Pat Riley and Larry Bird have competed for nearly four decades in different roles, but one thing remained constant whether one was a player or both were a coach or executive.
“We’ve had a long time and in some, way, shape or form we have always been able to keep it at the level of pure competition,” Riley told The Palm Beach Post today.
“I have nothing but the utmost respect for him from that standpoint.”
Bird’s decision last week to step down as the Pacers’ president of basketball operations likely ends a competition that started nearly 40 years ago and followed each of these Hall of Famers through different stages of their careers.
For those keeping score: Teams in which Riley and Bird have held jobs as a player (Bird) or coach or executives (both) have met 141 times with Riley holding an 81-60 edge.
This includes Bird’s time as a player in Boston, executive in Boston and Indiana and three years as a coach in Indiana.
For Riley, this covers his time as a coach with the Lakers, Knicks and Heat and executive with the Heat.
The relationship, though, got off to a rocky start – like so many in sports when two teams are measured by what they do against each other.
But over the years it turned to respect and then admiration. Although Riley and Bird never will be friends the way Magic Johnson and Bird have become, they are two of the greatest competitors in the history of all sports.
“There’s a huge difference in the mentality today of players than there was back then,” Riley said of grudge matches between his Lakers and Bird’s Celtics in the 1980s.
“If you told the player don’t fraternize with a player on the opposite team, he wouldn’t do it. Today it’s like a lovefest. I know that Larry is off the same mind-set I’m in when you’re sports mortal enemies to beat one another. But there really is a genuine deep respect that I have for him and he had for Magic, we had for each other. The rivalry went far beyond that. We wanted to win, we wanted to beat them. We wanted to inflict pain on them and they wanted to do the same to us. That’s just the way it was.”
At 60, Bird is 12 years younger than Riley, but has reached that point where he’ll take a reduced role in the organization as a scout and adviser as he slides into retirement.
“I felt it was time to step away in a full-time capacity,” Bird said Monday. “This has nothing to do with my health or our team. I’m 60 years old and I want to do other things away from basketball.”
The competition between Riley and Bird started Dec. 28, 1979, Bird’s rookie season with the Celtics and Riley’s first year on the Lakers bench as an assistant coach. The Lakers won that game 128-105 and Bird scored 16 points.
A true rivalry was being born.
“When Auerbach drafted him and then pulled off the trade to get (Kevin) McHale and (Robert) Parish at the same time, it started the rivalry of all rivalries,” Riley said about the Celtics former coach and president, the late Red Auerbach.
Riley would move over to head coach two years later, turning the Lakers into “Showtime.” The Celtics were the antithesis of the Lakers on the East Coast, dominating with a style that some said bordered on thuggery. The two would become hated rivals, meeting three times in the Finals, with the Celtics winning that physical series in 1984 and the Lakers breaking through in 1985 and winning again in 1987.
Riley got the better of Bird while coach of the Lakers with those two titles and winning 22-of-38 games overall.
Riley said the hard-nosed, competitive feelings started to thaw when Bird retired as a player in 1992.
“We would see each other, especially when he was a coach at coach’s meetings,” Riley said, adding he and Bird talk on the phone “occasionally, very occasionally.”
The rivalry took on another dimension in 1997 when Bird was named coach of the Pacers. Riley was starting his third season in Miami. They met 12 times as opposing coaches, Bird winning seven. Bird coached just three seasons but captured one Coach of the Year award and took the Pacers to the 2000 Finals, losing to the Lakers.
In 2003, Bird moved into the Pacers’ front office and Riley shed his title of coach, remaining as president only. Riley, though, did return as head coach for two-plus years starting early in the 2005 season.
The two had a long run of pitting teams against one another that they built. And although it come out nearly even during the regular season – Bird 33, Riley 32 – the Heat and Riley eliminated the Pacers in the postseason with Bird in charge in 2012 and 2014, both during the Heat’s Big Three era.
“Both of us knew that both teams would always be very competitive,” Riley said. “And it wasn’t because of Larry and myself. Larry was playing against Magic back in the ’80s. When we were coaching against each other, when he took his team to the Finals. It was different but it was the same kind of thing in that he knew my teams were going to be ready and I knew his teams were going to be ready. I knew what to expect from him and he knew what to expect from me.
“But once you move off the playing court, off of the bench, it’s a different kind of competition from GMs. GMs don’t look at it that way the way players do, the way coaches do. I think he’s done a great job, especially in the years against the Big Three. Those were the best teams he put together. They just couldn’t beat our team.”