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Deciphering the Real Pat Riley, With Adrien Brody

HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ catches the iconic coach in an unrecognizable state—before the championships, before the slicked-back hair. “It’s like having utter faith that it will happen,” says the man who plays him.

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Adrien Brody first saw the costume for his debut as Pat Riley in Winning Time, HBO’s maximalist romp about the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers, it wasn’t quite in sync with the image he’d always had of the guy. “I needed photographic evidence when they presented the mustache and the hair,” says Brody with a laugh, speaking by phone and validating every viewer who was moved to Google “young pat riley mustache” immediately upon watching Episode 3 of the series on Sunday night. “I said, ‘Are you sure?!’”

There are few people in basketball, after all, who have cultivated a personal and operational aesthetic as wholly and recognizably as Riley has: the exquisitely tailored and expensively pleated clothing, the executive power-stance and leadership-guru sheen, the hyper-slicked coif that has gone from dark to light over the years but remains structurally unchanged. Currently the Miami Heat president, Riley is a Godfather of a man who once quit the Knicks via fax from Malibu, who traveled to Italy to shop for clothes, and who has won six NBA titles as a player and coach on both U.S. coasts. But “the iconic Pat Riley that we all know,” as Brody puts it, is not the Pat Riley that Winning Time viewers first meet in the series’ latest installment, “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

Instead of sleek Armani suits, Brody’s iteration of Riley wears blazers that look upholstered. Instead of Riley’s name opening doors around the world, he can’t even get into places where he was once welcome. “No. Former. Players!” a security guy insists as a bedraggled Riley tries to wriggle into the Forum to schmooze his way into some—any!—basketball job following his NBA retirement. (Riley pathetically flashes his 1972 NBA championship ring in the worker’s face; this doesn’t help.) “What the fuck are you doing?!” Riley’s burgeoning therapist wife, Chris, shouts at him when his unemployed ass arrives home and interrupts her session with a crying patient; he is banished out of sight, to a backyard man cave. When he finally does get face time with Lakers play-by-play legend Chick Hearn and begs him for a broadcast role, Hearn gives it to him straight: “The problem is your voice,” he says, looking at Riley in a pained way that also suggests that the problem is kind of his whole deal.

“What occurred to me once I started doing the research,” Brody says about the role, “was like, how we overlook the journey so easily with people we see that have achieved something. If you see a star ballplayer, for instance, you don’t know the extent of what they’ve gone through personally, in their career, the highs and lows.” Winning Time certainly relishes the journeys of all of its very many characters. But among them, Riley’s story stands out so far as one of the more offbeat and potentially magnificent arcs, a desperation 3-pointer released from no-man’s-land that banks in and changes everything.

Brody grew up in the New York metropolitan area, and still attends Knicks games from time to time. (At a recent game, he was thrilled to run into Spike Lee, who directed him in Summer of Sam in the late ’90s and whose mood, then and now, “was definitely affected by the Knicks games,” Brody says.) But when he recalls his strongest memories of Pat Riley, they aren’t really the ones that took place during the coach’s several-year stint at Madison Square Garden. Instead, he thinks back to a decade before that, when he was a kid watching TV and the Lakers would sometimes come on. “I remember being very young and taking notice,” Brody says about Riley, who began coaching Los Angeles when he was only 36. “Somehow he struck me. There was something about him. I don’t know, it was something about the way he carried himself—he really looked the part. He represented this kind of charismatic leader and someone that really had the ability to rally the troops.”

As Winning Time makes clear, Riley certainly didn’t arrive at the Forum fully formed, however easy and tempting it may be to imagine him as some sort of sports Boss Baby. According to a 1985 Sports Illustrated profile of him called “Not Just a Pretty Face,” before Riley “began combing his hair back and spraying it into glossy obedience … his cascading locks and bushy mustache made him look like a guy headed for the Kentucky coal mines, or maybe a forklift driver in a bonded warehouse.” In the years before Riley ever caught Brody’s eye on TV, he had already run through a pro basketball career, that handlebar mustache phase, a lot of beach volleyball games, a doomed garden shed, a bunch of tapes (self-recorded and self-help alike), and some strange quirks of luck. Only then did the hairspray come out. (The moment when Riley compliments Hearn’s hair in Episode 3 is some wry foreshadowing.)

Brody’s research for the role included poring over Riley’s own writing. “His books really gave me a much clearer sense of him and his tenacity,” Brody says, “and his ability to find the silver lining in the challenges that need to be overcome on a daily basis.” He was struck by the way the scaffolding of Riley’s modern persona was laid out right there in the texts. “He’s kind of built it and crafted it,” he says. “He imparts his wisdom with positive aphorisms from all different sources that he’s gathered.”

At one point in Riley’s 1988 book Show Time: Inside the Lakers’ Breakthrough Season, for example, Riley wrote: “I stuck a cassette into the car’s player. I constantly review motivational literature, looking for pearls.” (He then quoted from a book called Choosing Your Own Greatness.) Five years later, when Riley released his second book, The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players, it was filled with many such pearls. Scattered on the margins of nearly every page of The Winner Within were quotes from figures ranging from Sun Tzu to Reggie Jackson, from Vidal Sassoon to Van Morrison, from Mae West to Paul Volcker, from Napoleon to Hannibal to Pat Riley himself.

For whatever reason, both Show Time and The Winner Within began with the same opening line—“Teamwork is the essence of life”—but the two projects were otherwise relatively distinct, their differences indicative of Riley’s trajectory from flashy young coach to motivational national brand. Show Time was a chatty chronicle of the successful if hectic 1987 season, peppered with stories about drinking rum and Cokes with team owner Jerry Buss and vivid asides about Riley’s vacation reading list and mixtapes:

Sunday afternoon at about three Chris and I debated which one of us had enough energy to move our chairs into a good position for the late-afternoon rays. We would converse awhile, then sleep, then read books and play cassettes. I had the new John Gregory Dunne novel, The Red, White, and Blue. Chris was reading Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, which fueled some heated discussions. And we were listening to my Bahamas Tape, which I had put together the night before we left: Whitney Houston, Kenny G. and Anita Baker. All their ballads on one side, all their fast stuff on the other. Truly a tape my players could appreciate. And one of them did.

The Winner Within, in contrast, which came out after Riley arrived in New York to take on the ultimate challenge of coaching the Knicks, was more of a universal ’90s business-trip airport-newsstand staple. It featured content contrasting Custer’s Last Stand with Japanese industrial superiority, and bullet point constructs like “The Winner Within’s Ladder of Evolution.” Step 1: “From nobody to UPSTART,” the list said. Step 5: “From champion to DYNASTY.”

• Custer was a wild-eyed underestimator of his enemy’s strength.

• In contrast, Japan’s MITI (the Ministry of International Trade and Industry) is constantly overrated as an enemy and as the mastermind behind Japanese industrial superiority, while it has in fact made a number of pivotal business planning mistakes in the auto industry, and others.

• For decades, experts now concede, the Soviet Union’s military capabilities were overrated, and that led to enormous Western World defense spending as a result.

• Large manufacturers of computers drastically underestimated the potential market for the personal computer. Some forecasters expected that only two hundred thousand would ever be sold, the number now sold every four days!

In his books, