Pat Riley is the Steve Jobs of the NBA.
He really has led the life of Riley.
Pat Riley has won championships in five decades, as a player, a coach and an executive. He has helmed legendary offenses and iron-willed defenses. And as team president of the Miami Heat, he's poised to win yet another trophy, his ninth overall.
But when NBA history looks back on the silver-haired Hall of Famer with the Michael-Douglas-as-Gordon-Gekko countenance, it should anoint him the Steve Jobs of the NBA.
Jobs, if you recall, did not invent innovations frequently associated with him, like an adjunct mouse, graphical user interface and all-in-one housing. But he sought them out, recognized their potential and utilized them to their best advantage.
Riley is the same. Through every era and regardless of his age, he has remained committed to staying on the cutting edge of the sport.
Ironically, though, Riley almost didn't get his chance to be a pioneer.
After winning a championship as a bench player for the Los Angeles Lakers, Riley was a broadcaster when Paul Westhead offered him an assistant coaching position in 1979. The Lakers won a championship under Westhead, but early in the 1981-82 season, when the coach began slowing down the uptempo offense that owner Jerry Buss preferred, Westhead was fired.
It was Jerry West, not Riley, who got the nod to be the next head coach. But West turned down the job.
Riley recognized an opportunity. He explained his next move to the Los Angeles Times:
I said, "Well if nobody wants it, I'll take it." It was all on an interim basis for a while. [Buss] made Jerry [West] go down on the bench with me for about three weeks to make sure I didn't blow this $100-million asset. We won like 12 games in a row or something like that, and here I am today.
Riley dove into the position head first. It was here that his Jobs-like innovating began. Riley watched videotape, an infant technology in 1981, for hours on end, including at halftime to make adjustments. He was perhaps the first coach to do this.
Riley recorded every game, broke down every possession and tried to find any advantage possible. He believed the key to excellence was sweat equity. According to the Los Angeles Times, he famously said following the Lakers' 1987 championship, "Hard work doesn't guarantee anything, but without it you don't stand a chance."
Buss and previous coach Jack McKinney had pioneered the offense, which was eventually called Showtime. But not only did Riley re-implement it, he also improved it.
Riley was one of the first coaches to utilize a trap system to make the defensive scheme match the pace of the offense. His defense innovations also made maximum use of every advantage allowed by the rule books. One of them was the 1-3-1 half-court trap. Many of his schemes were so effective, they led to the league redefining rules governing illegal defenses.
Further, though his name is virtually synonymous with the Lakers' Showtime offense, Riley in fact adapted the offensive scheme to the changing skill sets of his aging players. The year they won their final title in 1987-88, the Lakers had essentially become a half-court team, thanks to Riley's adaptations.
The Detroit Pistons finally unseated Riley's Lakers in 1989. In a very Jobs-like move, Riley recognized the effectiveness of the tough, gritty Pistons style and implemented a similarly physical game when he took over as coach of the New York Knicks.
Riley, who grew up in New York state, was no stranger to toughness. According to high school teammate Paul Heiner, Riley was once involved in a three-on-three game where Riley took an elbow to the face that knocked out a front tooth. Heiner told the Bergen County Record's Bill Pennington, "There was blood gushing out. Pat walked over to where the tooth was and kicked it off the court. And we kept playing."
The Knicks under Riley had the misfortune of playing at the same time and in the same conference as the virtually unbeatable Chicago Bulls under Michael Jordan. But when Jordan retired, Riley guided his flawed Knicks team to Game 7 of the NBA Finals before falling to the Houston Rockets.
When Riley moved on to the Miami Heat as coach and general manager, he built some powerful rosters, but the Bulls and his former Knicks broke their hearts repeatedly in the playoffs. After that, center Alonzo Mourning had to retire unexpectedly due to illness.
Riley, recognizing the need to do something different, finally stepped down as coach and focused on how to build a championship roster. He had drafted a stellar point guard in Dwyane Wade. But he saw what was working around the league: the previous six NBA champions had dominant centers. Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal and the defensively transcendent Ben Wallace had all been the cornerstones in winning their teams championships.
He wanted a center like Wallace, Duncan or O'Neal to replace Mourning. As it turned out, he didn't get a center like them—he got one of them.
O'Neal was being shopped around by the Lakers. Riley, seeing his chance, jumped ahead of the Dallas Mavericks with a quantity-for-quality trade that netted the Heat the big man and the piece Riley believed they needed to win it all. For safety, he even lured a now-healthy Mourning back into the fold in a backup role.
A season later, Riley, back on the sidelines, guided the Heat to their 2006 championship. But the win-now team was constructed mostly with aging veterans. Riley needed to innovate again.
He saw, as the rest of the league did, the signing by the Boston Celtics of two superstar free agents—Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who united with Paul Pierce to catapult the Celtics to an NBA championship and win general manager Ainge an Executive of the Year award.
And when Riley sees something work, he employs it to his best advantage.
So it's not a coincidence that the Miami Heat followed the same recipe for instant relevance, luring LeBron James and Chris Bosh to form an unbeatable trio with Dwyane Wade. It's just another example of Riley recognizing basketball innovation and utilizing it to its fullest extent.
The game has changed in untold ways since Riley first played professionally in 1967 and first coached in 1979. And Riley has changed with it every step of the way.
After several decades in a profession, to be not only relevant but on the vanguard is a monumental accomplishment. With the iPod and then the iPad, Jobs, until his untimely passing, was just such a man.
Watch any Heat game and you'll know in a heartbeat that Riley is such a man as well.