jackson’s Bulls that year went on to win the finals and complete a “three-peat.”

In 1994, Riley won the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the three-time reigning champion Bulls (without Michael Jordan) in seven matches to get to the NBA Finals once more. But after leading the series 3-2, New York fell to the Houston Rockets in seven games. Riley, who had been with the Lakers in 1984 and 1988, was the first coach to join in an NBA Finals Game 7 with two teams during the 1994 Finals. He did, however, have the regrettable distinction of being the first (and, as of this writing, the only) coach to lose an NBA Finals seventh game with two teams after falling to the Celtics in 1984.

Additionally, despite defeating the Pistons in seven games in 1988, it prevented him from earning the distinction of being the first coach to triumph in a Game 7 in the Finals with two teams.

Miami Heat (1995–present)

Riley left the Knicks in 1995 by fax, taking complete control of all basketball operations as president and Miami Heat head coach. The Heat was accused of tampering by the Knicks for chasing Riley, although there was still one year remaining on his contract deal with the Knicks, which led to some controversy surrounding the decision.

After the Heat gave the Knicks their 1996 first-round pick (the one they used to choose Walter McCarty) and $1 million in cash on September 1, 1995, they resolved the dispute.

Riley directed the Heat to a 42-40 record in the 1995–96 NBA season, an increase of 10 games over the team’s previous campaign. The Chicago Bulls, led by NBA champion Phil Jackson, swept Miami in the opening round of the playoffs. The Heat received franchise cornerstones Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway this season, which resulted in significant personnel adjustments. P.J., a forward with the Nets, was also acquired by the Heat after the season. Brown and swingman Dan Majerle of the Suns.

In a gritty seven-game series, Riley’s Heat upset his former team, the Knicks, in 1997. The Heat made it to the E.C. finals for the first time in the team’s history, but they were again defeated by the Bulls, who went on to win the title. After leading Miami to a 61-21 regular-season record and first place in the Atlantic Division, Riley was announced Coach of the Year for the third time.

The Heat suffered playoff defeats to their bitter rival Knicks in 1998, 1999, and 2000. Riley later obtained Brian Grant in trade and exchanged Brown and Jamal Mashburn for Eddie Jones, though the club suffered a severe setback when Alonzo Mourning was forced to miss the whole year due to a kidney condition. The Charlotte Hornets swept the Miami Heat in the opening round of the NBA playoffs after going 50-32 in the 2000–01 regular season.

When guarding Tim Hardaway was moved to the Dallas Mavericks, and Milwaukee Bucks signed Anthony Mason to a contract, the Heat lost two of their greatest players. The Heat collapsed to a 36-46 record in 2002, the first time a Riley-coached team had not had a successful season or made the playoffs, mainly due to their departures. Riley said he was about to “fire himself” because he was so embarrassed by the Heat’s performance.

Riley resigned as head coach after the Heat concluded the 2002–03 campaign 25–57, and veteran assistant Stan Van Gundy took over. In the 2003 NBA Draft, org selected the Heat with the fifth overall pick, and they used it to choose Dwyane Wade. Riley acquired Shaquille O’Neal from the Lakers in a trade for Brian Grant, Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and a first-round draft pick in July 2004. During the 2005 postseason, O’Neal and Wade led the Heat to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they were defeated by the reigning champion Detroit Pistons despite having a 3-2 series lead.

Riley’s second season as the Heat’s head coach began in 2007

some generally believed during the 2005 offseason that Riley was aiming to remove Van Gundy as head coach and replace him with himself now that the team was a title contender. Just 21 games into the 2005–2006 season, Van Gundy announced his resignation, citing the need to spend more time with his family. Riley then revealed himself as Van Gundy’s replacement.

On June 2, 2006, Riley’s Heat squad defeated the Detroit Pistons in the E.C. Finals, marking Miami’s first appearance in the championship round. In the NBA Finals of 2006, Riley’s Heat faced off against the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat returned after dropping the first two games to win the next four and their first NBA title. Riley said after Game 6 that he only brought one suit, shirt, and tie to Dallas. Riley won his first title with a team other than the Lakers, marking his fifth championship as a head coach.

Riley went on leave from his coaching position from January 3, 2007, till February 19, 2007, citing hip and knee issues. Ron Rothstein, an assistant coach, took over in the meantime. Heat finished their regular season 44-38 record and was swept by the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs, becoming the first defending champions to do so since 1957. The Heat finished 15-67 the following year. The team acquired a frustrated Shaquille O’Neal in the middle of the season after losing numerous players to long-term injuries.

