For drop-dead dramatic effect, it would have been tough to top the scene that played through Pat Riley’s head more than once last spring.
The Lakers have just won their fifth National Basketball Assn. title of the ‘80s, and in the midst of the champagne and tears being spilled in the winners’ dressing room, Riley stands before the TV cameras, says thanks for the memories, then walks out the door, never to return.
“A very romantic notion, the idea that it was time to move on,” Riley said.
“Intellectually, in my head, I was thinking, ‘You don’t need this anymore. You don’t need it.’ But I do.
“I didn’t listen to what my head was saying, but what my heart was saying.
“You know what happens to anybody who follows their heart all the time? They end up with heart disease. But I followed my heart. I always will.”
Which is why, at 43, he is here, back for his eighth season as coach of the Lakers, setting aside, at least for now, the career options that tend to come to a man of his fame and resources.
A coach he is and a coach he will stay, Pat Riley said, and he doesn’t even need to be paid as much as Larry Brown to remain one.
Brown, you may recall, left the University of Kansas and signed a 4-year, $2.8-million contract with the San Antonio Spurs, instantly becoming the highest-paid coach in the NBA. Riley, with four NBA titles to his credit, is in the last year of his contract. Circumstances were practically begging for Riley--who reportedly was earning about $400,000--to demand that Laker owner Jerry Buss better Brown’s deal.
That’s not the way it worked, according to Riley, who said he has already reached an agreement with Buss on a new contract, with only a few details remaining to be worked out. The contract includes lucrative incentives that are tied to the team’s performance.
“I wasn’t going to fight for it that way,” Riley said. “I wasn’t going to fight for a few extra dollars because I want to be the highest-paid coach. I never had a need for that. I just want to be compensated commensurate with the success of the team.
“I really thought (Buss) went above and beyond to do something to stretch (Riley’s salary). It’s not what the other guy is getting, but I’m more than satisfied.
“I don’t know if I should say this, but Jerry was in a very giving mood this year, for everybody.”
Riley’s income is not generated entirely by the Lakers, of course. Besides commercial endorsements, he also has expanded his career as a public speaker, for which he makes $15,000 a pop. He said he makes about 50 appearances a year, 8 a month during the summer.
“I consider that part of my job,” he said. “I consider my profession to be coach and speaker now. Both of them work off each other. Speaking helps the presentation, helps me develop concepts, helps me bring this whole belief system that I’ve developed into a form that’s understandable.
“In the last 3 years, I think I’ve grown tremendously in my ability to relate to my players.”
During that same time, his celebrity status has grown dramatically. There were no other coaches backstage, for example, hobnobbing with rock stars Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Sting as Riley was during last summer’s Amnesty International tour.
He was not there just to make the scene, Riley said. He has embraced Amnesty International--which monitors political repression throughout the world--as a cause he can enthusiastically support. He spent several weeks in Europe conducting basketball clinics underwritten by an athletic shoe company and promoting the Amnesty cause.
“I’d like to get something done in the NBA, or try to,” Riley said. “Maybe the Lakers one night could have a Human Rights Now, and give out the Declaration of Human Rights so people would understand what it’s about.
"(The concert tour) was a very rewarding experience for me. I didn’t know those men, I didn’t listen to their music, but these people gave up 8 weeks of their lives and millions of dollars they probably could have commanded to go to 5 continents and 20 countries.
“They really feel strongly about this. People say, ‘Well, they’re getting residual publicity,’ but they don’t need it.”
Riley, who just before training camp adopted a second child, an infant daughter, with his wife, Chris, also returned home to Schenectady, N.Y., to set up an anti-drug program there in which police officers are trained to come into elementary schools and educate fifth- and sixth-graders about the dangers of drugs. He also is continuing his involvement in the “Just Say No” drug program in Inglewood.
Coach as social activist?
“I’ve always been part of programs, but I’ve never worked for them,” he said. “I used to donate money, go to major fund-raisers, give my support. But these programs, I’m going to work for, and I feel good about it.”
The possibility exists, of course, that Riley’s star status could eventually work against him, that some players might resent the idea of the coach commanding so much of the spotlight. Riley said he doesn’t believe that will happen with the Lakers.
“It has to do with what I call the power of awareness,” Riley said. “The other night when I talked to the team, I brought them back to 1981 when we lost to Houston in the mini-series. Remember that whole scenario?”
During that series, the public became aware of a rift between Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson, who had missed 45 games of the regular season with an injury, then attempted to play in the playoffs. Nixon let it be known that he didn’t like being called on to defer so much to Johnson.
“We had a problem that developed over the course of the season,” Riley said. “It was called resentment. It’s what I call the disease of more. We all wanted more money, more playing time, more credit, and we gave less of ourselves.
“I think that experience, for this team, has convinced them they would never let those things make them lose again. I really believe they’ve worked very hard at not letting those trivial ego things--resentment and all that stuff--get in the way.
“I think everybody on this team (is) aware of these situations that could arise and could fragment--as long as you’re aware of them, you can short-circuit them.
“I truly believe everybody on this team is happy for everybody’s success. I do. If anybody does get bent out of shape, then that is something that will have to be addressed in a very honest way.”
In the meantime, Riley will coach. The pressure, he says, is not quite the same as the last two seasons, especially 1987-88, when he guaranteed that the Lakers would repeat as champions. Now, numerous national publications aren’t even picking the Lakers to win their conference title.
And, ultimately, Riley couldn’t think of anything he would rather do more than be with the Lakers as they try to make it three in a row--and beyond.
“If you can have a 5-year window on your life or career, that is wonderful,” he said. “And then you might get to 14? I’ll tell you what. That will never feel like anything else.
“If I’m ever fired, and I’ve thought about this, I would thank them profusely. If the team started to lose and the fans go crazy, and that can happen in a week or a month, I would thank the Lakers profusely. They afforded me an opportunity that has made me much better than I was--and I’m not talking about anything material I might have gotten--but just the opportunity to coach this team.
“My ability to care about people has grown.”
About 1,000 tickets for each Laker game this season will go on sale today at 10 a.m. at the Forum box office and all Ticketmaster outlets, which also will take phone orders. There is a limit of four tickets per game, per customer. At the Forum, priority numbers will be distributed at 8.