Riley credits Schenectady roots to career of success
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. Pat Riley punched the air a little bit as he described conversations he’s had with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It’s the kind of gesture that friends use to amplify a verbal jab they’re delivering.
Riley has a lot of friends around here, at the National Basketball Hall of Fame.
Some of them had jerseys hanging from the wall of the Special Exhibits Gallery Friday morning — Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaq O’Neal; some were right here in person, like fellow class of 2008 Hall of Fame inductee Patrick Ewing; and a busload of them were on their merry way from Schenectady, old friends from the neighborhood ready to celebrate the Linton High graduate’s enshrinement in basketball’s most hallowed place.
Riley, 63, was formally inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, along with Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Adrian Dantley, Dick Vitale, Cathy Rush and William Davidson.
His coaching career with the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat would have been enough to get him enshrined, but Riley’s body of work as a player came first, and certainly propelled him to greatness. He was a college All-American at the University of Kentucky and a high school All-American at Linton, where it all started, and Riley spared no words in praising the influence Schenectady had on him.
“They did a hell of a lot more for me than I ever did for them, so when I go back and give whatever I can, it’s always important,” he said during a morning press conference.
“All the people that are coming have shared something great with [wife] Chris and I and my family. I grew up with them, that’s my taproot. They’re going to bust my chops, big-time, at the party after, but I love them dearly, and Schenectady, New York, is where it’s all about for me.”
During the formal enshrinement in the evening, Riley was co-presented by former Lakers greats and Hall of Famers Jerry West and Johnson.
This whole weekend was bound to have a strong Lakers theme, with many of Riley’s former players in attendance, but Schenectady, the springboard for everything Riley has accomplished, was well represented, too.
As far as busting chops go, Riley can give as good as he gets.
One of his fondest memories is of the 1961 game between Linton and Power Memorial from New York City, then featuring a promising freshman center named Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Blue Devils won, 74-68.
“That was always discussed when we wanted to rib each other,” Riley said, jabbing his fist on “rib.” “Again, this is part of my whole journey. I had an opportunity in high school to play against the greatest scorer in the history of the NBA. He was in ninth grade at the time, and he was just developing all of the things that we saw Kareem do in his years. We ended up beating them in that game, and I let him know that. We fouled him out. He only played eight minutes in the game. So he always says, ‘Yeah, I only played eight minutes in that game.’
“We didn’t play them the next year, and then I went to the University of Kentucky, they came back up and played us in the tournament and beat us by 70 or something like that. I say, ‘But I wasn’t there.’ ”
No, he was off becoming a college All-American and helping Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats reach the 1966 national championship game against Texas Western (now UTEP), which beat Kentucky and became the subject of the movie “Glory Road.”
Riley played on the Lakers’ 1972 NBA champion team and was known for having to guard West during practice.
He eventually became a Lakers assistant under Paul Westhead, who was fired shortly after Johnson, then a rookie, asked to be traded because he didn’t like playing for Westhead. Owner Jerry Buss named Riley the new head coach.
“I never coached anything,” Riley said. “Jerry [West] said, ‘Look, you’ll be fine. Just throw the ball to Kareem and let Magic run the show. For a couple of weeks, I just let them handle it.’”
Riley won NBA titles with the Lakers in 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988, reviving a rivalry with the Celtics that he has said mirrored the matchups he used to have with Linton against Mont Pleasant.
Riley, whose all-time coaching record is 1,210-694 and ranks third behind Lenny Wilkens and Don Nelson on the all-time wins list, joined the Knicks in 1991 for four seasons in which New York reached the NBA Finals in 1994.
Those teams featured players like Ewing, Charles Oakley, Mark Jackson, Anthony Mason, John Starks and Xavier McDaniel, who were rugged defenders and contrasted sharply with Riley’s fast-break Lakers teams.
“These guys are tough guys, they’re mentally tough, physically tough, that’s who they were,” Riley said. “The team asked me what would be a good marketing campaign for the team. I said take a camera, put it at the top of the Garden, shoot it down at the key, and put the chalk line of the dead person there, and just say, ‘Stay out of the paint.’ That’s the kind of team we had. Maybe if I gave them a little more finesse, we would’ve won the title. And if I had kept Doc Rivers active in ’94, we probably would’ve won. I always go back and think about that.”
Among the memorabilia Riley will donate to the Hall of Fame are the championship ring he won with the Miami Heat in 2006; the navy blue suit, shirt and tie he wore in Dallas when the Heat clinched the title on June 20, 2006; and his old No. 12 Lakers jersey.
BACK IN TOWN
He’ll be at Proctors Theatre on Monday for the Schenectady City School District Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“Sixteen coaches I’ve had, my father being one of them. Walt Przybylo and Adolph Rupp were the two most influential in my formative years,” Riley said. “Walt Przybylo, my high school coach, he set the attitude right, and Adolph Rupp created a player that could play and also have a work ethic.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, it was idyllic, it really was. It was a factory town. General Electric basically employed 80 percent of the people, they had a city center and Central Park. They had Mont Pleasant and Linton High, the rivalry. It simply was what Americana really was about in the ’50s and ’60s.
“Now, it makes me proud to be from there, because it was a great place to be raised. All of my friends that didn’t leave, they stayed there and supported the community and worked as police officers, firemen, opened up restaurants — Italian restaurants. So Schenectady will always be a special, special place for me.”