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The thousand lives of Pat Riley

The Godfather of the NBA will be taking part in his 19th final. In 25% of the series for the title he has been as a player, coach or executive.

The Godfather of the NBA will be taking part in his 19th final. In 25% of the series for the title he has been as a player, coach or executive.
Michael ReavesGetty Images

How many characters in the entire history of the NBA have been more important to the competition than Pat Riley? It’s is possible to count the answer to that question on the fingers of one hand - with some fingers left over... At 78, the Godfather, born in Schenectady, in eastern New York, has just accomplished one of the things he enjoys more than anything - beating the Boston Celtics. Almost forty years after the first time he managed it, in the 1985 Finals and as coach of a Lakers side who were finally able to shake off the traumas of many years of defeat.

Riley, president of the Miami Heat, is about to experience 19th NBA final. He starred in three as a player, another 10 as a coach and already six as an executive. The figures state a simple fact: he has participated, in one way or another, in 25% of all the finals that have been played.

With the Lakers he was crowned a champion as a player (1972), assistant coach (1980) and four as main coach between 1982 and 1988 - the epitome of pure 80s showtime: Armani suits, hair gel and a run of success which, given the rule that a coach could not repeat the All-Star Game for two years in a row was called the Pat Riley rule. There was no other way not to have it there every year.

Back in the Big Apple

After Los Angeles, where he became a celebrity as well as a legendary coach on the NBA’s 75th anniversary Top 15 list, he managed the Knicks from his native New York. He fought epic battles with Michael Jordan’s Bulls and ended up in the Miami Heat, where his arrival in 1995 turned an almost newborn franchise (founded in 1988) into one of the biggest teams in the NBA from that moment on.

He forged the team of Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning and the one that was crowned champions in 2006, with him on the bench, and to the rhythm of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal. Later, as president alone, he devised the mother of all big threes: LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade. That Heat side played four finals in a row and won two other titles (in 2012 and 2013). And now, finally, he has forged this iron team led by Jimmy Butler and who is in his second final in the last four years.

As a player, a struggling forward who had come out of Kentucky, he was a worker in the legendary 1972 Lakers side, who were champions with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and the team that continues to boast the longest winning streak - 33 wins. Then he walked away from basketball and travelled the beaches of California in search of answers only to end up returning. That’s life, to the Lakers: television analyst, assistant, gigantic coach... A unique guy, a winner, and now, the one in charge of the Miami Heat always finding ways to compete. It’s etched into your DNA.