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THE LAST WORD: Finding the Winner Within
Pat Riley
October 10, 2007
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October 10, 2007

The Last Word: Finding The Winner Within


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ADOLPH RUPP'S most famous disciple, Pat Riley, played forward for Kentucky from 1965 to '67. He led the Wildcats with 22.0 points and was named All-America after the '65-66 season, in which Kentucky lost the historic NCAA final game to Texas Western. Riley went on to win one NBA championship as a player and six more as coach while earning a reputation as a master motivator and basketball strategist.

IN THE FOUR YEARS I WAS AT KENTUCKY, NOTHING ever changed. Nothing. We went in as freshmen and learned the system, and when I left as a senior it was the same. Sure, Adolph would make some minor adjustments, but it's not about doing a lot of things well, it's about doing one thing great. Once you figure out what you want to do, you do it hard every single day. You create drills that allow players to become better in the system. That's what I took away: the philosophy, the planning, the practices and the pride Kentucky took in all that.

At Kentucky they didn't need to go out of state—most of the best basketball players were local. There was a scout in New York who would report to the coaching staff in Kentucky, and that scout recommended me to Rupp, who came to Schenectady to sign me personally. It was my understanding that he rarely did that. [His visit] sealed the deal. When he walked through the door in that brown suit, he was bigger than life. He said to my mother, " Mrs. Riley, don't worry about your son. We're going to make him an All-American at Kentucky and we're going to take care of him."

I don't think any kid knows the impact a teacher or coach is going to have on him. It was only years later that I realized [playing for Rupp] was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Being in his program for four years and experiencing his no-nonsense approach—he probably influenced me more than any man I've ever been around, other than my father. I didn't have any problem with hard work or discipline, and I didn't mind somebody calling me out. That's the way I wanted it. I liked to be in that kind of system because I wanted to win.

Rupp never played any favorites, and he rarely called you by your first name until you gained his respect. You had to earn it. If you didn't do it, man, would he let you know it. He would let you know verbally and he would put you down on the third team. You did not want to be on that third team. In his system it was the starting team, the second team and then there were the turds. If you were on that third team, you knew where you stood.

Nobody knows about conditioning unless you went to a major university back then. They thought about conditioning before they thought about basketball. Joe Hall was in charge of the summer workouts, and we would go out on the track and do 110, 220 and 440 sprints before we went into the weight room. By the time we got to fall practice everyone was strong and in shape. Players just accepted the work. Players today have their own opinions about what great condition is. One of the things I laugh about now is that a lot of NBA players during the summer will hire a conditioning coach. But most of the guys come to camp in horrible shape! It's a waste of money.

Kentucky is about basketball, horse racing and whiskey. But everybody in the state was proud of their team and what it brought to the state. You knew you were in a big-time program. It made it fun. You knew when you were playing in games, it counted.