Style & Substance: The Legacy of Pat Riley’s Courtside Looks
When we first meet Riley on the show, he’s a self-confessed washed-up 34-year-old, shaggy and disconsolate and looking for somewhere, anywhere, to apply his creative energies. He finds an ill-fitting outlet as a colour commentator and assistant to Lakers announcer Chick Hearn (Spencer Garrett) — a role he did indeed hold in real life, for the duration of the 1979-1980 season — while holding double-duty as the team’s “travelling secretary,” tasked with “making flight arrangements and handing out boarding passes to players at the departure gate,” as he remembers it in his book The Winner Within. Riley’s serious interest in the fundamentals of the game, as well as his desire to deepen his expertise as a commentator, lead him to shadow coach Paul Westhead after he took over for Jack McKinney; when Westhead was let go in 1981, Riley inherited the job — it was, Riley has said, “an accident of history.”
“When he stepped on the court as a coach, he became a different person: beautifully manicured, impeccably tailored, exuding the sterling professional confidence of a Wall Street investment banker or billionaire CEO.”
Accidental or not, it was a natural fit. Riley’s leadership style — “trusting, firm, fair” — was just what the formerly rudderless Lakers needed in the wake of Westhead’s departure, and from the moment he stepped into the role, his control over Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the rest of the team was nothing short of commanding. He had been around them long enough to identify the problems. And as he saw it, he had the obvious solutions. “It was time for resentments and hidden agendas to be let go,” he writes in The Winner Within. “They had a clear and fair path to pursue. Drop their selfishness. Put their full efforts behind the team. Create success. And then the chaos would vanish.” These principles guided the team to their winningest records in franchise history, and the first consecutive titles in nearly 20 years.
But even more commanding than Riley’s leadership was his sense of personal style. When he stepped on the court as a coach, he became a different person: beautifully manicured, impeccably tailored, exuding the sterling professional confidence of a Wall Street investment banker or billionaire CEO. He became, as much or more so than the actual players on the team, a kind of NBA celebrity, famous for his wardrobe and the poise with which he wore it. He commissioned custom-tailored dress shirts from Savile Row. He donned thousand-dollar suits by Giorgio Armani, the hottest name in menswear at the time after Richard Gere wore them in that year’s hit film American Gigolo. The team coined a nickname for him: GQ. “God, he was dreamy,” Joan McLaughlin, the organization’s director of human resources, recalled in Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. “He was always the one the girls were looking at.”
It was owner Jerry Buss, more than Pat Riley, who cultivated the idea that came to be known as the “Showtime Lakers.” It was his original vision: basketball as fun, basketball as glamorous, basketball as sexy. Under Buss, The Forum became one of the hottest, most fashionable places in the entire city of Los Angeles, a star-studded hive of romance and celebrity that, as Winning Time describes it, was located at the precise intersection between Disneyland, the Playboy Mansion, and the Academy Awards (with a bit of the Hollywood Bowl thrown in for good measure). The Lakers played fast. The games were attended by Hollywood A-listers, who sat courtside, there to be gawked at as they gawked at the game. There were Paula Abdul-lead cheerleaders in scandalous outfits, drinks flowing generously, half-time performers playing to the rafters over state-of-the-art sound systems. It was, in short, a new kind of basketball.
Given these advancements, Riley the Armani-suited stud could hardly have been a better pick for the coach. The old idea of the head basketball coach — paunchy, harried, with a receding hairline and a throbbing temple vein — would simply not have fit the vision Jerry Buss had for the Showtime Lakers, who needed, as much as a capable leader, a coach who could also be the face of the organization alongside its stars. Pat Riley, with his suits and his slicked-back hairdos, was essential to the Showtime Lakers spectacle. Like the organization at large, Riley had serious basketball talent — the kind of talent that could win championships at record-breaking rates. (Indeed, the kind of talent that turns teams into dynasties.) It’s no knock on the skill level, however, to say that he and the Lakers at large had something more: a look, a style, a vibe. They had a perfectly cultivated image.
Riley himself was perfectly aware of the implications of his image and how it related to the team. And although he never actively courted media attention — he was, above all else, focused on winning — he was realistic about what it meant for the public perception around him. “The image just happened,” he said in an interview with Orange Coast magazine toward the end of his tenure with the Lakers. “I think Showtime was put there in a big box, and it was marketed, and it was Hollywood, and it was glitz, and it was glamour, and it was Jack Nicholson. And they had this coach here with the slicked-back hair and a nice suit, and he fit into the box real nice, and it had Magic and Coop [Assistant Coach Michael Cooper] and all these marquee monikers. And they sort of slotted me in.”
Of course, had Riley’s fame been predicated on his image alone, it would have been a superficial level of celebrity: Riley, in that same magazine profile, dismissed the idea of him being nothing more than a “matinee idol” at the time as “ridiculous.” Riley endures because he was one of the best coaches in the history of the league; his records, not only with the Lakers but later with the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat, have forever immortalized him in the pantheon of the sport. Riley’s image, in tandem with his achievements, ultimately proves something that Jerry Buss believed in from the start: that it’s possible to be great and spectacular, to be amazing and look good. That is the real legacy of Riley’s immaculate courtside looks. He made it possible to believe in a world in which style isn’t a distraction from excellence — rather, it’s one more facet of striving toward it.
Calum Marsh is a writer based in Toronto. His work appears in GQ, Complex, and The New York Times.