Says Johnson, "I might have protected him a little. We all go to bat for each other so much, it's hard to say how much of a factor it was. The play didn't have a lot of options, but I could have done some other things."
"Not really," says Riley. "A great player has his own expectations of himself. If he doesn't meet them, he'll always blame himself first."
The role players on the Lakers, the bangers and rebounders like Rambis, the defensive specialists like Cooper, are naturally Riley fans. "He made me see the light," says Cooper. "He made me see I was an integral part of the team. A lot of coaches try to outshine the team—not him."
Riley has indeed said, "No matter how long I stay, I don't ever want to hear of a 'Pat Riley-character team.' That means you've stepped out in front."
There are two instructive photos of the bedlam after the final buzzer closed out the '82 and '85 NBA championships. In each, the Laker players are seen running to each other and embracing. In each, Riley is by himself in a wide-footed stance, fists clenched at eye-level. He might as well be holding a video camera. "The last 10 seconds of the first championship," he says, "I just wanted to run out to the free-throw line and watch everyone have fun." Even then—as high as a man ever goes—he was the steward. His description of that celebration was what he wrote in his welcoming letter to the team the following season.
"You'll feel you know him," says Cooper, "and then he'll do something that startles you. He'll show you something from that little box way inside that you only open up every once in a while."
Cooper is a connoisseur of unpredictability. Last March, late in the evening, at Riley's unusually fancy 40th birthday party, Cooper suddenly collapsed while gyrating on the dance floor. When he tried to stand, he made it only halfway and then sat down, sweating. Other players gathered around, concerned. Trainer Gary Vitti parted the crowd, knelt and ran his fingers over one of Cooper's knees. Vitti rose, and there was Riley. "Torn ligament," Vitti whispered. Riley turned to chalk.
"I just stood there, feeling sick," says Riley, "and Michael got up and moon-walked away from me. He had me cold."
He laughed a trembling, relieved laugh, and swore to Cooper that he would get him, and he may. But how could Riley not be perpetually vulnerable to such an attack? It was founded on a mutual knowledge of mutual need. It would never be tried by a player unsure of his own usefulness.
"Even Riley's putative narcissism," says Towne, "down to the knot in his tie, is effective in dealing with talent. He's cool, shameless in the best sense of the word, in exploiting his charm."