Armed with the insight of Laker lifer Bill Bertka, who remains with the team to this day as the Director of Scouting/Basketball Consultant, we continue our Lakers History series on the team’s head coaches with Pat Riley. He led the “Showtime” era Lakers to the NBA Finals in seven of his nine seasons, winning four championships along the way.
PAT RILEY (1982-90)
LAKERS COACHING RECORD:
PAT RILEY (1982-90)
When Paul Westhead fell out of favor in Los Angeles just 12 games into the 1982-83 season, his assistant, Pat Riley, was thrust into the top seat. Riley had been a fiery, hard-working guard in his days as an NBA player, most notably as a backup to Jerry West and Gail Goodrich on L.A.’s record-breaking 1972 squad, and the coach of that team, Bill Sharman, was now GM. Among Riley’s first moves as coach was to bring Bill Bertka, whom Riley had respected greatly as a scout for Lakers teams of the past before taking a GM position in New Orleans, onto his staff.
“Pat asked me to come back in 1982, as we had gotten close during the 1971-72 season,” recalled Bertka. “Pat really liked the scouting and the film work when he was a player, so when he took over, he asked me to join him.
“Jerry West attributes Riley’s intensity to keeping him going, because he’d play the heck out of West in practice. Riley was always ready to play, always in condition, and that kind of intensity was always reflected in his coaching career as well.”
Riley’s first team was loaded with talent: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Mitch Kupchak, Bob McAdoo, Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis all played at least 17.7 minutes per game. L.A. went 57-25, swept Phoenix and San Antonio in the Western Conference playoffs and defeated a tough Philadelphia squad featuring Julius Erving 4-2 in the NBA Finals.
Now the team’s General Manager, then-player Kupchak averaged 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds in 26 games before hurting his knee, but he’d continue to play for Riley through the 1985-86 season.
"I ran the gamut for Pat when he was just starting and establishing himself as a young coach still learning, and four years later when he had solidified his position in the league,” said Kuchak. “The thing I liked about him was that he believed in work, no short cuts; practices were hard and well-organized.”
Kupchak appreciated that Riley’s focus on hard work, running, defense and fundamentals mirrored the North Carolina program he experienced under Dean Smith.
Those principals coupled with terrific talent to oversee a golden era of Lakers basketball, in which Riley’s teams made it to the Finals in all but two of nine seasons, boasting a remarkable overall winning percentage of 72.5 percent.
The 1982-83 season saw 58 regular season wins and defeats of San Antonio and Portland out West, then a repeat matchup with Philadelphia in the Finals, but with Moses Malone joining forces with Dr. J, L.A. found itself on the wrong end of a 4-0 sweep. The Lakers returned to the Finals again the following year after defeating Kansas City, Dallas and Phoenix in the newly-expanded conference playoffs, before ultimately losing in a tough seven-game series to Larry Bird and the Celtics.
The 1984-85 season brought 62 wins and set L.A. up for easy conference victories over Phoenix (3-0), Portland (4-1) and Denver (4-1), and who else but Boston was waiting in the Finals.
But this time, after nine failed attempts in the Finals, the Lakers would prevail, bouncing back from the Memorial Day Massacre – Game 1’s 148-114 loss on May 27 – to win 4-of-5 game to clinch the championship, led by Finals MVP Abdul-Jabbar’s all-around performance.
“I think the greatest moment in Pat’s professional life and my life to that point was when we beat Boston in 1985, the breakthrough year,” remembers Bertka. “We were running off the court together, and I’ll never forget it as long as I live. We were so euphoric we were just insane with it.
“The pressure was off, the mission was accomplished. The anxiety that builds up each and every game is crippling almost, and then when all of a sudden you’ve finally won, there are people that would pay millions after such a victory. That’s an addiction. You can’t replace it.”
The team’s streak of four straight trips to the Finals would be snapped the following year when Riley’s crew lost to Houston in the Western Finals. But 1986-87 saw one of the best Lakers teams in history head back to the Finals, against to face Boston, and this time it was series MVP Magic Johnson and his Game 4 Jr. Jr. Skyhook that highlighted a 4-2 series win, Riley’s third title. Famously, Riley got up on the podium at L.A.’s championship parade to guarantee that his Lakers would win it again the next season … and so they did.
The fourth and final championship under Riley came in 1988 as the Lakers defeated Detroit in seven games, with Byron Scott, Mychal Thompson and A.C. Green helping out the still-in-tact trio of Magic, Kareem and Worthy. But as L.A. reached the Finals yet again after the 1988-89 season, hamstring strains hobbled both Johnson and Scott, and Detroit came back to sweep the Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar had played his last season, and even without Kareem, the 1989-90 Lakers won 60 games, but ultimately lost to Phoenix in the Western Semi’s. Riley was named Coach of the Year, but after an incredible run in Los Angeles, he decided to step down as the winningest Lakers coach to that time, with 635 wins to only 241 losses, and most importantly, the four NBA titles.
LAKERS COACHING RECORD:
Regular Season: 533-194 (.733)
Playoffs: 102-47 (.685)
Total: 635-241 (.725)