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"I was numb," said Riley at the time. "I thought the firing was terrible." He spoke loyally of Westhead, even defended his offense. But quickly Riley's Lakers got back running. "Riles played to our strengths," said Norm Nixon, then the Lakers point guard. The team won 17 of its next 20 games.
"Then we went 18 and 14, and I became more of a coach," said Riley. "I realized it was O.K. to demand things of them." He got a splendid response. The Lakers beat the 76ers in six games to win the 1982 championship.
"Experience has nothing to do with it," said Abdul-Jabbar, who had played against Riley as far back as high school. He meant formal, paid-up-dues coaching experience.
In fact, experience was all. The events of Riley's life, his defining embrace of basketball as a kid, his acceptance of role playing, his exposure to great teachers, his determination to keep learning, his tempering year away, his polishing of his communicative skills, perhaps even the childlessness of his marriage, and yes, the hair and the clothes, all combined to assemble a coach of deftness and charm.
"It's like he was groomed for it," says Bertka.
"Sure, he inherited a situation where he should be able to win," says West, "but not only has he won, he's won with fun."
Everyone speaks of what kind of team Riley inherited. That's always the word—inherited. It is as if someone, a father figure at that, has to die before a team can be passed on. Of course Riley has been absurdly fortunate about who gets delivered to him to nurture, and be nurtured by. It was obviously a full lifetime's luck that he came up with Chris, and then there were Rupp and then the Lakers, and now that the Rileys have adopted a baby, 8-month-old James turns out to be the most amiable child who ever stared bug-eyed at a world of people as tall as his house.
"Now that the baby has given him another interest, that will be good," says Bertka, who sees Riley's drive as both asset and potential liability. "I'm with him day and night during the season. I hear the engine. His mind never leaves the game. Thank God he goes to movies."
This Riley does often, in the afternoons, when all that can be done has been. Of course, given his town and his Gentleman's Quarterly style (he recently turned down an invitation to be photographed for that magazine), Riley has himself come under scrutiny for movie roles. In this way he met screenwriter and director Robert Towne.
"I was considering him for the part of a cop in a script I'm working on called Tequila Sunrise," says Towne. "I went to a game and introduced myself and said, 'The look in your eyes is right.' "