Pat Riley flashed back to his own career-elevating ascension when a furor erupted recently over Magic Johnson’s so-called credentials to run the Lakers. A sports-talk radio debate, triggered by a national host based in Riley’s Miami market, quickly devolved into a racially tinged spitting contest within the same media company.
Submitting as evidence his own appointment to the Lakers’ coaching job in 1981, or half a lifetime ago, Riley said Magic’s skin color wasn’t the point. At least not the main one.
“Welcome to the new seat, whichever seat you just got to sit down in, and to an immediate reaction on both sides of the fence,” he told The Vertical. “With me, it wasn’t as public. There was no internet for it to get picked up on but I heard it within the coaching profession: ‘He didn’t coach in high school, didn’t coach in college, wasn’t prepared. How could he get the most prestigious job in the NBA?’ ”
Riley allowed the implicit recognition of the four Showtime championships that followed to marinate for a moment before adding, in a firmer tone: “To adamantly say Earvin is not qualified is nonsense. Like Jerry West, he’s a prodigal son of the Lakers.”
Also left unsaid, but understood, was that West, now deified as the most visionary of living league executives, was handed the Lakers’ coaching job with a say in personnel matters in 1976 by then-owner Jack Kent Cooke, based largely on what he had done as a player, as Mr. Clutch.
How clutch? On the court, West delivered one title to the Lakers, compared to Magic’s five.
“So why shouldn’t Earvin get an opportunity?” Riley said.
Riley, 71, is 27 years removed from his image-shaping Lakers’ days, 22 years now at the executive helm of the Heat, whom he also coached until a decade ago, winning one title on the bench and directing two more from the front office during the four-year rental of LeBron James.
He is no impartial observer on Magic, but who in the sport can claim greater insight to the man he partnered with for nine years, or most of Magic’s career?
“The smartest player I ever coached,” Riley said.
It is significant to note that he is not in the habit of saying much of anything during the regular season, letting his coach, Erik Spoelstra, serve as Miami’s front man. So perhaps it was the old blue-collar brawler from Schenectady, N.Y., Riley’s inner Houdini breaking free of a self-imposed silence, when he stood up for Magic in a lengthy interview with The Vertical that found him in a reflective and even self-deprecatory mood.
To the assertion that Magic had revealed himself to be an analytic lightweight during his time as a network talkie, Riley was ruefully mindful of his one-year run as an NBC commentator between coaching jobs in Los Angeles and New York.
“I hated it, just hated it,” he said. “I could not be insightful in a 10-second sound bite. I couldn’t be critical. I’m glad the people in New York didn’t base their evaluation of me on that. And as far as what I do today, I don’t know what that means.”
Magic was bland at broadcasting, that’s for sure, and often seemed unprepared. But disengagement from the game is a long way from not knowing it, or being qualified to, as Riley put it, “rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.”
If Magic wasn’t enlightening viewers on television, or foreshadowing West’s legacy with a string of tweets that fell far short of player-evaluative genius, it is also indisputable that he was otherwise busy elevating himself into the pantheon of players-turned-private-sector-producers.
In terms of skillfully running an organization, Riley said, what’s the difference?
“Earvin is a guy who has been a prolific businessman, with his cinemas, Starbucks and other things,” he said. “He’s gone into companies and changed management, changed the culture. He’s charismatic, gets up in front of people and puts an immediate face on an organization.”
But will he be committed enough to the Lakers? Will he be spread too thin?
Those are fairer questions, but even there, Riley said, “With technology now, you don’t have to be locked in your practice facility 12 hours a day. Anybody who thinks that doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Business or basketball, Riley was saying, it’s about stability at the top, ownership on down. It’s about hiring the right people and letting them do their jobs. It’s about continuity, “not having that revolving door.”
Here is where Riley, an astute observer of the Lakers, albeit from afar, believes they lost their way in the years following the decline and death of Dr. Jerry Buss.
“When he bought the team in ’79, they had Kareem and were able to draft Magic, and win right away,” he said. “That’s sort of the same thing that happened in San Antonio, where [Gregg] Popovich took over around the time when David Robinson was hurt, they got the No. 1 pick and Tim Duncan. But then Pop and R.C. Buford established a culture in San Antonio, ownership was stable and no one ever left.
“That’s what happened with the Lakers. Dr. Buss hired West, who established a culture that brought 20 years of winning. West wasn’t afraid to bring in Phil Jackson, but then West left, Phil left, Phil came back, left again, wrote a book criticizing everyone.”
In other words, the Lakers began to operate more like the Knicks. When Jerry Buss died in 2013, that left the franchise to the relatively faceless, feeble leadership of his son, Jim. Now Jeanie Buss has won, at least temporarily, an ownership power struggle with her brothers, Jim and Johnny, and she chose Magic.
“To me, it’s a no-brainer that Earvin was given that position to capture the attention of the people in L.A. and to try to recapture that sense of continuity,” Riley said.
That is what has worked for Riley as the master of his universe in Miami, with the blessing of the owner, Micky Arison.
“Since I came here, we’ve had the same owner, same president, two coaches, same support staff. We’ve got a bunch of guys working for us who played for us. Players come and go, great players. When LeBron left, that was the most shocking thing to me – not to say he was right or wrong – and the most shocking thing to the franchise. But our culture is the same. You have your up years and your down years, but what can’t change is the way you do things.”
Beyond LeBron, the Heat also lost the other two-thirds of the Big Three, Dwyane Wade to free agency and Chris Bosh to injury. Label this season however you like: Collapsing. Rebuilding. Transitioning. By all rights, it should have been the disaster it began as at 11-30. The Heat have won 18 of 22 since, positioning themselves on the periphery of the playoffs.
“We’ll see how we do over the last 20 games,” Riley said, while making it clear that an eight seed would be a moral victory, a tasty appetizer, but he remains committed to another major reinvention, one last title run.
At his age, with his résumé, Riley could retire and spend the rest of his days steering a cart around a golf course by day and dining out in South Beach by night. He could rest on his collection of championship rings – one as a player, five as a coach and two more as an executive with LeBron – with no everlasting regrets.
“My biggest disappointment is not being able to win that title in New York, in ’94,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll think about it and it torments me.”
Unlike long-suffering Knicks fans, he doesn’t second-guess himself for allowing John Starks to shoot and shoot like a cross-eyed gunslinger in Game 7, knowing that Starks was his most fearless player, the one who saved the Knicks in a must-win Game 6 in the conference finals in Indiana. The one who got to the rim at the end of Game 7, drew the help defense that allowed Patrick Ewing to put back the missed layup that killed off the Pacers.
“To this day, I believe in John, believe that he’d make two in a row and we’d win,” Riley said.
That’s how Old Man Riles rolls, never lacking in conviction. The Knicks are Jackson’s problem now. But with Magic running the Lakers, it’s still personal.
“With everything that goes on, who knows how long he’s going to be there?” Riley said. “And it’s not going to happen for him this year, or even in two years. But if they keep their [top-three protected] draft pick, with the young players they have, and Earvin’s reputation in that market, he’ll have a chance.”
His last thoughts on the subject invoked the other nickname Magic went by, the one savored by those on the inside, who know him best.
“I’m all in with Buck,” Riley said.
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