UPDATE: Pat Riley on competing against Larry Bird: ‘We wanted to inflict pain on them, they wanted to do the same to us’

 

 

Pat Riley chats with Larry Bird prior to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in Springfield, Mass. in 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

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.”

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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.”

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Miami Heat’s Erik Spoelstra gaining momentum in Coach of Year conversation. But can he win it?

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra watches his team during the first half of Miami’s victory at the Knicks on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Miami’s Erik Spoelstra name is coming up more frequently in Coach of the Year talk with the Heat solidly in contention for a playoff spot.

The latest are analysts Greg Anthony and Jeff Van Gundy.

Anthony declared Monday on NBA TV that, “if the Heat make the playoffs, Erik Spoelstra is coach of the year.”

Van Gundy, talking to Fox 26 in Houston, said his top two are Spoelstra and the Rockets’ Mike D’Antoni.

This follows what analyst Reggie Miller tweeted last week to his nearly 800,000 followers:

“My Coach of the Year vote goes to Erik Spoelstra, especially if the Heat end up making Playoffs.. Miami had to reinvent themselves..”

Miller went on to say Boston’s Brad Stevens, D’Antoni and Utah’s Quin Snyder are strong candidates but that each is “working with All Stars and potential MVPs.”

Spoelstra also received love from Hall of Famers Kevin McHale and Isiah Thomas on Monday.

McHale said he didn’t think the Heat would win 25 games and then “they started believing in each other. A lot of that goes to Erik Spoelstra.”

Thomas said the Heat “probably are the most physically fit team in the East.”

The Heat (37-38) have won 26-of-34 games after having the second worst record in the league at 11-30. Miami is No. 7 in the East by virtue of owning the tiebreaker over Indiana, 1.5 games ahead of No. 9 Chicago.

With Atlanta and Milwaukee tied for the fifth and sixth best records in the league (39-36), the Heat are two games out of the fifth spot.

Heat guard Goran Dragic recently posted a video on Twitter through “Uninterrupted” campaigning for Spoelstra to be coach of the year.

“In my opinion, he should win Coach of the Year,” Dragic said. “Everybody knows how we started the season and how we’ve bounced back, and a lot of credit goes to Erik.

“He’s an unbelievable coach, and a lot of players, we love to play for him. He’s putting the guys in the right spots and that’s how the players can thrive under his system. And he’s such a great communicator with all the players.”

FanRag picks Spoelstra over Washington’s Scott Brooks and D’Antoni and the praise has come from all corners, including his peers and his boss, Heat president Pat Riley.

The most recent coach to single out Spoelstra was Boston’s Brad Stevens. And Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy, whose team suffered a huge blow to their playoff hopes Tuesday, losing 79-96 at home to the Heat on a Hassan Whiteside tip in at the buzzer, said earlier this season that “there’s  not a better coach in the league” than Spoelstra.

Spoelstra, who was named the Eastern Conference’s coach of the month for February, likely has to get the Heat to .500 and into the playoffs to be a serious contender. If he does – and that could happen Friday when Miami returns home to face the Knicks – the Heat would become the first team in NBA history to reach .500 after being 19 games under.

Just three coaches in history have won the award coaching a team that was .500 or below, the most recent being Doc Rivers when his 1999-00 Orlando team finished 41-41 and missed the playoffs by one game.

One coach who won’t be voting for Spoelstra is Golden State’s Steve Kerr, who said Tuesday he believes D’Antoni has earned the honor.

“I think the fit with the roster and Mike’s philosophy has been perfect,” Kerr said Tuesday. “What he’s so good at is really giving his players confidence and belief. They’re obviously having an amazing year. My guess is that he’ll get the trophy. He’s earned it.”

The Coach of the Year award most is voted upon by the media. The National Basketball Coaches Association also recognizes a COY. That award, which will be named after Michael H. Goldberg, the longtime executive director of the NBCA who died in January, is voted upon by the coaches.

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LeBron James when asked about sitting out games while with Heat: ‘It’s never been part of my DNA’

Fans in Memphis were not happy LeBron James, along with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, needed a night off.
Fans in Memphis were not happy that Cleveland’s LeBron James, along with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, needed a night off.

MIAMI – Erik Spoelstra was just 13 the night he was looking forward to seeing his favorite team, the Portland Trail Blazers, play the hated Los Angeles Lakers and that rising hotshot coach, Pat Riley.

Spoelstra, a budding basketball savant, wanted to see how his team stacked up against the defending champions with the playoffs looming.

