NBA CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES : THE DRIVING FORCE : Riley’s Talk May Get Old, but Laker Victories Don’t

Times Staff Writer

The flight to Portland, had reached its cruising altitude and the captain had given the obligatory command to relax and enjoy the flight.

But Coach Pat Riley could hardly relax on this late-season trip to a game the Lakers had to win to clinch the Pacific Division title.

He had riffled through the sports sections of three newspapers, written notes about the opponent on the blue cards he uses during games, barely touched his fruit plate, and, now, was being questioned by a reporter, a species Riley likes to call a peripheral opponent.


Looking back at a most atypical of Laker seasons, one in which his team did not even clinch the division title until the 81st game, and looking ahead to what figured to be a contentious title defense, Riley threw his manicured hands in the air and spoke so softly that the drone of the engines almost muffled the response.

“Let’s face it, at this point, the only thing you can do is trust them,” Riley said. “And I trust that they are going to be there when it counts. I have to. I think we will win it. We’ll find a way to get it done this year. We always do.”

Five weeks later, the Lakers have not lost a playoff game. They are back in the National Basketball Assn.’s championship series for a third consecutive season, doing everything in the playoffs that Riley had hoped for.

The Lakers’ 11-0 playoff record and bid for the so-called three-peat is, by the same token, a testimony to Riley’s delicate care and handling, unswerving trust and patience, of this veteran team that sometimes appeared uninterested during the regular-season grind.

Such coaching subtleties, it seems, are customarily overlooked. The Lakers are always supposed to win, period.

So, when reporters voted for NBA coach of the year after the regular season, Riley received exactly one of 85 votes. This, despite the Lakers’ 57 victories and eighth consecutive division title. The favorite, Cotton Fitzsimmons, who guided the Phoenix Suns back from oblivion this season, was the easy winner.


It’s nothing unusual for Riley. His career record is 470-175 and his teams have had eight consecutive seasons with 50 or more victories but Riley has come close only once. That was in 1987-88, when he finished second to Denver’s Doug Moe.

“I think the job he does is often taken for granted,” Fitzsimmons said of Riley. “I understand the award goes to the guy whose team improves the most, but that doesn’t mean he’s the best coach.”

But now that the Lakers are undefeated heading into the championship series, and now that Riley, with 98 playoff victories, is only one away from equaling Red Auerbach’s record, some are taking notice.

That, too, is something Riley has come to expect.

“Constantly, whenever we get to a significant part of the season, people all of a sudden say, ‘He brought them this far and he doesn’t get any respect,’ ” Riley said. “I grow weary of that. But I understand it.”

Riley, 44, says he understands the misperception that coaching the Lakers involves little more than dressing nicely, honoring the needs of all those million-dollar players, occasionally lodging objections with game officials and looking busy during timeouts.

In reality, though, coaching the Lakers may be the most pleasantly difficult job in the NBA. Besides the technical side of the game, which every coach is required to know, it involves motivating a team with a payroll nearing $11 million, a team that is supposed to win about 65% of its games or be considered underachievers.

This season, as General Manager Jerry West said, might have been the toughest for Riley, simply because the Lakers had nothing left to prove. They had won consecutive titles, something no team had done since the late ‘60s. They also had to deal with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s farewell tour, which was more distracting than motivating.

Yet, 57 victories and a seventh trip to the NBA finals in eight seasons translated to only one coach-of-the-year vote.

“That doesn’t matter,” Riley said. “I don’t care about the credit anymore. My reward is winning. My reward is getting to the finals every year. These guys are my reward.

“I get tired of hearing about it. I get all the credit I need when (Laker owner) Jerry Buss gave me a brand new contract, which was nice. All that other stuff doesn’t bother me anymore.”

That also is the way Riley is approaching the prospect of passing Auerbach’s record. He says it has no significance, other than proving his belief that the Lakers are the team of the ‘80s, just as the Celtics were the dominant team of the ‘60s.

Riley, without prompting, also acknowledges that because of the current playoff format, it is much easier for a coach to win games because they play more rounds.

“First of all, I think there has to be an asterisk there,” Riley said. “I’ve had an opportunity to do it quicker. I’ve also had the opportunity to be around some guys who flat-out know how to win.

“We (he and Auerbach) are comparable only because we’ve both had great talent. And we both admitted it. We didn’t defend it. We didn’t excuse it. We said, ‘Give me more of it.’ I think, on at least that point, we can be compared.”

Some might say it stops there.

Riley, for instance, does not brandish a stogie. Nor does he dress in plaid polyester and see life through a curmudgeon’s eyes. He also, according to some, does not have Auerbach’s coaching acumen and basketball sense.

Traditionalists in the basketball world can recite from “Red on Roundball.” Those same people might expect “Riley on Men’s Wear” to be the published work of the Laker coach.

Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine, for instance, recently wanted to know how Riley keeps his slicked-back hair from looking stiff.

Laker players, however, say they are keenly aware of Riley’s worth as a coach. They commend his technical skills and, as much as they might privately snicker, respond to his psychological ploys and verbal prodding.

With the Lakers, motivating the players often is considered more important than teaching them. And over the years, Riley has refined his motivational techniques.

Gone are the impassioned speeches and grand gestures he used early in his career.

But he still indulges in an occasional locker-room tirade, still uses motivational catch-phrases dismissed by some as psycho-babble and still challenges his players in the newspapers. He also continues to send statistical goals to each player before training camp and updates them throughout the season.

Riley seems to know what works and what doesn’t, but with essentially the same audience, everything gets old. That was part of the reason Riley eventually said he just had to trust his team’s competitive instincts this time in the playoffs.

Two seasons ago, the players responded to Riley’s plea that they each have a “career best effort,” in order to take the title away from the Boston Celtics. Last season, they responded to the repeat guarantee.

