Pat Riley was walking out of Chuck Daly’s hospital room in 2009, got to the doorway and turned around for another word from his longtime colleague, rival and friend.
Riley remembers it vividly.
”He looked at me, I looked back at him for a pause and he just sort of said, `I’ll see you later,”’ said Riley, the Hall of Fame coach and now president of the Miami Heat. ”I’ll never forget it. That was the last time I saw him.”
Riley and Daly were rivals as coaches, eventually became close friends and now they’re linked once again. The National Basketball Coaches Association selected Riley as this year’s recipient of the Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement Award, which commemorates the former Detroit coach’s life in basketball and his ”standard of integrity, competitive excellence and tireless promotion” of the game.
Riley is the fifth person to receive the award, joining Tommy Heinsohn in 2009, Jack Ramsay and Tex Winter in 2010 and Lenny Wilkens in 2011.
”This is not an award,” Riley said. ”This is something somebody bestows on you. I’m very honored that the coaches association would do this.”
Riley has been part of the NBA for more than 40 years, with 1,210 wins and 21 playoff appearances as a head coach, a slew of charitable undertakings in Miami, Los Angeles and New York — and his team often speaks to how much they enjoy simply being around him.
”Well, for us as a team, he means a lot,” Heat forward LeBron James said. ”You know, he put together this team, and we just look at his resume. We look at his experience, either as a player, as a coach or as an executive. He’s done some great things. … Any insight that he gives you, he’s giving it because of experience. He knows all about it. He’s won at the highest level multiple times.”
The award comes with perhaps extra significance this year, with so much attention on the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team — the team of NBA stars that went to the 1992 Olympics and won a gold medal, with Daly leading the way as the coach.
”I think the perspective was very clear what that team was and what that team was about,” Riley said. ”He had absolute confidence being around these types of players, tremendous confidence challenged them in such a way that I don’t think anybody else could have challenged them.”
Riley’s team has some challenges these days as well, of course.
The Heat are back in the Finals for the second straight year — and in a touch of irony, Rick Carlisle, who coached the Dallas Mavericks to last year’s championship against Miami, is the president of the association. Carlisle was among the group that selected Riley as this year’s Daly award recipient.
”When it came to coaching, Chuck Daly always felt that Pat Riley was the best of the best,” Carlisle said. ”Chuck was a great admirer of Pat’s uncompromising intensity, class and style.”
And style was one of the things Riley and Daly talked about often in the final months of Daly’s life.
Daly was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer early in 2009, and his condition rapidly diminished. He spent much of his final weeks and months around friends and family in South Florida — and Riley often made the hour-or-so drive to better get to know the man he spent so many years coaching against.
Riley was Showtime. Daly was called Daddy Rich. They had the tailored suits, the perfect hairstyles, the look of success.
”He was always dapper and very stylish,” Riley said. ”We talked a lot about clothes, how he loved to go shopping, window shopping, go try on things and stuff like that. And then I used to ask him, how can you wear your polo coaching shirt with your collar up? Every time I saw him, he had his collar up. He laughed about it. It was his trademark. I think we were very proud to be a coach. Coaching was very important to us.”
Turns out, they had much more in common than either of them would have likely envisioned.
”We spoke a lot about how we were brought up and why we were so fortunate to do what we do for so long,” Riley said. ”Two Irishmen, there’s a little wall there. You don’t go too deep with it. But we had some fun together.”
Their upbringings were similar in many respects; both preached about the value of work on one’s esteem, and both were intensely driven by winning. Their teams met twice in the NBA Finals, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers winning in 1988, Daly and the Pistons beating the Lakers in 1989.
”I took a lot from Chuck in those encounters,” Riley said.
At Daly’s funeral in Tequesta, Fla., in 2009, Riley was moved to tears. Many of Daly’s best Pistons were there — Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Vinnie Johnson were pallbearers. And Carlisle, who was an assistant under Daly, attended as well, even though his Mavericks had a playoff game that night in Denver. Carlisle said missing the funeral was just not an option. He made it to the game in plenty of time.
That’s how much Daly meant to people.
”I think we all aspired to be like him,” Riley softly said that day. ”We couldn’t.”
The Daly award marks lifetime achievement, but Riley hopes that his achievements keep coming, that his Heat will deliver what would be the eighth NBA championship of his career as a player, assistant, head coach and executive.
”I’m immersed in this whole thing,” Riley said. ”I just don’t have my hands around its throat like I used to have, which I don’t want anymore. But it’s a tremendous honor for me to do this and to be awarded this thing. Being actively involved in it, especially at this date, I’m proud that I am because I think I can speak to Chuck’s legacy even more than I am active and I know him personally.”