Pat Riley, Inside-Out: The Early Coaching Years

As part of an exclusive interview, The Daily Coach spoke to Miami Heat President Pat Riley about his leadership influences and his early coaching years with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Just about the only thing he had ever known in life was over — and now, Pat Riley was passing his days on the beaches of Los Angeles.

“I was depressed, all of those things, when your career comes to an end after nine years,” he said.

But when a secretary/part-time broadcasting job opened with the franchise he’d helped to an NBA title years prior, Riley jumped at the chance to get back around the game he loved.

Over the next year, he would perform a variety of tasks for the Los Angeles Lakers, eventually rising to an interim assistant coach under the respected Jack McKinney.

More than four decades later, Riley is considered among the greatest basketball minds ever, a shrewd tactician and motivator whose slicked-back hair, impeccable suits and stoic temperament are equal parts iconic and intimidating.

The Daily Coach caught up with the current Miami Heat president and Basketball Hall-of-Famer to discuss his leadership influences, critical lessons from his years on the Lakers’ sidelines, and advice he would give his younger coaching self.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

Coach Riley, thank you for doing this. Tell us a little about your childhood in upstate New York and your key role models.

I was raised in Schenectady, N.Y., in the 1950s. There were 60,000 residents, and probably 70 percent worked for General Electric or The ALCO. I come from a blue-collar background. My father and my older brothers, Lee and Lenny, kept me in line when I was a little bit of a wise guy at a young age.

My father was a very, very disciplined, strict man. He was a Minor League baseball player and a manager for 22 years. He was in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. I think at one time, he was promised he would be the next manager of the Phillies in 1949. That didn’t happen, and he quit right after. There was a spiral effect from that disappointment.

Then (there was), my high school coach, Walt Przybylo. He slapped the hell out of me one day, not literally but with his voice, and said, “You’re not good enough to play for me. You might as well go over to Mount Pleasant,” which was our city rival. That really hurt me.

My football coach was Dick Lalla. I was a quarterback at the time, and we were running Bill Walsh offense, sweeps and options. There was one man, Dom Denio, who was an assistant coach who was really the epitome of Vince Lombardi. Then, I go to Kentucky with Adolph Rupp and on to the pros with Bill Sharman.

Those were my early mentors and heroes. My family, my father, my brothers and my coaches. Those were the men early in my life who really had an influence on me.

You certainly had a terrific career at Kentucky, then played in the NBA for nine years. How did the assistant coaching job with the Lakers come about and what stands out to you most from those early coaching years?

I was with the Lakers in 1970 and played there for five years. I was out of the league for two years and did nothing but hang out at the beach.

I got back with the Lakers as a traveling secretary and a broadcast analyst with Chick Hearn. I was hauling bags around, making plans for road trips, itineraries, boarding passes, taking baggage to the airport for the team, etc.

Then, (Head Coach) Jack McKinney had a terrible accident. He was a great, great coach from the Jack Ramsay family back in Philadelphia, with all of those other great coaches. The fate there was that had he not fallen off that bicycle, I probably wouldn’t be here, and Jack McKinney would probably be considered one of the greatest coaches of all time.

Once I became an interim assistant with Paul Westhead, I went to work to learn everything I could. As I mentioned to Coach Raveling, I couldn’t get enough of Bobby Knight. I couldn’t get enough of George’s “War on the Boards,” anything I could gather up. I would model myself after these coaches and their philosophies. Dean Smith, John Wooden, I could not get enough.

I also began to listen to Zig Ziglar’s “See You at the Top” and went to some of his motivational seminars. Most of my reading over the years has been by those kinds of men. Wayne Dyer, who was a great spiritual writer, and Tony Robbins. T.D. Jakes is one of my all-time favorite pastors, and I still have all of his cassette tapes in my office now.

I just studied. I remember to this day, and I still use, Bobby Knight’s four Ps. I learned as much as I could while I was trying to be an assistant coach and support Paul.

