Pat Riley's past and present greatness converges

His Heat attempt to pass Heat president's Lakers' win streak

Every now and then, because he's led the most fascinating life in basketball history, Pat Riley's past and present collide. It happened in those vicious Heat-Knicks playoffs. It happened when he took Shaquille O'Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers.

Now it's happening again with this Heat win streak. It brings full circle an extraordinary career that's part Marlon Brando, part Forrest Gump, but a completely authentic mix of character and excellence.

That Riley assembled this Heat team when no competitor imagined it, speaks of his vision and daring. That he played on the 1971-72 Lakers whose 33-straight wins the Heat now chase speaks to the side of Riley lost amid the Armani's.

"One thing about Pat — he's tenacious," his Lakers teammate, Jerry West, was saying Friday over the phone. "I'd say to him in practice, 'Go beat the hell out of [Gail] Goodrich, I'm tired.' "


PHOTOS: 2013 Billboard Latin Music Awards

There's a good story behind West's story. It explains who Riley is as much as this Heat team displays it. Riley was just trying to stay in the league with those Lakers after three years in San Diego.

The Lakers' general manager, Fred Schaus, said to him, "Do you want a job on this team? Your job is to keep Jerry West and Jimmy McMillian in shape — to push them very hard every day in practice. Don't back off them. Make them work."

He had a job, a distinct role on a great team and he was a pro's pro at it. He averaged 6.7 points, nearly 14 minutes a game and overworked in practice. His sixth-man role suggests Ray Allen on this Heat team. His numbers suggest Norris Cole.

Riley has talked of those days, of practicing against the best in the game in West, as being an education in greatness. He says he learned something all the best in their business learn at some point — to achieve your dream, help others achieve theirs.

West, you see, won his only career title that season.

"He obviously wanted to play more," West said. "But it was one of those special group of guys, and like all of us he understood that. When you look back, you see how special a group it was."

Riley turned 68 on Wednesday, one of those milestone reminders about the swift current of time. His current creation gave a birthday gift only it could. Down by 27 points in Cleveland, the basketball world figured the streak was over at 23 wins. Or most did.

"I was watching the game, bits and pieces of it, and I think they were behind by 26 when my wife said, 'They're going to lose,' " West said. "I said, 'No, they're going to win by 10.' "

They won by three. And who started it? Shane Battier, a role player Riley picked up two years ago, made the first two comeback shots. Ray Allen, another addition last year, hit a couple more.

LeBron James did much of the damage from there. They're a perfect match, Riley and LeBron. It's not just the overlapping greatness. At times in his coaching, Riley upbraided players for over-talking trash on the court.

Toughness, he always said, is playing hard, not blustering on the court. If dunking on and then standing over yappy Jason Terry is as big an offense as LeBron commits, doesn't he fit Riley's mindset?

Look at Riley's basketball life. Played against Lew Alcindor in high school. Played for Adolph Rupp at all-white Kentucky in the national championship game against all-black West Texas. Played for those great Laker teams against Bill Russell's Celtics. All that before he coached the Lakers and Heat to titles.

Now he's this generation's Red Auerbach, an executive thinking smarter than the others, creating a dream team with a dream player having a dream regular-season run. That he's part of the two winningest streaks in NBA history is a bit happenstance, but should surprise no one.

"I'm happy for my friend, Pat Riley, who was able to do it as a player and now able to replicate it as an executive," West said.

West thinks the Heat has a, "wonderful chance," to break the Lakers' record. He still remembers the aftermath of losing in Milwaukee on Game 34.

"All of us went in the locker room and felt we lost our best friend," West said.

Four decades later, at the other end of his unique career, Riley must feel like a best friend is back. If so, he's enjoying it in fashion. He scouted the NCAA Tournament games Thursday in Salt Lake City.

fl-dave-hyde-commentary-0322-20130321