November 6, 1997
Rick Pitino and Pat Riley represent Examples 1 and 1A of the Celebrity Coach, the individual who is an asset to any organization on and off the court. They are men of letters, at least by the standards of the 1990s, when Dennis Rodman and Howard Stern sell books. Their oeuvres share secrets of success, motivation, preparation, decorum. They command five-figure fees to speak, and there are many companies willing to pay.
They also win. Well, one of them does, anyway. Riley prevailed in the first meeting of the messiahs as his Miami Heat beat the Celtics, 90-74. It wasn't as close as the score indicated.
"It's very hard for Rick, starting from the beginning," Riley said after the game. "But that's what he's here for. That's why I was hired by Miami. It's very, very hard to change the culture. People aren't used to it. The normal becomes the abnormal and then it becomes the normal. Three-hour practices. Things like that. That's what they have to get used to."
Until this year, Riley and Pitino's paths rarely crossed. When Pitino coached the Knicks, Riley was on the other coast with the Lakers. When Riley coached the Knicks, Pitino was at Kentucky. Riley, of course, played at Kentucky.
Pitino ruled a bluegrass fiefdom in Kentucky, getting the luxury box at Churchill Downs and the preferred tee times at Valhalla. He was on every NBA team's wish list. He ruled as much as any college coach can. Last night he watched the player who saved his program, Jamal Mashburn, torch the Celtics.
Riley was the acknowledged precedent-setter among current NBA coaches who feel that the burden of X's and O's warrants unmatched clout. He wanted power, control, and money, landmark dollars for the time. When John Calipari was being romanced by the Nets, he refused to settle for anything less than "Riley Money." Pitino may have made that phrase moot in terms of salary, but Riley will own 20 percent of the Heat if he stays 10 years.
Riley wasn't the first to run the entire show. Others had done it before, such as Red Auerbach in the 1960s and Don Nelson in the '80s. But in an era when business and basketball intersect at almost every turn, Riley became the first CEO coach. Pitino is the second.
While Pitino denies that he sought the title of team president, is it merely coincidental that Riley is the only other one who holds the titles of head coach and president? Pitino said he simply wanted the overall authority "to make sure everyone was on the same page." But among his colleagues, he seems to place Riley a notch above everyone else, which, given their mutual obsessions with detail, precision, winning, and secrecy, seems natural.
"Absolutely," said Leo Papile, the Celtics' head scout and longtime Pitino buddy. "Among his coaching peers, I think it borders on reverence. He likes the fact that Pat has been so versatile, winning 60 games with two completely different teams."
That is so. That is only a part of it.
"I love his work ethic," Pitino said. "He's a lifer. But he's also a lot different from me in that he's a self-taught coach. He worked at it so hard for so long."
Riley admires Pitino's do-it-my-way determination. He also sees the need for order, and of course, there was no greater need for order anywhere than here.
"The owners are looking at this sport as big business, and you have to have decorum," Riley said. "You should have one solid voice. And it can be tough in the beginning when it doesn't go well. We had some rough times here. But Rick is a tough-minded individual. People are going to want to see him fail. But he will turn it around."
Pitino's first major administrative hire came from Riley's stable. General manager Chris Wallace was in Miami working in various capacities for the Heat when Pitino scooped him up. Riley did not relent easily, talking about seeking draft picks in return before coming to his senses.
Wallace sees a lot in common between the two el jefes.
"They both are certainly driven," Wallace said. "There's driven and then there's driven with a capital D. That's what they are. They're constantly looking for that edge, and neither one is ever satisfied. They always are looking for that next mountain to climb."
One was less unsatisfied than the other after last night's game. There are vastly different expectations for the two teams: Miami is coming off a division title, while the Celtics are trying to raise the Titanic. Pitino even said, "It's not going to happen this year. I've said that all along."
Well, um, we did hear not too long ago that the future is now. But everyone assumes it will happen someday because it always has before. And in the end, that's what makes these two so similar. They win. In the NBA, you don't get to be the coach and president by marrying the boss's daughter.