You were an assistant for just two years before becoming a head coach. Then, you immediately win a title. Did you feel you were prepared as soon as you took over?

I felt that I was ready, and I had tremendous confidence I could coach. Now, could I coach Kareem, and Magic, and (Michael) Cooper, and (Byron) Scott, and (James) Worthy and all of those great players? I never had any fear about going out there or being intimidated by the talent. I really felt I had learned enough in the 13 years I’d been around the NBA, and I felt very confident in what I could do.

Now, they carried me. The talent carried me. I don’t think I became a real good NBA coach until 1985. I was there for at least three or four years, and we finally beat the Celtics in Boston Garden. I felt like I had sort of made it at that time.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE, via Getty Images

Looking back on your early successes and some challenges you faced, what retrospective advice would you give yourself that maybe other young coaches can apply?

You’ve got to know what it is you want to do. And when you know what it is that you want to do, you’ve got to have a philosophy and develop your own — or steal somebody else’s and add to it. You have to develop a plan or system whereby you get a result, and if you don’t get the right result, you’ve got to change it or tweak it.

When you know what it is you want to do and you have a philosophy or plan or system that works, then you take great pride in it. Most importantly, as we all know about Coach Knight back then, it’s practice, practice, practice, practice.

I learned a lot from George, and from Coach Knight, and Pete Newell, and all of these people back in the day. I couldn’t get enough information about how to coach, and it helped me tremendously.

You coached several great players in your Lakers tenure. Are there two or three whom you learned a lot from as well?

I also learned a lot from players I played with, most importantly Jerry West. When I came to the Lakers in 1970, I had just gotten cut by an expansion team, the Portland Trail Blazers. I was $5,000 in debt. I’d just gotten married three months before. I had a yellow Corvette and all the Motown records you could ever carry in it.

I got claimed on waivers by the Lakers. They told me to get down to L.A. as fast as I could. I got to Loyola-Marymount and walked into practice about an hour before anybody else. I was in there shooting around, and I remember Jerry West had a ball in his hands. He walked right up to me, shook my hand, introduced himself — he didn’t have to do that — and he said, “Welcome to the Lakers. You’re going to really help us, Pat.” We became fast friends then as teammates. So, Jerry had an incredible impact on me.

Knowing Wilt (Chamberlain) over the years, he was a really good person. He was misunderstood by a lot of people, but a dominant player. I learned a lot from him when he changed his game when he came to the Lakers in ‘68 after he won in Philadelphia. He used to average 40 a game, went down to averaging 19 or 20, 20 rebounds. He taught me a lot about, “I want to win, Pat. I’m tired of losing and scoring a lot of points.”

Kareem, I played against in high school. I played with him in the NBA as a teammate, and I coached him. When I got the job with the Lakers my first day, he was the first player who I went to. Kareem was not complicated to me. He was a different man who had a different belief system, and it was O.K. He thought outside of the box, but when it came to basketball, he wanted to win. He was judged on a lot of other things other than just being a player.

I remember going to him and saying, “Cap, I’m going to really need you.” He looked at me and was not amazed, but he said, “I got you. I’ll be there every night, Pat. Don’t worry about me. I just want you to get the other guys ready. If you get the other guys ready every night, I’ll bring whatever I can bring that night to the best of my ability, and we can win.”

He taught me something. He said, “Get these other guys ready to help support me and don’t let them run over you.”

I talked to Magic, to the team. Those players early in my career taught me a lot. Magic taught me a lot about leadership from a player who wore his emotions on his sleeve. James Worthy taught me a lot through silence. He was quiet, but his silence had absolute power to it. James carried himself like a pro, like a winner and had great pride. Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, all of those guys.

I learned so much in the 80s about coaching that I could carry on to New York and Miami.

Part Two of “Pat Riley: Inside-Out” will run next Saturday, Oct. 21.

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