This season, Riley admitted that he could not find a proper stimulus. Sending Abdul-Jabbar out a winner doesn’t inspire a team when they are playing in Sacramento in January. Not even the prospect of gaining the home-court advantage throughout the playoffs seemed to work.

“It was tough on him that way,” Magic Johnson said. “I think we tried to come up to that level (of play) he wanted, but it was hard for us this time. When he’d say, ‘This is the biggest game of the season,’ it’s like, ‘Aw, c’mon. Not another biggest game. We just had one yesterday.’ Every game, it’s like, ‘OK, this one really is the biggest.’

“It’s hard to rise during the regular when you’re like us. But one thing: He didn’t stop trying. He kept on us, kept on us and kept on us. And, finally, we got what he was saying. It registered, and that’s why we’re playing like we’re playing now.”

Riley said he spent part of last summer trying to come up with a theme for this season. He said he’d had a similar problem in 1985-86, after the Lakers had finally beaten the Celtics in the championship series.

That season, though, the Lakers succumbed to what Riley said was complacency and were ousted by the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals.

“Maybe the toughest year we had was in ‘86, after we had our greatest moment as a team,” Riley said. “Then, we really had a problem with incentive and motivation, but we hadn’t learned yet.

“Last year, we had to put up or shut up after some comments I made. This year was a time unlike any other. It was just a team coming off back-to-back titles and dealing with the residual effects. I was in a waiting posture for a lot of this year. It’s fashionable to attack the Lakers’ lack of motivation during the season, but there always will be times when we look like we don’t give a damn.

“But no other team in this league has experienced what this team has, so that’s why I said I trusted them. They know exactly who they are and what they have to do. And they’ve done it.”

Even so, several veteran players said they need Riley and his motivating, even if they sometimes turn down the volume.

“I think most of the stuff he says, myself, James (Worthy), Magic and Kareem have heard before,” veteran guard Michael Cooper said. “We know most of the stories. I think a lot of things Riley says are important to our team. But he’s kind of run out of motivating tactics, so he’s repeating himself.

“Still, that can be good. Sometimes, we need repetition. Most of the things he says stick in our minds. I remember and believe what he says.”

Riley says he considers the psychological aspects as important as diagramming the way to beat a half-court trap, and favors pithy phrases that he calls “psychological Band-Aids.”

The Lakers, for example, don’t just win important games, they “make a statement.” When they are in a winning streak, they are playing in a “comfort zone.” Holding off the competition is “staying ahead of the posse.”

Riley said he still asks advice on motivation from his wife Chris, a former marriage and family counselor. In a recent GQ profile of Riley, Chris was portrayed as the prime mover behind Riley’s motivational tactics, which Riley doesn’t totally deny.

“A lot of that has been overplayed, but I am not ashamed to say that Chris is very important to my work as well as my life,” Riley said. “I talk everything over with her, and she helps me.”

But it was Riley who thought up perhaps his most famous motivational speech, delivered before Game 2 of the 1985 finals against the Celtics. The Lakers had lost by 34 points in the Memorial Day Massacre at the Boston Garden, and Riley shared with the team some advice his late father had once told him: “Somewhere, someplace, sometime, you’re going to have to plant your feet, make a stand and kick some (tail).”

Cooper said memories of that story still inspire him.

“That’s my favorite one,” Cooper said. “He can say that any time of the year, and that would get me going. Hopefully, someday when I’m coaching, I’ll be able to relate that one to my players.”

One device Riley said he has dropped is a physical display of anger. In 1983, Riley kicked down a door to a locker room. In Dallas once, he threw a chair across the locker room. He also threw a tray of water cups onto the locker-room carpet.

“I don’t do that anymore,” Riley said, smiling. “At the time, I didn’t consciously do it. Those were spontaneous things that happened after games. I don’t like to do it. I did it earlier in my coaching career because I did not have any type of control. Now, probably 90% of the time after games, I won’t even talk to them.”

Perhaps overshadowed by his verbal skills is Riley’s talent as a tactician. With time and experience in the league, Riley generally is considered above average when it comes to coaching.

“He’s definitely a better coach now,” Johnson said. “He’s better prepared than before. X’s and O’s, practice. He knows the game and also knows what works for this particular team.” During Riley’s tenure, the Lakers have evolved from almost an all-out fast-break team to one that has a successful half-court offense.

“He has his own system now,” assistant coach Bill Bertka said. “He’s always been an excellent X and O guy. He’s very meticulous in that. Earlier, I was his critic. I said he had too many damn X’s and O’s. The most important thing is what the guys do on the court, and he’s focused on what he wants to do.

“He’s developed his own coaching style. He’s had it since about 1985. Only the players change now. We’ve gotten new faces, but the new faces we have can play the system Pat has set up. This is definitely Pat’s team.

“His relationship, communication and understanding of the multifaceted emotional makeup of this group is certainly a mass of strength.”

On that late April flight to Portland, though, Riley seemed more a mass of stress. The Lakers had not been involved in such a tight division race since the 1981-82 season and he seemed to be trying to convince himself that the Lakers’ previous dominance would return during the playoffs.

“I kind of liken this team to the ‘68-69 Celtics, (Bill) Russell’s last year,” Riley said. “They dominated that decade, but I think they finished fourth or fifth during the regular season. Philadelphia easily beat them in the regular season. People wrote that team off. But, when they got to the playoffs, they won it.

“That’s my impression of this team. They will rise to the occasion, too. This is the end of a great run. I don’t want to beat the guys over the head with it, but I want them to understand that this is the end of an era with this team--with Kareem. And we should finish off this decade properly.

“That’s what this season is about. Not repeating. Not greatness. It’s about the Kareem legacy and finishing an era.”