Pat Riley: Champion…Motivator…Not Ready to “Go Gentle into That Good Night”
By Chris Beltran
There are a few titles that precede Pat Riley’s name in most conversations these days: Eight-time NBA Champion (one as a player, five as a coach, two as an executive), three-time NBA Coach of the Year, and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer. Riley is essentially basketball royalty in the eyes of many in the world of basketball. However, “Riles” (as they call him), wasn’t simply gifted these accolades. He has worked tirelessly during a career in basketball that has spanned nearly SIX decades that began at the University of Kentucky where he was a star for Adolph Rupp’s team.
As a coach and executive, his reputation is second-to-none. Over the years he has built his career based upon one concept: teamwork. Since his early days as a coach, he stressed the importance of working together, not individually, for a common goal. This teaching has allowed him to gain the respect of his players, assistants, and fans across the world. He has produced success in every one of his stops across the NBA and that proved to be no different when he made a shocking move in the mid-90s.
In 1996, Riley left the New York Knicks and joined the Miami Heat where he has remained since and built a foundation predicated upon honor, loyalty, and success. He has added another Coach of the Year award to his collection as well as three more rings (one as coach, two as an executive). I recently had a conversation with Mr. Riley in which he expanded and reflected upon his successes and how he reached where he is today.
CB: In your 50+ years involved with the game of basketball, what would you say has been your ONE defining career moment?
PR: Wow, I don’t think there’s ever one defining moment in a 50 year career. It just hit home that you just mentioned that I’ve been around for a long time *chuckles*. Since 1966-67 I have been a part of major professional sports and I think with me, it probably was in 1971 maybe when I really found out who I was as a player, and I was told that by a coach, Bill Sharman. And I realized that my place in the NBA at that time was not going to be as a star. While I was a star in grade school, and high school, and college: the #1 star, I wasn’t going to be that in the NBA, so I had to realize that I had to change my attitude to want to be part of something and be part of a team, and play a role. Doing that with great sincerity is probably what changed the direction of my life from an an athletic standpoint. I would say that was a defining moment that got me going in the direction of being a role player, understanding what it is to be a role player. And then when I became a coach, a head coach, I understood that even more and how to teach it.
CB: So Bill Sharman, was he a really influential person in your career?
PR: Well, I’ve had about eight voices in my life and my father was a coach. Then all of the other men and women in my life that were either teachers or coaches that really had an impact on me, I remember. So I’ve had at least eight very strong voices in my life. One of them was Mother Superior who was my teacher at St. Joseph’s Academy, a Catholic school that I went to in the 50’s. I would imagine other than my father’s voice, my mother’s voice that she had the strongest voice of anybody in my early years. Then after that, all of the coaches that I played for, I had great respect for their voice and each one taught me something different. So I think that sort of cultivates the reservoir of where you get your knowledge later on in life, and we are who our mentors were. I had a lot of good mentors.
CB: Having been a part of the historic 1966 NCAA Championship game with Kentucky against Texas Western, who featured the first all-black starting five in NCAA championship history, what kind of impact would you say that game had on the game of basketball moving on from then to now?
PR: At that time, I recall when we played that game, we were the #1 team in the country and I think they were the #2 team in the country. They had beaten Utah the night before in College Park, Maryland, in the semi-finals and we had beaten Duke. We played them on a Saturday night, back then the NCAA was played on a Friday night and a Saturday night. It wasn’t like Saturday and Monday here, so we didn’t have any time to rest and when we played them in that game, we were very confident that we were the best team. I think we were highly rated and highly favored to win the game, but Texas Western came that night and played the game of their lives. I think that usually when you play for national championships or something that’s significant as they were playing for, you could play the game of your life. They did, and they beat us. The significance of that game wasn’t the fact there were five black players for the first time that were going to be playing against five white players from a Southern school. The significance of the game is that we were living in a decade (the 60’s) where racism and civil rights were a large calling and a large problem. So that game opened up the doors to many players who would not go to school in the South, many black players who would not go to school in the South. For a lot of the narrow-minded schools who wouldn’t allow those black players to come, that was a watershed game where things changed the South. Integration from an athletic standpoint changed almost overnight. Even though I was hurt by the loss, I am proud to be part of that moment that changed history.
CB: If you can, walk me through the course of the final four games of the 2006 Finals against the Mavs in which you coached the Heat to an improbable comeback from an 0-2 deficit. You preached “15 strong” all year long, how did you manage to keep the morale of the team up after falling behind in the series?
PR: Well, that’s one of the keys to coaching and also being a player, you realize you never know you’re ever going to win a championship until you win it. We did not have a particularly great regular season, we finished strong, and then we had a very good playoff run. I think after the Chicago series, we dominated New Jersey, we dominated Detroit, and then we got down 2-0 to the Mavs. We were down, I remember with about six minutes to go in the fourth quarter of Game 3, we were down 13 points at home looking like we were going to go down 3-0. I’ll never forget, I went back to the timeout huddle and I wrote on my pad I said, “This is our season guys,” and Dwyane Wade said to me, “I’m not going out like this.” Then the last six minutes of that game, Wade scored 15 points, got us ahead and got us a win. We won the next game, and then we won FOUR in a row. So you never know when you’re going to win, and a lot of times when you’re down and it looks as though everything is against you and you might be beaten or swept in the series, the tide can turn. The tide did turn, it was a “15 strong” mentality on the part of 15 players, and we won our first championship here in the history of the Miami Heat and it was a great year. We had a great team, but what we had more than anything else was the leadership of Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning. We had a great player, a young player in Dwyane Wade who actually was outstanding in that series.
CB: What keeps you going every day to continue striving for championships and success?
PR: I love what I’m doing, I always use the statement that I live in a world of a lot of long todays and short tomorrows. Every now and then you wonder if you can try to lengthen enough tomorrows because this is a 24/7 grind during the regular season and you’re playing over 100 games a year and you’re traveling to 30 different cities all the time. There’s practices, there’s media, there’s a lot of things that make this job a very difficult job. Many people who look at professional athletes or coaches say, “Well, what a wonderful life,” but they don’t realize like anybody else, it’s a lot of hard work. I love what I’m doing, I love the competition, I love what the players bring. I’ve been now, entering professional basketball going on six decades and I’ve seen a lot and I hope to see a lot more in the future.
CB: How much longer do you think you’ll be going?
PR: We’ll see, you never know *laughs*. Just like winning the championship, you never know you’re ever gonna win a title until you win one. You never know when you’re going to retire until you retire. I’m just going to wait on that, but I’m not ready to right now.