As head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Pat Riley has a laundry list of accomplishments to be proud of. He has guided his team into the playoffs for six straight years. He has won two league championships. His lifetime winning percentages in both the regular season (.733) and the playoffs (.687) are tops in the history of the National Basketball Association.
Such a record of excellence demands more than luck, and the driven Riley is the first to admit he is obsessed with his team and his sport. “The players do the winning,” says Riley, adding that “basketball is all-consuming for me. It’s gotten to the point where preoccupation and amnesia are my two biggest diseases.” Riley considers all distractions—media, fans and friends—”peripheral opponents.” As his friend, screenwriter Robert Towne, has put it, “Pat Riley is as sane as any obsessive man can be, and as obsessive as any sane man can be.”
Given this single-mindedness, the 42-year-old Riley needs a spouse who is a superstar in the areas of understanding and patience. Pat’s 39-year-old wife, Chris, a former family therapist, gave up her career in 1981 to play Pat’s personal assist leader. As the playoffs got under way last week, the Rileys were in their accustomed positions. The dapper coach, with his slicked-back hair and natty custom-tailored suits, was stalking the sidelines while Chris was in her traditional corner loge seat. Her perch is located across the Forum from the Laker bench, so she can take in the action on the floor and keep an eye on her husband at the same time. “If I didn’t love basketball it would be tough,” says Chris. “But I’m lucky enough to love it.”
The two discovered their mutual passion in 1968, when they were introduced on a San Diego beach. Chris Rodstrom, the Maryland-born daughter of a Navy captain and Navy nurse, was then a junior majoring in psychology at San Diego State. Riley, a former University of Kentucky star, was a second-year guard for the San Diego Rockets. Remembers Chris: “He had a great body, was great looking and was fun and wonderful.” Pat, in turn, says he was attracted to Chris’s “ankles, her tan and her avocado-green polkadot bikini.” They were married in June 1970, and Pat (who had been traded to Portland but never played for them) joined the Lakers that fall.
Chris and Pat’s seemingly effortless teamwork today is the result of weathering some pretty rocky building years. The Rileys settled down in Los Angeles, and Chris, who had dropped out of college, tried to be the dutiful player’s wife. “I was bored silly,” she says. “My first years of marriage were the unhappiest of my life. Being Mrs. Pat Riley wasn’t enough. We looked at our marriage, and I said, ‘Okay, I’m not going to be the cookie queen anymore.’ ”
Chris completed her BA studies in 1972 and went on to earn her master’s degree in educational psychology at Cal State Northridge three years later. She was in training as a family therapist when Pat was traded to Phoenix. Unable to bounce back from knee surgery, he reluctantly retired in 1976. “Pat was at a very vulnerable time when I was wanting to feel my oats and be independent,” says Chris. “He was not a supportive husband. His playing career had just ended, and he was going through all the fears men went through in the ’70s.”
Chris’s skills as a therapist came in handy. “She helped me tremendously,” Pat says. “She treated the whole thing as a death, which is what it seemed like. It was a period of mourning. Basketball was my whole life.” Fortunately Riley was hired as a Lakers broadcaster in 1977. Two years later he became an assistant coach with the team and in 1981 was appointed to the top job. He now earns an estimated $500,000 a year.
If Pat had followed in his father’s footsteps, he would have been rounding the bases instead of pounding the hardwood. Lee Riley had played briefly with the Phillies and managed their farm teams. But Pat, who grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., was far more interested in basketball. At the University of Kentucky, he played for the legendary Adolph Rupp, and so he had two coaching examples to follow as he developed his own philosophy. “All those little pearls are locked in this brain of mine,” he says, “and they come out at the right time.”
The biggest pearl in the Rileys’ life right now is their 2-year-old son, James. “It took six years to understand that we couldn’t have a child naturally,” says Pat. “There still isn’t any clinical explanation of why, because we are both capable. So we got an opportunity to adopt. In fact, we’re looking again. James is just a bundle of joy for us.” Chris looks on the adoption as another factor that helped strengthen their marriage. “If any couple can go through what you go through to adopt—not just the adoption, but all the issues of not being able to have a child and why, as well as all the tests—if you can survive that with humor, the adoption is very easy.”
Pat does not look on his family as a “peripheral opponent.” During the season he tries to return to their Brentwood home for lunch when the team is in town. He edits game tapes and makes notes in his poolside office until it’s nap time for all three Rileys. Then, about three nights a week, he leaves for the Forum. Chris usually joins him later.
After the game, instead of a late dinner at Spago, it’s home to their son. “Priorities change,” says Pat. “You slow down.” That’s not to say, however, that he still isn’t a man obsessed by his sport. When asked by a friend recently how the baby was doing, Pat replied, “Great. James asks, ‘Lakers win? Lakers win?’ That’s all he wants to know!” Sounds like a boy after his father’s heart.