Character Study

From the December 21-28, 1992 issue of New York Magazine.

Pat Riley is in search of character and excellence. Nothing less. He is convinced that they go hand in hand. Most people, he says, think they work hard, but in truth, they really don’t. They are not willing, once they achieve a level of success, to make that constant extra effort to extend their abilities to the highest level. This is true about almost every aspect of life, he thinks, and it is particularly true about professional basketball. He is not impressed by talent without character. He read David McCullough’s splendid biography of Truman and was impressed not just by the quality of the book but by McCullough’s work habits. Riley is always on the lookout for the defining moment when character manifests itself; with McCullough, that came when the biographer walked the same steps that Truman had walked on the day he received the news of Roosevelt’s death. That, to his mind, was excellence.

Excellence, it should be noted, exists in things both great and small. Thus, there was the cable he sent his former broadcast partner Bob Costas for the exceptional job Costas was doing as the anchorman of the Barcelona Olympics, a job worthy of Riley’s expectations. Still, there was a flaw in Costas’s performance that bothered Riley. So his cable arrived several days into the games, congratulating Costas for his work. Then came the zinger: “But the ties, Bob, the ties!”

Riley has always driven himself to maximize his own talents. The world of basketball was changing while he was still in college in the mid-sixties. It was clear to him early in his pro career that he would never be a star and that just staying in the game would be a challenge. After three years with the then—San Diego Rockets (and coming perilously close to the tail end of his own professional career), he had a chance to stay in the league by signing with the Lakers. His marching orders were very clear. “Do you want a job on this team?” Fred Schaus, the general manager, asked. “Your job is to keep Jerry West and Jimmy McMillian in shape—to push them very hard every day in practice. Don’t back off them. Make them work hard.” So he stayed in the league as practice fodder. He gladly took the job and the assignment that confirmed the most elemental lesson of life: that the great sin was to be outworked by someone else at anything. It kept him in the league for five more years, and it meant that he went against one of the great players of all time every day in practice, in itself an education.

When he became coach for the Lakers, his strengths were often lost amid the obvious talent of his players. The Lakers, after all, had Kareem, Worthy, and the remarkable Earvin Johnson, a player whose sense of achievement came only from the success of others. Certainly, coaching a team with Magic Johnson gave him an asset few others had. “Somehow, unbeknownst even to himself, he had already learned the most important thing in life: He had learned that to get out of the game what he wanted—which was to be a winner—he had to use his rare abilities to help his teammates get out of the game that which they wanted,” Riley says admiringly of Johnson. Coaching the Lakers, therefore, always looked easier than it was: Just wear Armani suits, comb your hair back in a style straight out of Gatsby, give Magic the ball, coast through the season, hope to beat the Celtics or the Pistons in June, and then hand out the rings. Instead, the real challenge was keeping so much talent so finely tuned in a league where the young players are millionaires now before they hit their first shot: It was a constant challenge making sure that their rings were on their fingers and not in their heads.

The best thing about the extraordinary job Riley did with the Knicks last year—taking a seriously flawed group of overachievers, and guiding them to 51 wins—was that everyone who cared about basketball understood for the first time how good he was, and it cast his previous achievements with the Lakers in a different light; self-proclaimed connoisseurs of the sport began to reflect on the Laker years, on how easily that very same group of egocentric young millionaires might have unraveled even earlier. As it was, his tour there lasted nine years, and it ended only when it became clear that the demons that drove him for excellence were no longer matched by the demons that drove his players. It was time for him to go. He broadcast for one season and did it well and might, if he had wanted to, have done it even better; he worked hard in his new apprenticeship—Costas, his partner, was impressed not so much by Riley the broadcaster as by Riley the student of broadcasting, and by his hunger to learn. It was also true, however, that he never entirely committed himself to broadcasting, that he was careful never to say anything over the air that might be used against him if he ever decided to go back to coaching.

He studied Costas carefully, understanding that he was a consummate professional. He and Costas paired off well, and one day on the air, Costas suggested a competition to see who was the better foul shooter. “The loser has to wear his hair like the winner,” Riley said. For Costas, that meant a gel and a sweptback look; for Riley, a blow-dried look. Costas, who is a very good shooter, won. Riley got out the blower and did his hair; even as he did it, with, as he said, 40 million people watching, “it occurred to me how much I missed coaching.”

The Knicks got lucky when both Riley and David Checketts came here to run a once-proud franchise in a city that cares desperately about basketball. The Knicks team he took over was virtually an expansion franchise plus one great (but increasingly disenchanted) player. It was not an easy season—everything had to be relearned, most notably the concept of the team. At first, the players lacked unity; they had too many cliques, and they did not believe in one another. One day midway in the season, he broke them down and made them stand in the locker room, clique by clique. “This is what we are,” he said. “Look at us, a bunch of cliques, not a team.” They won seven of their next eight and began to come together more as a team. In addition, he gave them a signature: No team would play harder, and no team would be more physical. When they took out the Detroit Pistons in the season’s most satisfying playoff series, they stole the Pistons’ own trademark of tough play (so that the entire league could enjoy the pleasure of hearing the Pistons whine about how physical the Knicks were). They had no right to go to seven games against the Bulls, but they did. That will be their signature again. “Our culture will be physical,” Riley says. They will act more professionally—he has already come down hard on some of the younger players for talking trash during games. Toughness in the world of Riley is playing hard, being in good condition, and being mentally strong, not swaggering or blustering on the court.

He is the right coach for New York: smart, tough, professional. His presence is exceptional, but his presence—the looks, the clothes, the cool, all of which seem to demand the attention of the camera—simply exists. There is no preening. If others take the look more seriously than the skills and the work habits and the character, then that is about the eye of the beholder. The look seems born in Hollywood, but it is a product of something much deeper: upstate New York, an essentially blue-collar life. Riley is the son of a minor-league baseball manager who never got the chance to manage in the majors and turned late in his life to alcohol. It is the son vindicating the father, quite possibly the most powerful drive of all. Lee Riley fought back from alcohol to take a job as a janitor at a parochial school. When he was asked to coach the school’s baseball team, he agreed, on the condition that he be allowed to coach in his janitor’s clothes. That was pride, thinks the son, that there be no dissembling. In the eyes of one of Pat Riley’s friends, screenwriter Bob Towne, the man in the Armani and the parochial-school coach in his janitor’s clothes are the same man; both exist only on their own terms.

This season, thanks to Checketts’s acknowledged skill in dealing with the salary cap, the Knicks should be much better by mid-season—certainly the talent level appears to be better. But it will not be easy. The changes in the team are considerable; there are seven new players, many of them still trying to adjust not only to new teammates but to their own new roles, and if they are to come together it will probably be later in the season. But they will play hard, and they will play unselfishly, for those are Riley trademarks. He will accept nothing less. Early in the season, in a game in which the Knicks rallied at the end to beat a weak Boston team in the Garden, they played poorly and shot under 33 percent. It was not an easy victory, and it was most demonstrably not an artistic one. But in Riley’s world, everything begins with character. Thus, as he later told the beat reporters, his players could not hit lay-ups, they could not hit jumpers, and they could not make foul shots. “But to play hard … as a coach it is something to die for,” he said.

Character Study