"All I care about," says Riley, "is creating an environment in which the talent can flourish. That means all 12 of our individuals. I have to know as much as possible about each one, to motivate them, to be able to draw them together, to know how to serve them best."
Service, mind you, need not be servile. "On a professional level, coaches feel responsible for a lot, but players have to be responsible, too. They are well paid. They are pure professionals. So we work on a basis of shared responsibility. I have a role: to organize, to direct, to put you, the player, in position to win. But then you're going to do that winning or losing, not me."
Professional basketball players are, in fact, different animals. They have risen for good reasons. Many are almost inhumanly gifted. Most are congenitally wild to improve. Yet, because they are so feted, their egos can race ahead of even their salaries. Many ways of dealing with them don't work. Riley's way, which does, is to trust them, tell the blunt truth and pay attention.
"The ideal coach-athlete relationship at all levels of basketball is mutual respect," says forward Kurt Rambis. "But that's especially true in the pros. A player will willingly do what a coach suggests if the coach will willingly listen to what the player suggests. You reach a happy medium."
"Fear, incentive and self," intones Riley. "Those are all I work with. With some players, it's almost as if the work you demand has to be balanced by the incentive you offer. A guy will ask if it's going to be worth it. With others there's a similar equation, except it's fear that kicks them out of the comfort zone. But self-motivated players, like Earvin and Kareem, only care about winning. They are above the rest of the psychological wheeling and dealing. You get three or four of those and weave them in with the ones who need kicking or bribing, and you're O.K."
Even though Riley is forever leafing through inspirational literature, he is the furthest thing from a firebrand molder of human character. He's more of a nudger who reminds you of what you already know and who brings out the best in you. He's a realist. "You can tell a lot about a team's mood when you have your little chat before practice," he says. "Watch where the players are in that circle. If they're eager, they're crouched right in front. You can see their eyes. If they're indifferent, they get around behind you."
He follows with something most high school coaches would not admit. "I don't mind that," he says. "That's a natural phenomenon, being a human being. It's O.K. for a man to be on his own for a day, but after that it's too much. After that, our players won't let someone wander for long."
Riley seems to have altered the definition of coach, to have drained it of some of its solitary augustness. "I even had a problem being called coach my first year with the Lakers," he says. "I didn't feel I'd earned that, didn't feel I'd put in the years, paid the dues."
That was because he had come under the influence of Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Pete Newell in San Diego and Bill Sharman with the Lakers. And his father, Lee Riley, had played briefly for the Phillies and managed in their farm system for eight years, including a year each at Class A teams in Utica and Schenectady.
"Dignity, respect, pride. Those are what coaches are to me," says Riley. "My coaches come out in me. Their voices are there when my back is to the wall. I've come to feel better about being called coach now. I'm growing into it."