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Winning Time: A deeper look at the debut of Lakers icon Pat Riley

Known as an uber-confident leader of men, the third episode of “Winning Time” showed a much different version of Pat Riley before his Lakers coaching days

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Pat Riley and Magic Johnson Game Portrait Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Each week, we’ll be looking back on the newest episode of HBO’s “Winning Time” and fact-checking or adding more details on some of the key and bigger plot points by using the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.

When Lakers or NBA fans think of Pat Riley, the picture in their mind is usually the larger-than-life persona he has gained in recent years as the figurehead of the Miami Heat. Even during his coaching years, Riley’s suave style with his slicked-back hair painted a picture of a man brimming with confidence and swagger.

The reality, as is often the case, was something different. Like everyone else, Riley has his own inner demons that viewers of the third episode of “Winning Time” got a bit of a look at.

When Pat Riley makes his debut in the episode, it’s not as a confident man swaggering into The Forum but someone stopped at the entrance, as he meekly tries to convince the security guard of a meeting inside with Chick Hearn as he looks for work after his playing days.

Ultimately, Riley is aiming for a spot as the broadcast partner with Hearn but is met with some... pushback (more on that scene can be found here). As he returns home to put together an audition tape, Riley has a breakdown that eventually leads to him destroying his entire garage/shed.

Sitting in the destruction as his wife joins, Riley is holding a burned bat with his father’s name on it, a leftover from the older Riley’s baseball career. Leon “Lee” Riley, Pat’s father, did have a lengthy baseball career, but one that did only feature four games in the majors and over 2,000 games across 22 seasons in the minors.

But while the show hints at an amicable father-son relationship, it had a far darker tone to it in real life.

On the outside, he (Editor’s Note: Lee Riley, Pat’s father) was the image of confidence. Inside he was a wreck. On more than one occasion he showed up intoxicated to his children’s sporting events. He was, those who knew the Rileys said, prone to violence. “I could sense his disappointment for years after [his managerial career ended],” Riley said. “Not being able to fulfill his lifelong dream. He never said, ‘Hey, this is what they did to me or this is what happened.’ I mean, even Mother rarely talked about it. But it ended very bitterly and he carried that with him for a long time.”

...

Lee was excessively tough on his children, and viewed nurturing as something women did. “Back in those days, you didn’t coddle kids, I guess, like you do today,” said Dennis Riley, Pat’s older brother. “He was the all-time disciplinarian. He might give you a pop if you got out of line.” Lee Riley’s kids would be strong and powerful and tough—whether they were actually strong and powerful and tough or not.

The elder Riley did, in fact, burn everything associated with his baseball career, as hinted at in the episode by the burnt bat. It’s part of his own inner demons that he battled with throughout his life, leading to a complicated relationship with Pat. Now, whether Pat salvaged a baseball bat or not is unknown, but the burn marks that were on it in the show were based on reality. It’s also a hint at why Riley, as the show portrays, had such a complicated relationship with life after sports:

Most notably, as a boy, growing up in Schenectady, New York, Pat had learned sports at the feet of his father, Leon Francis Riley, a longtime minor league outfielder and first baseman. In 1944, Lee Riley was called up by the Philadelphia Phillies and had one hit—a double—in twelve at-bats over four games. He was, in his son’s mind, the ultimate coach. “In twenty-two years he gets a cup of coffee and a promise that they’d give him the next coaching job that opened up in the big leagues,” Riley said. “He gets passed over, and he just says, ‘That’s it.’ He went home and burned everything that had to do with his baseball career.”

We don’t know if Riley actually trashed his shed, but that scene may have been an allusion to the rage at life after sports that ran in his family. But his lack of confidence is startling to anyone familiar with Riley’s reputation, and knowing what we know about modern-day Riley — or even the version that roamed the sidelines during the Showtime Era — it’s going to be fascinating to watch him transform into that character over the course of this show.

All stories from this article via “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” by Jeff Pearlman, which is a must-read for fans of “Winning Time,” and Lakers fans in general, and served as the source material for the show. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.