They had one of the worst seasons in NBA history two years after winning the title. It was also the poorest full-season record amassed by a Riley-coached club and tied the Heat’s 1988–89 inaugural season for worst in franchise history.

Riley announced on April 28, 2008, that he would retire as team president while staying as head coach. As head coach, he selected his assistant Erik Spoelstra. Riley has had the last say in basketball decisions since he moved to Miami, even though the Heat have officially had a general manager for most of his time as team president (Randy Pfund and Andy Elisburg).

Riley acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010 to team up with Dwyane Wade and form the Heat’s “Big Three.” In the subsequent four seasons, the Heat made it to the NBA Finals (2011 through 2014). Riley won his first championship solely as an executive in 2012 when the Miami Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder. In 2013, the Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs to win the title again.

The Heat passed it through the NBA Finals in the 2019–2020 season, making them just the 4th team in NBA history to finish lower than fourth in their conference during the regular season. Some have referred to Riley’s 2019–20 Heat team as his “magnum opus” because a major rebuild or a top draft pick selection did not precede the team’s march to the Finals. Before the season, Riley signed the undrafted Kendrick Nunn, selected Tyler Herro in the draft, and traded for Jimmy Butler. The Heat acquired Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder before the 2019–20 trade deadline. In six games, the Heat lost to Riley’s old squad, the Los Angeles Lakers, headed by former Heat superstar LeBron James.

Off the Court 

President George W. Bush and Riley were photographed together in February 2007. Riley has become a prominent character in pop culture beyond basketball. Riley is known for having slicked-back hair, frequently compared to gangster or mafioso hairstyles, and an impeccable tan. Because of his appearance, Riley has the moniker “The Godfather.”

Showtime: Inside the Lakers’ Breakthrough Season, Riley published this a New York Times bestseller in 1988, providing a summary of the Lakers’ triumphant journey to the 1987 NBA Championship. Success is frequently the first step toward disaster. Defending champions repeatedly fail the following year because every player who comes back wants more highlights and playing time, more shots per game, and more money, according to a concept Riley invented in the book called the “Disease of More.” The expression originated from the Lakers’ unsuccessful 1980–81 season after winning the championship the season before.

Riley wrote “The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players in 1993” while serving as the New York Knicks head coach, and it quickly became another New York Times bestseller. It extracted a leadership and teamwork lesson from Riley’s coaching seasons up to that point, emphasizing business leadership and basketball fans. Riley co-wrote both of Byron Laursen’s books, praising him as “…a true Showtime Warrior.”

Riley is well known for his affinity with Giorgio Armani; he once modeled at an Armani exhibition and liked to wear Armani suits during basketball games.

Since June 26, 1970, Riley has been wed to the former Christine Rodstrom. The Rileys adopted James Patrick as a son in 1985; They adopted Elisabeth, a daughter, in 1989. Riley attends mass every Sunday.

The Miami Heat received recognition for winning the NBA Championship in 2005–2006 on February 27, 2007, at the White House. Riley gave George W. Bush a jersey during the ceremony and said, “I voted for the man. If you don’t vote, you don’t count.” Reporters asked Riley about the political aspect of his remarks after the event. I’m pro-American, pro-democracy, and pro-government, and I follow my employer because he’s my boss, he said in response.

Riley has completed an award-winning 30-minute motivational video titled “Teamwork,” in which he applies his winning philosophies to business and life. SUCCESS magazine has also rated Riley “The best in his field.” Riley is not only one of professional basketball’s winningest coaches, but his speeches before hundreds of corporations have also earned him the title of “America’s Greatest Motivational Speaker.” Riley has written two books, Show Time and The Winner Within, and is one of the most desired motivational speakers in the nation. James Patrick and Elisabeth Marie are Pat and Chris’s two children.

Pat Riley was a skilled winner regardless of the situation, location, time, or other factors. He was an expert with the Xs and Os and skilled at matching persons to systems, but his greatest strength resided in his instinctive capacity to relate to players of any generation. Riley won five NBA titles as a head coach and seven overalls due to his commitment to hard effort, discipline, and selfless play, which found favor with both newcomers and seasoned players.

He was a crucial reserve for a 1972 Los Angeles Lakers squad that established a record by winning 33 straight regular-season games and an NBA championship. Riley was the creator of the phenomena known as Showtime a decade later, fast-breaking and no-look passing his Lakers to fame. Riley eventually won four NBA titles in Los Angeles while serving as the head coach, including consecutive seasons in 1987 and 1988. The former University of Kentucky All-America went on to coach the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks, capturing another NBA title with the latter in 2006. He is still among the NBA’s all-time winningest coaches.