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What Former Kentucky Basketball Player Pat Riley Has Done Is Nothing Short Of Amazing

Pat Riley, left, has succeeded as a NBA executive by making draft picks like Bam Adebayo. (NBA Photo)


While it was easy for Kentucky fans to be excited about the NBA Finals with four former Cats playing, many older UK fans also have to appreciate what another former Cat — Pat Riley — continues to achieve. 

At Kentucky he averaged 18.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game at Kentucky where he played in 80 games and finished with 1,464 career points. He was a starter on the 1965-66 team affectionally known as “Rupp’s Runts” that lost to Texas Western in the national championship game. He was the SEC Player of the Year and an All-American for coach Adolph Rupp.

How athletic was the New York native? Start with his high school team beating Lew Alcindor’s team and obviously Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, went on to NBA stardom. Riley not only was a first-round draft pick of the San Diego Rockets in the 1967 NBA Draft but was also picked in the 11th round of the 1967 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys as a receiver.

He was a player on the Los Angeles Lakers’ championship team in 1972. During his time as coach of the Lakers he won four NBA championships. He won another one with Miami in 2006 and two more when he was team president only.

Few thought Miami could be an Eastern Conference contender this year and certainly would not be playing in the Finals against the favored Los Angeles Lakers.  One reason Riley’s team has succeeded is the addition of All-Star guard Jimmy Butler in a sign and trade deal with Philadelphia.

Butler said he had heard plenty about Riley from other NBA players and liked what he heard. 

“It’s everything I wanted to be a part of. He’s the individual outside of basketball that everybody has said that he was, and definitely about winning and winning now. He’s definitely about that,” Butler said after eliminating Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“He’s been a huge part in our success of putting this team together, expecting greatness out of each and every one of us, and putting us in a position to be great. So without him, without him putting this thing together, I wouldn’t be up here. We wouldn’t have this great group of guys that we have. So, we’re all very thankful for the Godfather.”

Butler said he expected to end his career in Chicago but heard plenty about Riley from Dwayne Wade, a 13-time all-star, the one season they played in Chicago. Wade told him about Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra.

“He would tell me about the way things were done there by coach Spo, by coach Pat, and it was like, ‘Man, that’s my type of guy that I want to play for, that I want to be around.’ 
Obviously, I get traded a couple times and end up here, and it’s everything,” Butler said. 

“I’m so comfortable with being myself more than I’ve ever been. Not saying I’ve ever not wanted to be myself, but now I know myself is the right way. Look where myself has gotten me now. And it’s all because he (Riley) empowered me to be able to do that with these guys. 

“These guys love me, love who I am, and it’s reciprocated towards those guys. 
I’m just grateful for him and for him believing in me and giving me this opportunity.”

NBA great LeBron James has the same type admiration for Riley from his time with the Heat. He calls him one of the “greatest minds” ever in basketball.

“He’s won at every level. I saw the stat the other day that he’s been part of a championship in four decades. This league is not the same without Riles,” James said. “He’s a great guy, great motivator, someone that just knows what it takes to win, and he’s shown that over the course of, what, 40 years.”

Former Kentucky star Bam Adebayo has seen his three-year career in Miami flourish. He became an all-star this year and UK coach John Calipari says he’s become a “point center” for Miami. He knows Riley deserves much of the credit for what has happened.

“He didn’t assemble this team for us to just play 82 games and go home. That’s not the reason why he brought Jimmy here. That’s not the reason why he drafted me and not the reason why he got other players,” Adebayo said. “This is all preparation on how can we win a championship. 

“I love this team he brought together because we are all underdogs. We’re here now. That’s been one of my dreams to be in the Finals. I grew up watching Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and LeBron in the Finals and it crazy that I get to walk on the Finals floor and actually play. 

“Pat wouldn’t have assembled this team unless he knew we had great things ahead of us. I appreciate Pat, the Riley family, Spo and his family. Everybody from the top to the bottom, I appreciate it just because they believed in me.”

Larry Vaught
Larry Vaught is a seven-time winner of the Kentucky Sportswriter of the Year award and has covered University of Kentucky sports since 1975. Larry now has a syndicated UK sports column appearing in 34 newspapers across the state as well as, and Larry also joins Mark Buerger and Anthony White on WLAP Sunday Morning Sports each week in Lexington as well as appearing each Tuesday with Tom Leach on The Leach Report.

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