From Magic Johnson to Pat Riley to LeBron James, this Lakers-Heat rivalry runs deep

Lakers star Magic Johnson embraces coach Pat Riley during the locker-room celebration after winning the 1988 NBA title.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/ NBAE)

The uber-competitive Pat Riley that Magic Johnson knows from winning four championships when Riley was the coach of the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s is the same man who helped rebuild the Miami Heat into a contender for the 2020 NBA title.

The driven Riley that Johnson knows, who became one of the best executives in the NBA, winning two championships with LeBron James when he called Miami home from 2010 to 2014, is the same Riley who’s pulling for the Heat to defeat James in the NBA Finals.

“Pat is a competitor, so he wants to win,” Johnson said by phone. “I think now even more so because you got the Lakers team he used to coach and you got LeBron, a guy you won two championships with in Miami. But we have to remember that by nature he’s such a competitive guy. Even if it wasn’t us, he would want to win so bad.”

Johnson, who recruited James to win a title while he was the Lakers’ president of basketball operations for a little more than two years, wants to see James realize the vision the two shared. He also yearns to see owner Jeanie Buss follow in the giant footsteps of her late dad, Jerry Buss, and bring home a championship.

And, of course, to do it in honor of Kobe Bryant after the Lakers legend’s stunning death this year.


Jimmy Butler might not have been a good fit for the Lakers or Clippers in the free-agent search of 2019, but he has found a home in Miami with win-first attitude.

Sept. 29, 2020

“I want it for Jeanie because I want her to make her father proud, make the fans proud, herself proud as one of the first women in sports to win a title,” Johnson said. “And then LeBron. For him to say, ‘Hey Earvin, I’m taking this leap of faith that you guys are going to do what you say you are going to do to put the proper pieces around.’ I want it for him too because I think that he has got us back to where we belong as an organization and fans can be proud of the things that he’s promised, to get us here to the championship, and let’s see if he can deliver the championship. It would be a great story.

“Also too, we have endured over the year. They can make Dr. Buss happy in heaven and make Kobe happy in heaven too. They are probably sitting down trading notes right now — and Chick Hearn is in the middle of it as well.”

Byron Scott, who also played for Riley as a member of the Showtime Lakers, recalled how “demanding” Riley was and how he “pushed buttons” on players even if “it meant you hating him.”

Lakers owner Jerry Buss talks with coach Pat Riley in Lakers locker room following a game.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Scott said the reward for him was winning three championships.

As Scott sees things — like Riley, he’s a former coach too — this Heat team that was the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and wasn’t expected to reach the Finals is a team that embodies all that Riley is about.

“He grew up tough,” Scott said by phone. “His dad was strict on him, demanding and hard on him. That’s how he’s lived his life. As he used to always tell me, ‘Hard work doesn’t guarantee you anything, but without it you’re not going to get nothing.’ And that was Pat Riley. Him and Erik [Spoelstra, the coach] built this Heat team in Pat’s image. They are a bunch of guys that is going to play hard every single night.”

As he dug into his stories about Riley, Scott began to laugh as he started talking about Riley making a promise that the Lakers would win back-to-back championships.

The Los Angeles Lakers play the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals beginning Wednesday night. Here is the L.A. Times’ preview coverage.

Sept. 30, 2020


They had just defeated their bitter rival, the Boston Celtics, in 1987 for the title when Riley stepped to podium during the celebration and said, “And I’m guaranteeing everybody here, next year we’re going to win it again.”

Riley, in his California cool style with shades on, turned and smiled at the stunned Lakers sitting behind him.

“We’re all going like, ‘What the f—? We can’t even enjoy this one?’” Scott recalled, laughing again. “But it got us going. The next week, I was like, ‘I’ve got to start getting ready now!’ Instead of taking two or three weeks off like I normally do, I had to get ready now because he guaranteed it and we got to be ready. I went on the track and I saw Magic out there. I saw A.C. [Green] out there. James [Worthy] out there.

“So, he knew how to get into our heads. He put that in our minds, and we all were working out earlier than we normally would just so we could get ready for that next season. It came to fruition because we ended up winning it again by beating the Pistons in the Finals. That’s Pat Riley, always pushing buttons.”