“I wanted to see Portland kick their ass,” he said.

He did. But it was not the same.

Not with Magic Johnson and James Worthy back in L.A.

“I was really excited to see that game,” Spoelstra told me this week. “It was the last game of the season so they were getting ready for the playoffs and Pat didn’t even bring them. They weren’t even on the bench.

Spoelstra remembers turning to his father and asking, “Are we still going?’’’

Spoelstra reminds his boss to this day about how he robbed a young boy of seeing two of the league’s stars. But it was the regular-season finale – not November or December – and the Lakers were preparing for the playoffs – not sitting players four months before the start of the postseason.

This week, the NBA was faced with a PR firestorm when Cleveland left behind their Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for a game in Memphis. The decision was made strictly to rest their stars on the second night of a back-to-back.

This phenomenon is becoming more commonplace. Flash back four years ago when then-commissioner David Stern fined San Antonio $250,000 for resting Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green for a nationally televised game in Miami.

Coach Greg Popovich just shrugged his shoulders, laughed it off, and continued the practice for which his fingerprints are all over.

    “It’s never been part of my DNA. … I’ve got to be out there for my teammates. It’s my obligation to be out there for them. I’m dealing with a few things but for me to sit out, I have to be dealing with a lot more.”

    Miami Heat forward LeBron James in 2014 when asked about sitting out games.

Science has proven that DNA can be altered. James must have been part of that study.

During James’ four years in Miami he missed 18 games, mostly because of nagging injuries but a few others during the final weeks of the season with the playoffs approaching.

But never for rest during the middle of the season. In fact, the subject never was discussed according to Spoelstra.

But, times have changed.

“We’re looking at science a lot more than we have before,” Spoelstra said. “We’re trying to be smart with it. We’re trying not to overload their minutes during specific blocks of games.

“But I don’t think anybody knows for sure right now.”

Spoelstra believes you can manage workloads by managing minutes during games and cutting back on practice time and shoot arounds.

The Heat is not a team that will require healthy players to sit out. In fact, most already have had plenty of rest because of injuries. And players like Goran Dragic, a fiercely competitive point guard, would not think of taking off a game if completely healthy.

“It kind of sucks for the fans,” Dragic said. “They’re paying for tickets and they want to see the best players in the world.”

Dragic, though, says he “completely understands” someone like LeBron taking an occasional night off after playing in six consecutive Finals. “He needs to take care of this body,” said Dragic, who also sees the dilemma when it comes to fans paying a lot of money to see their favorite players and finding that team is treating the game like the preseason.

“It kind of sucks for the fans,” he said. “They’re paying for tickets and they want to see the best players in the world.”

Heat veteran forward Udonis Haslem, though, does not believe a team’s obligation is to the fans.

“A teams’ No. 1 priority is to win a championship,” he said. “If resting guys on back-to-backs … You got to do what you got to do for your team.”

Yet, 48 hours prior to the game LeBron decided to sit out (and please do not believe he had no say in this decision), he was jetting to Brooklyn for the SI’s Sportsperson of the Year Award celebration. That was Monday night, the night before he had a game in Cleveland.

That, he could not miss. But a silly game for which he is being paid $31 million to play …

Otherwise, here was LeBron’s grueling schedule the last week:

Thursday off. Friday home game. Saturday home game. Sunday off. Monday off. Tuesday home game.

And on the seventh day he rested (again).

No wonder he was beat. Having to travel from his home in Akron to Cleveland three times in five days can take a toll on your body.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver acknowledges this has become a major issue and recently told SiriusXM NBA Radio that he cannot do much about it.

“I’m super-reluctant to start telling these great coaches how they should manage minutes of players,’’ he said,

Michael Jordan played all 82 games eight times in his career, which is eight more than LeBron. And then there is John Stockton, who played 82 games a stunning 16 times.

“This stuff just drives me crazy,” former Celtics star Kevin McHale said on NBA TV. “I could understand if you’re working in a coal mine. You’re playing basketball! I never got tired in a game. It’s fun to play.”

But this just isn’t about LeBron. Several players have been healthy scratches this season, including the Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins who took off Wednesday’s game in Houston. I guess Cousins, who is 26 and has played in 439 games in his career, won’t have enough time off from mid-April to October.

Next year, the NBA season will start a week to 10 days early, helping reduce the number of back-to-backs (the Heat have 15 this season) and four games in five nights (the Heat had just one) and perhaps cut down on players’ sitting out games.

But you never know when LeBron might have a gala to attend and then decide he needs a mini vacation.

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