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THE NBA: 1991-92 PREVIEW : Showtime Goes to Broadway : Happy Days Are Here Again for Pat Riley, Who Has Taken His Act to New York

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Take the Laker Girls. Please.

That’s how intense Pat Riley got in his final Laker days. He worried that his players were being distracted by the hippy-hippy shake.

At this point, he might have taken a reality check: Wait a second, am I actually pondering the destructive potential of our cheerleaders?

Not one to shortchange an obsession, Riley instead asked Mitch Chortkoff of the Santa Monica Outlook to write about the problem, hoping a groundswell of protest might at least bar dancing in the last six minutes of games.

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Striking a blow for an independent press, Chortkoff demurred. The Laker girls did high kicks right up to the bittersweet end of the Riley era in Los Angeles.

Start spreadin’ the news. . . .

A new era dawns in New York, New York.

Riley, former beach volleyball player, Brentwood homeowner, darling of the Hollywood set and winningest coach in Laker history, is now a Knick at $1.25 million a season.

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The Lakers?

They’re just glad he’s gone.

Piercing the Hollywood glow so painstakingly constructed around Riley’s farewell, one finds an organization that winces at the mention of his name. Whether this is inevitable, or appropriate to the occasion, is the question.

“I was there 20 years, 12 years coaching " Riley said recently. “There’s nothing that I would ever have done differently.

“You know, people change. Things change.

“I thought that last year, after I left, they had to de-Rileyize the Lakers and they did. I was gone. Once I left, they had to get rid of me. They had to do that. That’s the way organizations are. I mean, they had a new man (Mike Dunleavy) who came in, and they had to forget about all those other things.

“I expected that. Just like Bill Parcells (who resigned as coach of the football Giants). The same things came out in New York once he left.”

The Lakers de-Rileyized, all right.

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Sources say owner Jerry Buss bought out his contract, suggesting that Riley didn’t simply resign.

With momentary exceptions--such as Byron Scott saying Riley’s exit was “like a resurrection"--Laker players have maintained a discreet silence.

Privately, they say they had problems with him.

“You can’t separate yourself from the team,” one Laker player said. “You can’t become bigger than the team.”

Did the players think it had become a situation in which they were always wrong and Riley always right?

“Exactly,” the player replied.

Nor are candles being lit in the front office. Laker officials describe a taut, brusque Riley, forever fiddling with itineraries, capable of snapping out at underlings who questioned him. Some of them called him Norman Bates.

The day he left, Riley was still as popular as ever in Los Angeles, the dashing heartthrob with movie star presence, in demand on the big-money business-speech circuit, on his way to a cushy NBC job.

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It was just his Laker role that had run out, quickly, silently and forever.

THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST

He changed.

Whether he changed too much depends on who’s talking. A teen idol turned 31-year-old has-been, he discovered his vocation late and grew into it, like Harry Truman or Genghis Khan.

You can argue whether Riley lost touch with something important or felt the pressure, but everybody agrees on one thing:

He’s different today than he was on Nov. 9, 1981.

That day, Jerry Buss announced the firing of Paul Westhead, under the impression that his general manager, Jerry West, had agreed to coach. This was at the madcap news conference after Magic Johnson’s I-can’t-play-for-Westhead outburst. West and Riley wound up as co-coaches, which was still a lot closer than West wanted to get to the sideline.

When the sullen Lakers sprang to life, co-coach West was allowed to retreat to his office.

What, you mean everyone doesn’t start out like this?

Amazingly, the Lakers had sprawled all over themselves . . . and arrived at the perfect coach.

Riley was a quick study, a demon worker and a maniac for detail. Growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., he had a wild streak--at 8 he wore his hair greased back in a ducktail and was thrown out of a Catholic boarding school--but turned athlete instead of biker.

His father, a former minor league baseball player, ordered him to the poor side of town to play basketball. Riley tells of a playground opponent chasing him home with a butcher knife one day, but his father never relented. In basketball, at least, Riley grew up under fire.

He was an All-American at Kentucky, the mop-top dandy with the fashion-statement wristbands.

He was drafted not only in basketball, but football.

In the NBA, he was an also-ran, a classic “tweener.” He wore his hair fashionably long with a mustache. Looking at a picture of Riley then, compared to the sleek, groomed figure he would one day cut on the sideline, is like a visit to our past.

Cut in 1976 after failing a pre-camp physical, he moped around Los Angeles, hung out at the beach and filled several legal pads with bitter reminiscences.

Indignity was everywhere. In “Winnin’ Times,” Scott Ostler and Steve Springer write of his return to the Forum:

“Riley’s post-basketball funk hit an all-time low. . . . He felt awkward about visiting his old teammates in the locker room but figured he would run into some of them upstairs in the press lounge, a postgame hangout for every type of hanger-outer imaginable, most of them only loosely associated with the team.

