If the Heat finally run their win streak to 34, break the record of the legendary 1971-72 Lakers and plant their flag in the pages of history, it will likely be the result of something spectacular done by LeBron James. Or heroic by Dwyane Wade. Or timely by Chris Bosh. Or perhaps out-of-this-world unexpected by the likes of Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers.
But making it all happen will have been Pat Riley, the link to past and present. As much as anyone in the game over the past four-plus decades, he’s the thread you cannot pull without some part of the NBA story unraveling — from the Showtime Lakers to the Slow Time Knicks to the South Beach Shuffle.
This steamrolling monster is his creation, a plan so bold and audacious that nobody really thought he could pull it off, and it all grew out of an intense drive that is belied by the image of slicked-back hair and designer suits.
The truth is, he’s always been far more Arm & Hammer than Armani, the Schenectady, N.Y., street tough who absorbed the work ethic of a father who toiled for 22 years in baseball’s minor leagues.
On that historic Lakers team with Hall of Famers Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich, Riley was a member of the supporting cast, but no less vital to the cause.
“He’s tenacious,” West said recently in a conference call with reporters. “I’d say to him in practice, ‘Go beat the hell out of Goodrich, I’m tired.’ ”
He’d been a high school star and his Linton team took down mighty Lew Alcindor and Power Memorial in 1961. He starred for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky when the Wildcats lost to the first all-black lineup from Texas Western in 1966 and was the No. 7 overall pick in the 1967 NBA draft by the expansion San Diego Rockets.
But by the time he was part of that famous Lakers roster, Riley was like a circus mouse trying to avoid getting trampled by the elephants. He used his wits to survive, sheer hustle to make his presence felt and overall relentlessness to carve out a nine-year NBA career.
“He definitely wanted to play more,” West said. “But it was a special group of guys and, like all of us, he understood that.”
Sure, he would never have won those four championships as a coach in L.A. without stars named Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. He wouldn’t have headlined on Broadway without a marquee star in Patrick Ewing. He wouldn’t be sitting in the middle of this 21st century media-frenzied hullaballoo today without the overpowering phenomenon that is now LeBron. Yet his own past has taught him the value of the cast of formidable role players he has brought to Miami in Battier and Ray Allen, Chris Andersen and Norris Cole.
Miami draws attention for its glamor — James taking the express elevator to the top floor to hammer home the dunk in Orlando or flushing and then scowling at Jason Terry in Boston — but the Heat have become the only team to seriously threaten the 33-game win streak because of a defense that is ferocious, hungry and unforgiving, like their architect.
For all that he has done on the many sidelines and the various front offices, maybe nothing defines him like the 1985 NBA Finals, when the Celtics blasted his Lakers 148-114 in Game 1 in what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre.
Before his team took the floor for Game 2 at the old Boston Garden, Riley repeated words that had once been spoken by his father:
“The fact is, that to do anything in the world worth doing, we must not stand back … Some place, sometime, you are going to have to plant your feet, stand firm, and make a point about who you are and what you believe in. When that time comes, you simply have to do it.”
The Lakers won Game 2 and eventually the series, defeating the Celtics for the first time ever in the postseason to claim one of their most significant championships.
At 68, that drive and resolve are the rhythms that beat at his core, the occasional awkward dance steps on YouTube jammin’ to Bob Marley notwithstanding.
So when James and Bosh were both heading toward free agency three years ago and most NBA teams were scrambling for a way to get their hands on one of them, Riley’s plan was the bigger, bolder and bodacious one. An old friend who’d stopped by for a visit in Miami during that time recalls stepping into a darkened office where Riley sat, half-lit by the beam of a single desk lamp as wisps of smoke from a cigarette rose past his face.
“He reminded me of Col. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now,” said the friend. “Who knew what was going on inside that head?”
Now we know as we watch his awesome creation keep marching on.
“I’m happy for my friend, Pat Riley,” said West, “who was able to do it as a player and is able to replicate it as an executive.”
The thread through history with ties that bind.