Coach Pat Riley has Lakers riding a bicycle built for 12
Pat Riley, who became head coach of the National Basketball Association's future Western Conference playoff champion Los Angeles Lakers 11 games into the 1981-82 season, is not a presence. He doesn't overwhelm you with a made-for-interviews personality; shout orders like a Marine sergeant; or fill a TV screen like Orson Welles.
Instead he comes off as a man who organizes brilliantly, knows exactly what he's doing, and has achieved a rapport with his players that goes well beyond the locker room. In short, Riley cares - about yesterday, today and tomorrow, and somehow you get the feeling that, win or lose, he is never going to change.
The job Riley was sort of asked to do with the Lakers this season (we'll explain that later) may be unprecedented in the history of sports.
After starting the season as Paul Westhead's chief assistant, Pat was there when Magic Johnson asked to be traded because he felt that Westhead's structured offense was inhibiting both himself and the Lakers.
What happened a few hours later when owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead and tried to graft his job onto special consultant Jerry West at a Forum press conference was like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
While West agreed to leave the front office temporarily to help run practices and open up the team's offense, his actions automatically left Riley as the man in charge. Buss, as confused by now as most of the media present, seemed to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
What Riley inherited from Westhead was a team that had won the NBA championship in 1980 but had not played anywhere near its potential last season. The Lakers were so beset by internal problems a year ago, in fact, that some players even argued about their roles in public.
Considering their enormous talents, their media exposure in a Hollywood environment, and their national commercial endorsements, the Lakers probably have more ego problems than any team in the league.
The first thing Riley did was to remove the handcuffs from Westhead's offense and let the running game stretch out to its fullest. The result was 11 victories in the next 13 games; a regular season record of 57-25; and eight consecutive wins against Phoenix and San Antonio in the playoffs. The Lakers' 27-14 road record this season was also the best in the league after Boston.
But Riley's greatest achievement as a coach was the way he persuaded his players to simultaneously climb onto a bicycle built for 12.
To my knowledge, and I was at most Laker home games this season, Pat never criticized a player in public. When a situation had to be handled, it was always done discreetly, in the privacy of his office, and never leaked to the press.
And don't think Riley didn't have a selling job to do on his players in late December when Buss signed free-agent Bob McAdoo, a man whose reputation for wanting the basketball all the time kept several NBA teams from going after him. Yet McAdoo, once he got into shape, not only helped the Lakers tremendously with his offense but has even tried to play some serious defense.
Guards Magic Johnson and Norman Nixon, their differences ironed out after meetings with Riley, have (along with Michael Cooper) become one of the most productive backcourts in the NBA.
Certainly not to be overlooked, either, is Pat's easy yet professional relationship with veteran center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has been playing some of the best basketball of his career.
While it isn't fair to say that Kareem is uncoachable, at this point in his life he tends to want to do things the way he thinks is best for him.
It is not an uncommon practice among million-dollar-a-year players who are indulged by their owners. But it often creates a situation that erodes a coach's control over his other players to the point where he has to be replaced.
Rather than break Abdul-Jabbar of his ways, Riley has been content to bend him instead; maybe not getting all the angle he wants but enough to make his program work. Pat hasn't forgotten what it was like to be a journeyman player for nine years in the NBA, respected more for his hustle than his talent.
To look at Riley in his invariably conservative street attire, his undersize wire-rimmed glasses not unlike those Elisha Cook Jr. wore in the ''Maltese Falcon,'' Pat could be passed off as anything from a marriage counselor (which his wife already is) to a stockbroker. But few TV quiz show panelists would ever pick him as a basketball coach!