MIAMI Pat Riley is fond of saying that he's had 16 coaches, the first of whom was his father.
Leon Riley died 38 years ago, but in life's great moments, he still permeates his son's every thought. Pat Riley longed for him to be there when he won his first NBA championship as a head coach in 1982. He spoke eloquently about him two years ago in Dallas as the Miami Heat celebrated their title.
And on Monday, when he was introduced as a new inductee to the Basketball Hall of Fame, Riley's mind was, again, on his dad.
"His voice has always been with me," Riley said. "And it's been the only voice. I lost that voice in 1970. I was 25 years old. And while there's been a lot of other men in my life, most of them coaches, his voice has been the most predominant in my mind."
It'll be there with him in Springfield, Mass., during enshrinement on Sept. 5. The Heat coach and president has been voted a recipient of basketball's highest honor, a long-expected accolade that comes tinged in irony. Riley's Heat have the worst record in the NBA this season at 13-64. For one day, though, all that can be forgotten. He's a Hall of Famer.
The Hall of Fame is about a 90-minute drive from Riley's childhood home, adding even more significance to the honor. The rest of the Hall class includes Patrick Ewing, who played for Riley at New York, along with Hakeem Olajuwon, Adrian Dantley, former Immaculata coach and women's basketball pioneer Cathy Rush, Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson and ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale.
"All I know is what coaches have taught me," Riley said. "Coaching is about respect and I'm so thankful to the people that voted for that respect, for whatever I had contributed to this game."
Riley has five championships as a head coach, one as an assistant and another as a player. He ranks third all-time in NBA coaching victories with 1,208, has the high school gym in his hometown of Schenectady, N.Y., named in his honor, is a best-selling author and is widely considered one of the game's best motivators.
But the Hall's call completes his resume. Most individual awards mean little to Riley, but he acknowledged that this one was different.
"We all want to earn the respect from our peers and also from people that covered us," Riley said. "And I think that's what today is about. It's what I'm going to remember."
Riley remains a legend among high school athletes in New York's capital region, was a star player for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky in the 1960s and was even drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1967 the year he began NBA play with the San Diego Rockets.
"It's an emotional time for Pat, his family, his friends, to know that he's worked that hard," said Ed Maull, one of Riley's closest friends and confidants within the Heat organization. "You stop and think about the guys in that Hall of Fame. You're talking about the Bob Knights, the John Woodens, the Chuck Dalys, the Red Auerbachs. For a man in his profession, you can't get a higher accolade." Riley, the only person to be named NBA coach of the year with three different franchises, received word of the honor last week in what he called "a very, very emotional moment."
And in those moments, he thinks of his first coach.
Leon Riley was a minor league baseball player and manager for most of his life though his stint in the majors lasted just four games with Philadelphia in 1944 and it was from him that Riley's penchant for athletics was born.
"Being somebody who believes in a higher being, I do believe that he's smiling today," Riley said. "And I'm happy for that."
Riley's pro playing career lasted nine seasons. He became head coach of the Lakers in 1981, and also won titles with L.A. in 1985, 1987 and 1988. He coached the Knicks for four seasons, then came to Miami in 1995.
His slicked-back hair and finely tailored suits give the impression that Riley is all about style, but his players know there's much more.
"Riles took guys that didn't have great talent, guys that no one else considered using as players, and turned them into great players," Heat center Alonzo Mourning said. "There's something about having a coach that brings the best out of players. He places very high demands on guys. That's how he got the best out of guys. That's why he's a Hall of Famer."