But so far, he seems by his own words to have given credence to the caretaker charge. Is there no discipline? "Of course there is," he says, "but again, the need for that is acknowledged by the players. Sometimes they ask for it."
One such request came last May 28, the day after the Lakers, intent on finally seizing the opportunity they felt they had wasted in 1984 ("We gave them the series in '84," says Riley), opened the NBA finals in Boston. "We'd planned and worked a year for that chance." In what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre, the Celtics blew the Lakers out in Game 1, 148-114.
"That game showed him where he'd been lax in his leadership," said Abdul-Jabbar. "Boston is a talented, tough and smart team. We had to match it. We had to get tough."
Riley did. At a team meeting he excoriated Abdul-Jabbar for sloth in his 12-point, three-rebound performance. The mutual respect held. The 38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar rose and painfully agreed, swearing that it would never happen again.
"After Game 1," says Riley, "the players all came in with whips, figurative whips, and handed them to me. We spent 2½ days purging that loss. If I didn't drive them, they said to go harder. It was a real cleansing experience for me, and obviously for them. We ran hours of transition drills, working on getting the big men back late but the first line holding the attack. Kareem was running himself into exhaustion. I knew the best thing was to save him, maintain him, but he wouldn't stop."
Riley calls the second game the most significant he has ever seen. "The team bus, we had decided, would be just for players. Kareem got on, and asked if his dad. Big Al, could ride along. I said fine. And as I watched them together. I began to think of fathers, of my father. In 1970 I'd just married Chris and was worried about my game. As my father was leaving the wedding reception, he stuck his head out of the car and said, 'Just remember, somewhere, someplace, sometime, you're going to have to plant your feet, make a stand and kick some ass. And when that time comes, you do it.'
"It turned out that those were his last words to me, because he died of a heart attack not long afterward. But as I sat in the bus I heard that voice again. And that became my pregame talk, that everyone has a father, everyone has a voice you respond to. And this was that place and that time. So let us all take that stand."
"When he spoke of fathers and voices," swingman Michael Cooper has said, "the score was already five to nothing for us before the start. That was appropriate. It was subtle. It was dramatic. It was true."
The Lakers won, 109-102. "Caretaker?" said Magic Johnson. "Sure, he's been blessed, but he took the good and made sure it stayed good."
Patrick Riley was born on March 20, 1945, in Rome, N.Y. and was named for the saint whose day had just passed. He was the youngest of the six children produced by Lee and Mary Riley—produced and carted around. "For years my mom had four boys and two girls in a wood-sided station wagon, following my father all over the East while he managed in the minor leagues," says Riley. "We were always in hotels. My early memories are of playing hide-and-seek in dark ballrooms, with rain against the windows."