Pat Riley is now hailed as the architect of the Big Three. But he has remembered fondly being a member of the Magnificent Seven.
Riley has won eight NBA titles as a player, assistant coach, head coach and executive. But 41 years ago, when Riley was trying to make an early mark in the league, there were simpler things that gave him a big thrill.
Riley was a reserve guard whose minutes were up and down while with the San Diego Rockets from 1967-70, his first NBA team. The Rockets were a woeful outfit, but Riley wasn’t even deemed good enough to stick around with them and was made available to Portland in the 1970 expansion draft.
Riley later that year was sold to the Los Angeles Lakers, and he didn’t play too much in 1970-71. But things began to change the next year. After the legendary Elgin Baylor retired early in the season, Riley eventually settled in as a guy who got regular minutes.
“I actually became a rotation player for the good part of the season,’’ Riley said last year. “I remember there was an article (that season) in one of the papers and it was entitled the Magnificent Seven. I had my picture in the paper right there with Jerry (West) and Gail (Goodrich) and Wilt (Chamberlain) and Jimmy (McMillian) and Happy (Hairston) and myself and (reserve big man) LeRoy (Ellis).’’
With Riley providing steady minutes off the bench, that Lakers team reeled off an NBA-record 33 straight games and went a then-record 69-13 en route to the team’s first championship in Los Angeles.
There have been 10 more Lakers titles since, with Riley having been an assistant coach for one and the head man for four. And now Riley, the Miami Heat president who put together the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, has a team on a 27-game winning streak that is threatening the Lakers’ magical mark of 33.
Riley has not been made available by the Heat for interviews during the winning streak. However, he spoke at length last year to FOX Sports Florida about the Lakers’ legendary 1971-72 season.
“It was incredible,’’ Riley said last year. “You always want to be part of the history books and be part of the best.’’
Riley that season averaged 6.7 points and 13.8 minutes while backing up Hall of Fame-bound guards West and Goodrich. He was known for his grit in practice as he tried to make the two even better.
“I have the greatest respect and admiration for Pat,’’ said Bill Sharman, the Hall of Fame coach of those Lakers. “As a player, he always did what was asked of him and he played with great heart and determination.’’
Riley became a popular player on the team. For those reasons, members of the 1971-72 Lakers have some mixed feelings as the Heat try to knock them out of the history books.
“If our record is going to be broken, I am glad that Pat Riley is part of it,’’ Sharman said. “I have the greatest respect and admiration for Pat … If they tie or break the streak, I will be the first one to congratulate him.’’
Sharman might have to rush to pick up the phone. West, who has become best friends with Riley, might beat him to it.
“People say to me, ‘Does it bother you?’ ’’ West said of the Heat chasing the Lakers’ mark. “Absolutely not. I think it’s great for the league and I’m delighted obviously for my friend Pat Riley to be able to maybe replicate this not only as an executive but as a player. It’s pretty special.’’
Riley has remembered the 33-game streak beginning in unexpected fashion. It started immediately after Baylor had retired due to knee problems and the Lakers were 6-3.
Nobody was expecting great things at the time from the Lakers, who were an older team with Chamberlain 35 and West 33. They had gone a hardly spectacular 48-34 the previous season, and coach Joe Mullaney was fired and replaced by Sharman.
“I don’t think anybody believed we were heading in that direction,’’ Riley has said about would unfold. “But it was a major move when Elgin Baylor retired and Jim McMillian was put in the lineup (at small forward) … McMillian simply had an incredible breakthrough season. He was very, very solid. He was almost a perfect complement. He could really defend and had a good shot from medium range.’’
McMillian averaged 18.8 points that season, third on the team behind Goodrich’s 25.9 and West’s 25.8. Chamberlain, once the most dominant scorer in NBA history, became more of a defensive specialist, averaging 14.8 points and 19.2 rebounds and numerous blocks at a time before they had become an official statistic.
“When (the streak) got to 17, 18, 19 and into the 20s, people began to follow the team and there was sense it was special,’’ Riley has said. “You woke up in the morning and the (headline) on the sports section would read, ‘Lakers win 19, win 20, win 26.’ It was an incredible feeling for us.’’
Riley played in 28 games during the streak, averaging 6.9 points. His top two outings were both against Seattle, having scored 18 Nov. 25, 1971 on the road and getting 20 three days later at home.
When the streak finally ended with a 120-104 loss at Milwaukee on Jan. 9, 1973, Riley played, but went scoreless.
“The game was on national television,’’ Riley has recalled. “Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 39 points) was incredible and John Block, a former teammate of mine in San Diego, had (a surprising 17 points). We were blown out.
“It came to an end, but was an incredible run. We were disappointed. We liked to win every game. But (Sharman) walked into the locker room and he said, ‘You know, we did something pretty special. Let’s start another streak.’ And we moved on and won the championship. We dominated in the playoffs.’’
Riley has remembered the euphoria of the Lakers beating New York 4-1 in the Finals for his first NBA title. But he also has remembered that time for something else.
“I was sick as a dog,’’ Riley said last year. “I had strep throat the last 10 days of that season… We had a team party (after winning the title). I laid down and I was in bed for 10 days. I was so sick.’’
But that was about Riley’s only bad memory from that season. He would go on to play four more NBA seasons, but wouldn’t win another title as a player.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Riley has yet to bring up the 1971-72 Lakers during Miami’s winning streak. But Riley often would talk about it prior to 2008, when Spoelstra moved up from being an assistant to replace Riley.
“When he was a coach, he used to tell stories of that season, just how remarkable of a team that was,’’ Spoelstra said. “But he also had an affinity for that team… He fought and scrapped to find a place in the league at the time, and then broke though on one of the best teams of all time. That says something about Pat’s character and drive. And then to become of a part of a team like that… His job was obviously to make Jerry West better and Goodrich and make their lives miserable in practice. But in games he came in with great defensive energy. I’ve heard those stories from him.’’
Four decades later, Riley has remembered with pride being a member of the Magnificent Seven.