Under Slick Haircut, Riley's Mind Searches for Meaning of Things

In his sixth term as coach of the Lakers, Pat Riley is trying to make himself at home and trying not to.

His tiny office at the Forum is newly redecorated in tasteful shades of gray, with built-in filing cabinets and wood paneling. Photos are neatly arranged on the walls, except for one prominent area where Riley has tacked up a scrap of paper reserving the space for a team photo of "1987 World Champs."

He is settling in here, but not for more than a day at a time. He never wants to get too comfortable, because that's when trouble starts.

It's late Sunday morning and Riley is holding forth on the general topic of walking the thin balance-beam of life when assistant coach Bill Bertka leans into the office and shakes his head.

"Another one of those bull(bleep) philosophical articles," Bertka says.

Bertka has nailed Riley.

To many casual fans and outsiders, what Riley is about is the greased-back hair and the pretty suits. Mousse and creases.

In reality, whatever that is, what Riley is about is philosophy, maybe a combination of bull and brilliant.

Hey, the guy's got Earvin Johnson doing magic every game and he's got Jerry West bringing in talent in butterfly nets and Jerry Buss paying to keep it. The material is there. Riley's job is to figure how to put it all together and keep it together.

Some people think this is an easy job, which accounts for the fact that Riley has never been named Coach of the Year, has never been accorded the full credit he deserves. Maybe it's because he looks too good. Nobody gives Miss America credit for being a math whiz. Maybe it would help his image if Riley were to be seen occasionally in gravy stains and seersucker sport coats. Grow a paunch.

Riley's contribution to the Laker dynasty goes beyond projecting The Look. He makes mistakes, but nobody works harder on the psychological, philosophical and spiritual end of coaching. To Riley, this job is incredibly complex and amazingly simple. His wheels never stop whirring, even when a occasional sprocket or cog slips out of alignment.

"Sometimes they (his players) look at me like I'm nuts," Riley says.

Such as when he says something like, "When Ralph Sampson hit that last shot (a crazy, twisting jump shot to beat the Lakers in the Western Conference playoffs last season), to me it was a miracle. It was a miracle for the Rockets, and in the long run, probably for us."

I doubt if Jerry Buss has ever used the world "miracle" in discussing that particular shot. But then Buss never studied under the philosopher Ray Charles.

"In one of his songs," Riley says, "Ray Charles has this great saying--'The good times are what pull you apart, the bad times are what bring you together.' It's adversity that rises up and kicks you in the butt and inspires you to bigger and better things, if you have the right attitude."

Here is what Riley believes the Ralph Sampson Miracle should have drummed home to the Lakers:

"This team has to feel blessed," Riley says. "Why is Pat Riley coaching this team instead of somebody else? Why is Byron Scott on this team instead of Norm Nixon, or James Worthy instead of Dominique Wilkins? Why are we here, why are we part of this run of greatness? Don't ever take it for granted. You can't take for granted our run of the last seven, eight years.

"A run like this, you have to milk it while it's out there. This is a special team. You've got to take advantage of it by not taking it for granted. We get Mychal Thompson, you gotta go out and play harder , not easier, because now you've got an even better chance. Don't blow it.

"Of course, the difference in really being aware of that, and applying it, are two different things. If you asked each player, 'Did you play your hardest and best (in the Houston series)?', you'd have a hard time getting honest answers. We were victims of assuming and making plans to be somewhere else (in the NBA finals) while we were getting beat by Houston."

Now the Lakers have built back their reputation, they are the overdogs again, at least in the West. Look at the NBA standings. No team has more wins. No team is healthier, more experienced. Nobody else has this combination of nine-deep talent, player leadership and maturity. Four or five key players, including Magic, are having career-best seasons.

Riley cringes at this kind of in-the-bag attitude from media and fans. But he has to admit he likes the feel of the situation right now.

"I review my notes from last season, on the state of mind of the team," he says. "I sense a more alert attitude and approach toward the games right now."

Riley is constantly monitoring these things, although he's less like a lab scientist and more like father. He has what every good father must have for his kids--a profound respect. Riley is sort of the Cliff Huxtable of Lakerland.

In fact, the only book he keeps on his office desk is not a General Patton biography or how-to book on fast-break basketball. It is a family therapy book.

"That's what this is," Riley says, referring to his job. "Family therapy."

Wonder what Uncle Bill Bertka would say about that.

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