"I worked at it," Riley says with a fierce sort of laugh. "No one ever had to tell me to work. I used to get to the arena at four and shoot in the dark for two hours, just to shoot. I used to say, 'If I do poorly, it's never going to be because I don't play regularly.' So when I did get to play, I played well. Once for 13 or so straight games I hit my first shot off the bench."
But his duty lay, to use a Riley word, in service. "I learned quick," he says. "My first year with the Lakers I got to play in a game that was tied with 10 seconds to go. Obviously, West was to take the last shot. Just as obviously the defense had said, 'Forget Riley. Double-team West.' The ball went around the horn, and I got it. I took the shot, and everybody groaned. I missed, I wasn't the hero. But it was that groan I've never forgotten."
For it was the voice of good basketball. "Later Wilt said, 'You got in the way. Just because West was covered didn't mean that you should have gone to the open area. He'd have found a way to get the ball.' After that, he had a way. I got it to him."
"The one thing that tells you most about a person," says West, "is the ability to make transitions. His adjustment to his role was incredible, frankly."
Riley was part of the most glorious year in Laker history, the 1971-72 season, when they won 33 games in a row ("a feat that absolutely cannot be duplicated," says Hearn) and the championship. In 1973 he and Chris bought a small, embowered house in Brentwood. In 1975 he had knee surgery in the summer and was judged slow in coming back. Such is the fickleness of pro ball that he was traded to Phoenix for the draft rights to John Roche and a future draft choice.
His hunger to keep playing verged on desperation. "I used to take novocain and cortisone shots for quadriceps tendinitis," he says. "It was dumb. Once when I was with Phoenix, blood was running down my leg after two injections, one on either side of my knee. I couldn't feel anything below my thigh. That was the mentality then—whatever it took. Players are more careful now of their careers. I never thought, 'What's the worst that could happen to my knee?' Never."
He had sealed himself away from consequences. Basketball and Riley had grown together like two trees, but one was about to die. Riley was waived. He went unclaimed and quit. He was 31.
He went home to Los Angeles, to State Beach and the house in Brentwood. He built an eight-foot fence around it. "I closed myself in," he has said. "I was hiding my bitterness and rage."
Now, in West's test of a man, Riley faced his greatest adjustment. He had to come to terms with a good part of himself being torn away. "It was a year of mourning," he says. "A year of reflection and grieving. I'd spent my whole life with the game as my main force. When it was gone, there was a terrible, aching hollow."
"You see the broken lives of players who don't have careers after their sports," says Chris Riley, who that same year, driven from the house by Riley's 18-hour-a-day carpentry projects, finished her master's degree in educational psychology. "And people say, 'Why didn't you develop something while you were playing?' But I had seen that it took every ounce of what he was to simply make it as a pro, and he would have been silly not to, because the rewards were so great."