If the Coach Isn't Broke, Why Fix Him?

Life with the Lakers without Pat Riley would still be worth living. It just wouldn't be the same.

We move on. We forget.

We watched the Lakers play for Fred Schaus, Bill van Breda Kolff, Joe Mullaney and Bill Sharman, and our world didn't collapse. We watched Jerry West, Jack McKinney and Paul Westhead coach them, too. Los Angeles has been known to play pro basketball without Pat Riley, and will again.

We can get along without Riley on the sideline if we must. We'd just rather not.

Perhaps the players or front office would prefer Riley to be gone. We can't presume to guess their secret thoughts.

Jerry West would never say as much and Earvin Johnson cannot afford to say as much. Magic is no shrinking violet, but he is reluctant to make one peep about a coach after what happened between him and Westhead. It was the only time in 11 years he ever harmed his image.

Ever since Riley dropped hints that he is thinking of moving on to something new--probably a TV gig--speculation has run rampant as to whether the Lakers are dying for him to stay or dying to see him go.

Much was read into General Manager West's impatient ultimatum that he isn't "going to wait around all summer" for Riley to make up his mind, because he and the Lakers "have work to do."

We have no clue as to why West has to be in such an all-fired hurry to extract a commitment from a coach with more than 500 victories, more than 100 playoff victories and four NBA championships. Seems as though Riley should be entitled to take his time to weigh a decision of this magnitude.

Of course, we can't help wonder about the scuttlebutt over the years that more than one Forum factotum has second-guessed Riley's coaching methods. Critics had to be silent, naturally, because how can you publicly rip or get rid of somebody who was coach of the decade in the 1980s?

There have been disagreements and arguments; nobody would dispute that. But in the end, it was always kept within the Laker family, and always portrayed as "nothing that we can't work out by ourselves."

Well, now that the Lakers have failed to win the NBA title two seasons in a row--something that happened only once in the '80s--they may be having a collective anxiety attack.

Magic Johnson did some commentary on a Detroit-Chicago playoff telecast the other night, and was asked whether the Lakers need to do something dramatic--trade Byron Scott or A.C. Green, for example, or move up in the draft. See? Already it has become, "What's wrong with the Lakers?" even after they compiled the 1989-90 NBA season's best record.

What was Magic's response?

"That'll be up to Jerry West and Dr. (Jerry) Buss," he said.

Soon as he uttered the words, somebody watching TV with me turned and asked: "Think it's significant that he left out Riley?"

No, I don't. But, Magic's not out to lunch. He knows what's going on. He knows the coach may not be back. He knows that West does the wheeling and dealing, that Buss always puts in his two cents and his millions.

Which brings up another question:

If Pat Riley does not coach the Lakers next season, who will?

Doug Collins' name has come up. Collins has a payload of personality. He won't make hearts flutter the way Riley did, but, like Riles, he would be easygoing and accessible to the public, and intense in front of the bench.

The name Mike Dunleavy surfaced, too, out of the blue. What kind of head coach would Dunleavy make? Who in the world knows? But don't forget, Pat Riley wasn't exactly Mr. Experience when West handed him the job.

In his decade on duty, Riley has been more than just a coach. He has been a Laker state of mind, embodying their class and cool and aplomb. He was Showtime every bit as much as his players were.

He has developed motivational techniques and been in constant demand as a speaker. He has worked with Amnesty International and free drug clinics and organizations supporting the homeless. He has turned down leading-man roles in Hollywood movies such as "Tequila Sunrise" and has cavorted on stage with Whoopi Goldberg.

He has been a presence, as visible and viable as any in Los Angeles.

It's not up to me, but if it were, Pat Riley could keep this job until he was old and his slick hair had turned gray.

And if he quits?

Well, Byron Scott had an idea about that.

"Make Magic player-coach," Scott said.

A foolish idea?

No. That is exactly what the Lakers ought to do. I cannot think of anyone else alive who could be an NBA player-coach, but Magic Johnson could.

And should.

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