“But Riley, wearing a Laker championship ring, couldn’t get in.

“ ‘Sorry, no ex-players,’ the press lounge doorman told him.”

A year later, in 1977, Chick Hearn made him an announcer.

In 1979, Westhead made him an assistant coach.

In 1981, Buss made him coach, more or less.

He made himself a legend.

THEY WERE FAM-I-LY

Being the leader is a very difficult thing. It’s a fine line. While you have to be one of the fellas--you keep punching what I call that membership card--you have to motivate players. . . .

Being a leader is a tough job ‘cause you’re out there alone.

--Pat Riley

As a young coach, he was “Riles.”

He was gregarious, glib and spoke glowingly of his players. He gave them their head, as Westhead had forgotten to.

Gratefully, they rocketed from turmoil to an NBA title, going 12-2 in the playoffs.

Not that a lot of credit went Riley’s way.

Larry Brown, then coaching New Jersey, called it a sorry day for the profession if a man could come down from the broadcast booth and win a championship. That rap--"Riley owed everything to great players"--lurked always, even as its accuracy diminished.

Actually, he started to find his legs quickly.

Not long after he took over, a newspaper ran an anti-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar quote from an anonymous Laker. This wasn’t unusual. Public figures often talk on the understanding they won’t be identified, Riley included. Abdul-Jabbar was aloof and a lightning rod for teammates’ resentment.

Nevertheless, Riley called a team meeting, demanding angrily that the critic step forward.

No one did.

Laker players quickly learned to value inner-circle trust. Riley knit them into a family, nurturing them with approval and praise, calling down the thunder as needed.

Few modern coaches would be as successful at managing news. Problems weren’t to be acknowledged. A happy face was presented to the world in amiable and entertaining terms. Whoever thought up the word spin could have learned it from Riley.

He laughingly called reporters “peripheral opponents” but it was more than a joke. He closed practices.

He would always think of himself as a players’ coach, always insisting on first-class everything, deflecting praise their way.

But by the watershed 1985 NBA Finals, when they broke their Celtic curse, the thunder was rolling regularly.

After their Game 1 debacle at Boston Garden, the 148-114 Memorial Day Massacre, Riley held another memorable meeting. He ran the tape of Abdul-Jabbar getting trashed by Robert Parish backward and forward.

“I nailed everybody,” he wrote in his book, “Show Time.”

“I told one guy to stop feeling sorry for himself. I told another one that if he was going to let tough play by the Celtics take him out of the game, I might as well take him out myself and save them the trouble.

“I told another one that he didn’t have to shoot every damn time he came down the court, that it was sometimes OK to pass the ball.”

The Lakers stunned the Celtics in Game 2 and put them away for good on the storied parquet in Game 6.

By the time the Lakers won back-to-back titles in 1987 and ’88, Riley wasn’t just big, he was huge.

His blowups weren’t just loud, either; they were Cecil B. DeMille extravaganzas with props.

His face was on billboards all over Los Angeles advertising cars. He got $20,000 a pop to explain his motivational and management techniques at business seminars and banquets.

His friend, director Robert Towne, wanted him to star in his movie, “Tequila Sunrise.” When Riley said no, Towne got actor Kurt Russell to comb his hair back, a la Riley, and wrote a scene in which Russell throws a tantrum, sweeping cups of Coca-Cola off a tray, as Riley had in a famous locker-room tirade.

Riley’s tirades often were scripted, too. Sometimes he would look the room over to determine where he would sweep, throw, kick or punch the Cokes, chalk, ice bags or blackboard.

But he drove the aging Lakers to their zenith.

They were supposed to be done after Houston’s Twin Towers buried them in the ’86 West finals. Riley made Johnson the No. 1 option, and they ground out their consecutive championships.

But there was no going softly into the night.

By the spring of 1990, their first season without Abdul-Jabbar, they sprinted to the NBA’s best record, grumbling about Riley as they went. West felt obliged to call his own players’ meeting to deal with it.

Riley has told friends it started with one unhappy player who had lost playing time--Michael Cooper--going upstairs to complain and West overreacting.

Laker players say there were more complainants than Cooper.

Nor did they like Riley’s pre-playoff boot-camp practices.

Nor was his post-Game 3 speech in Phoenix well received.

Trailing the Suns, 2-1, Riley called a Saturday night meeting at the team’s hotel and hurled thunderbolts--"challenging ‘em,” he calls it--one last time.

Players thought he went over the line into insult. He caved in a blackboard. They recognized it as theater. They gathered afterward in small, somber groups--and not to talk about the Suns.

