That kind of loving support let Riley understand that his anguish wasn't punishment. He hadn't done anything wrong. Like other deaths, this one was inevitable. "It was the best time for me," Riley says, rather bravely. "A necessary time."
The energies that had flowed into the game for so long would not stay bottled up. He made over the house, sheathing it in roughsawn cedar, knocking out walls, opening up ceilings. But he left the doorways at 6'4". "I built it this way," Riley says now, "so the players would have to bow to me as they entered." By the time he was done showing the 7'2" Abdul-Jabbar through the house, Riley had assumed a sympathetic crouch. Chris left one morning expecting Pat to remove some ivy that had overgrown a little garden cabana. When she came home, he had leveled the whole building. He rebuilt it into a video workroom.
He hung out at the beach and made a new set of friends. He wrote a 400-page book about life in basketball and his thoughts on the game; it has never seen a reader outside the family. And once he went to watch a Laker game.
He didn't want to go to the dressing room. He knew he couldn't force the old intimacies back into being. But at least he could stroll through the press lounge. He was met at the door. "No ex-players," he was told. He turned and walked, raising his hand to his face, looking at his world championship ring. "That was about a hundred pages in the book right there," he says.
But not everyone wished him away. "In 1977, when I was wandering," says Riley, "Chick Hearn called. He got me back into basketball as his color man on TV and simulcasts." Riley threw himself into this new craft with all the old thoroughness. He learned video. He took voice. He began to produce insightful studies of players and wonderful halftime pieces of plays set to music.
Early in the 1979-80 season, Laker coach Jack McKinney was seriously injured in a bicycle accident. He was replaced by his assistant, Paul Westhead, who in turn asked Riley to be his assistant.
"I was so involved with video by then that I hesitated," says Riley. But Hearn, who also holds the title of assistant general manager of the Lakers, had detected coaching tendencies in his color man. "I told him he ought to try it," says Hearn. "I saw a question in his eyes. I guaranteed he'd always have a contract in the booth if it didn't work out."
So Riley went back to the pine. The Lakers, uplifted by Westhead, a Shakespearean scholar, and by the flowering genius of the 20-year-old Magic Johnson, went on to win the NBA title in 1980. Riley studied and, saying he was tired of the page-boy look, began combing his hair back and spraying it into glossy obedience. This worked a dramatic change. Before, his cascading locks and bushy mustache made him look like a guy headed for the Kentucky coal mines, or maybe a forklift driver in a bonded warehouse. Now he looked like his father. Now he looked like a coach.
In 1981 the Lakers, trying to repeat as NBA champions, lost ingloriously to the Houston Rockets in a first-round playoff miniseries as Johnson, on Westhead's orders, took the final shot and missed everything. The following fall, 11 games into the '81-82 season, Johnson asked publicly to be traded. The next day, Laker owner Jerry Buss fired West-head. The problem was said to be Westhead's patient, half-court offense. It was, though Westhead had found disfavor in other ways. Witness West, who, explaining the hunt for a replacement, said, "We wanted someone who was familiar with what we were doing, but with a different personality."
They picked Pat Riley—sort of. In a weird press conference, Buss announced that West and Riley would co-coach. But West, who had already had a thoroughly dissatisfying three-year stint as the Laker coach, then stepped to the microphone and said, "No, Riley's the coach."