A more enduring lesson was bestowed on him by his teammates. "Tommy Kron and Larry Conley sacrificed for Louie Dampier and me to be All-Americas," he says. "I may have done a disservice in not fully realizing it then, but they taught me the value of role players." That was a lesson that would serve him well in the NBA.
Riley had a herniated disk in 1966, and Kentucky went only 13-13 in his senior season. After off-season surgery on the disk, he broke into the NBA in 1967 with the expansion San Diego Rockets. "Jack McMahon drafted me first because he had had the same operation I did," says Riley. "He said, 'If he can play with a slipped disk, he's good enough for me.' "
But Riley wasn't, at first. He sat. (Years later with the Lakers, he would become one of the Pine Brothers. "It's a fraternity, with rules. You can't sit casual. You gotta sit tense, elbows on knees. My back went out on me doing that once.") By his second year, Riley had made the switch from forward to guard and was averaging more than 13 points a game. "Then I tore up a knee." After that, injuries would never quite leave him alone.
In 1970 he married Chris Rodstrom, was claimed by Portland in the expansion draft, stayed three weeks, and after a quiet word to the front office from Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn, was bought by L.A. For the next five years he arrived at training camp each September having to prove he belonged on the roster. "I played out of fear," says Riley. "I was always afraid of losing my position. I'd do whatever I had to do to stay on the team. But the Lakers with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West were a hell of a team on which to be a role player."
In 1971 Sharman replaced Joe Mullaney as coach.
"You want a job?" Sharman asked Riley.
"Keep West in shape."
Riley says, "I've never played against a greater guard."
West, now Riley's boss as the Lakers' general manager, says, "I don't know if he played hurt a lot, but when we practiced, I played hurt a lot. The one piece of advice I repeated more than any other was 'Go guard Goodrich.' "