I love this place," says Pat Riley, inclining his face to the sun, squinting a little, bathing in the light. He is sitting on a bench on a bluff overlooking Santa Monica Bay. Below is Will Rogers State Beach, known as State Beach to the volleyball players, sand-encrusted philosophers and other energetic malcontents who populate it, as Riley once did.
"I come here when I'm in need of inspiration. I think that way is north," he says, pointing west, up the bright path of the late September sun to the horizon, where steel-blue water becomes cottony air, and the canyons above Malibu come down to the sea in a misty joining.
Riley is deeply tanned and wrapped in soft sweats. The famous swept-back hair is lighter and drier than one might have expected after studying him standing in profile beside the L.A. Lakers' bench throughout every NBA championship series game for the last four years.
His has been a remarkable stewardship. The Lakers won the NBA title in 1982, his first year as their coach, defeating the Philadelphia 76ers. They lost to them in 1983, and lost to the Boston Celtics in the overheated series of 1984. Then last season, in the most gratifying circumstances possible, L.A. finished off the Celtics in Boston, 111-100, to win the championship four games to two. Before that game, Boston had won eight of eight NBA finals from Laker teams, dating back to 1959. More than half of the 15 championship banners hanging in the rafters of Boston Garden represented bitter Laker defeats. Riley ended that.
Yet little has appeared that might allow one to discover just how he did it. Riley's wardrobe has often been celebrated, as has his bizarre ascension to the Lakers' coaching job in 1981 at the age of 36. That a natty boulevardier was able to step from the broadcast booth to the bench often leads to the suggestion that Riley is a "caretaker" coach. With such talent as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin (Magic) Johnson, who among us could not go and do likewise? Even his splendid marriage of 15 years, says his effervescent wife, Chris, diverts the casual eye from the substance of the man and his achievement.
But Riley knows about diversion. "Life," he says from his bench above the sea, "is a very simple process, but we all get distracted from the universal rights and wrongs that we all know. A team can have its attention divided by peripheral opponents like the fans, the press, even players' families, though it seems wrong to call a family an opponent. Just now the distraction is all this talk about no team having repeated as NBA champions for 16 years."
Indeed, 10 minutes after the Lakers had whipped Boston, Abdul-Jabbar, at the apex of his exultation, was asked if the Lakers could repeat in 1986. It was a measure of the man's control that he refrained from even the mildest epithet. Instead, he said, craftily, "We're the only ones who can."
"I've written to the team this year," continues Riley, "about not letting the fact of other teams not being able to repeat influence us into not repeating ourselves. About not letting the perceptions or expectations of others bear us down."
It is natural then that Riley express a wish that any inquiry into his story involve only the essentials and not the side issues. "I guess I have been sort of shallowly characterized," he says. "The superficial image has seemed to obscure the deep-seated principles that any success is founded on."
So on the bench above the Pacific a deal of sorts is struck. Riley will speak of the motives and truths of his game, and life, and how he came to them. Thus entrusted, the listener will kindly get them right. This arrangement, it turns out, is not too different from the one he has with his players.