Sunday, they lost Game 4.

Monday, Riley was named coach of the year for the first time.

Tuesday night at the Forum, he coached his last Laker game.

“I think he changed,” said Hearn, still Riley’s foremost booster in the Forum, the man who helped bring him to the Lakers as both player and broadcaster.

“I think anybody would. I think the separation was good for both parties, I really do.

“At the end, I don’t know if it was miscommunication. I wasn’t involved. Apparently something happened such that both parties wanted to get out of it.

“You don’t ever want to lose, when you’ve won back-to-back like he did. I don’t know if the pressure got to him. I just think he became more to himself than (in) the early years, a little more reclusive. But that’s his own business. No one can criticize him for that.”

THE NEW YORK

Is he a control freak? I suppose he probably is. Does that bother me? No. He delivers.

What I’ve seen just in the last few weeks has so convinced me that he’s the best coach we could possibly have. . . . I feel better about this decision than any other decision I’ve made with this team.

--Dave Checketts, Knick president

Friday, Oct. 11, 1991: It was just another of those New York nights that seem to presage the end of civilization as we know it.

Haitian protesters marched down Broadway at rush hour, producing gridlock, horns, sirens, fumes. Commuters streamed between cars and marchers, fleeing for trains and buses out of Manhattan.

A block away in Madison Square Garden, Riley, natty in a sport jacket--why waste the suits now?--coached his first Knick exhibition game.

They won. They looked impressive. Happy days are here again.

The context has changed.

While the Lakers were going numb, the Knicks were plumbing hopelessness.

After years of revolving coaches, general managers and team presidents, you could gift-wrap the arena in scar tissue.

Riley’s point guard, Mark Jackson, went from local hero to whipping boy, was booed, derided by management, ripped in the press, offered around the league and retained only because there were no takers.

Patrick Ewing, the franchise, tried to force a trade all summer, even after Riley was hired and met with him.

“New York is very unstable,” said Ewing, smiling. “It was like being in the electric chair, in terms of management. Here today, gone tomorrow.”

That was yesterday. Now when the Knicks look at the famous moussed head, they see salvation.

Take Mark Jackson.

He remembers meeting Riley in Las Vegas at a Mike Tyson fight a year ago.

“It was during a down time for me,” Jackson said. “He just gave me a little pep talk. He was with Billy Crystal at the fight. It meant a lot to me, someone of his stature.

“He’s a legend. He’s done things most coaches dream about.”

Maybe he also did some things he’d like to take back?

“I don’t want to get into that,” Riley said.

On media day at the Knick camp in Purchase, N.Y., 30 minutes north of Manhattan, reporters circled him. He was poetic as ever. He has even more rules than before. He isn’t doing one-on-one interviews. He won’t talk before games, an NBA first. He may be setting up a confrontation with the cantankerous New York press, but that’s down the line. Now he’s the toast of another town.

“I mean, there were so many things written that were inaccurate when I left,” Riley said. “I made the break and left on June 11 (1990). That’s the statement that I made and that’s the way it was.

“It was really embellished a lot. I harbor no ill feelings, contrary to what people might think. None at all. It was a great run for me.”

Is he aware of ill feelings directed at him?

“Well, that’s normal,” he said. “I can’t relate to that. I can’t get caught up in what other people were feeling at the time. I know that what I did was right, and I did it with the best intentions. And, you know, I never looked back.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt, there’s been a real exhilaration here. It really has been different. Guys are open. People are excited. I mean, you know, when you win so much, people sort of stay the same and take things for granted. It’s not the same. It falls on deaf ears. It’s normal. It’s not bad. Sometimes you need to re-energize and re-challenge yourself, and sometimes others don’t want to do that.

“I feel very good about this challenge. I see it. I look into their eyes every practice. You see something different. You see guys who really, I think, want to experience something different.”

Classic underachievers last season, the Knicks are better than anyone remembers. They could win 50 games, which could make Riley coach of the year again, amid happier circumstances.

He’s an East Coast guy now, with a home in Greenwich, Conn., even if he hasn’t cut his West Coast ties.

“Chris and I made the commitment,” he said. “We moved 45,000 pounds of furniture and clothes.

(Laughing) “I didn’t want to sell my house this quick. Six coaches in five years--I don’t care how much security I got. There’s blind faith, then there’s. . . .”

There’s a $6-million, five-year contract, that’s what there is.

All he has to do is transcend his opponents, actual, peripheral and/or internal.

Said Buckaroo Banzai, the cinematic renaissance warrior: “Wherever you go . . . there you are.”

The Knicks just started their own version of the Laker Girls. Re-challenge, indeed.


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