Editor’s note: I wrote this piece back in May as the Pat Riley led Heat were closing in on their second straight NBA championship. And I’ve wondered why, with all he’s accomplished in the basketball world, Pat Riley doesn’t get more love from the Big Blue Nation.
Every member of the Big Blue Nation knows the storied history of Kentucky Basketball backward and forward. The names pop of your tongue: Rupp, The Fiddlin Five. Bowie. Goose. Rex. The Unforgettables. The Brow. Delk. Macy. Wah Wah. Mash. But there’s one name that I think gets overlooked: Pat. As in Pat Riley. How can someone that’s had such an impact on the game of basketball receive so little love from the BBN?
As a junior at UK, Riley led the Wildcats to the 1966 NCAA Title Game, where they lost to Texas Western (over dramatized in the movie Glory Road). Pat Riley was and All American in 1966 and was All SEC First Team in 1966 and 67 and was the SEC Player of the Year in 1966. And to prove that Coach John Calipari, didn’t start the tradition of first round draft picks, Riley was drafted number 7 overall by San Diego. And his jersey has been retired and is hanging in the most hallowed of spaces: of the rafters in Rupp Arena. But with all he did as a player, Pat Riley’s greatest influence to basketball was when he became a coach.
Admittedly, I’m a diehard Los Angeles Laker fan, due to the fact that I grew up in the 1980s, the time of the Showtime Lakers. Riley coached the Lakers to four NBA Championships during the decade, helping cement them as the team of the 80s. But after establishing himself as an uptempo style coach out West, Riley took his game East, to New York, to coach the Knicks and totally reinvented himself. He went from focusing on a high octane offense to managing a bruising style of defense, no easy feat. Later, and way before Lebron, he took his talents and tough-minded defense to South Beach, coaching the Miami Heat, and fellow former Wildcats Antoine Walker and Derek Anderson, to the 2006 NBA Championship.
But Pat Riley’s lasting legacy may be the way he pulled the strings on getting LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. He got the greatest player in the NBA to turn his back on his hometown team and join with a bitter rival for less than market value. Not only did Riley get King James to sign (and Bosh as well), but, as Heat team president, he constructed the roster in such a way to enhance James’ strengths, making LeBron even better. As it stands right now, the Heat are the favorites to win the NBA Title for the second year in a row and would be the favorites for at least the next few years. Most people focus on The Decision, I prefer to think that LeBron simply did what a UK alum asked him to do.
From Showtime, to the Knicks (Riley did get the John Starks led Knicks to the 1994 Finals), to Hardaway and Mourning, to D.Wade and Shaq and finally to Miami’s current “Big 3,” it’s safe to say that few people have had a greater impact on the NBA and the game of basketball. So, Big Blue Nation, let’s give one of our own a little more love.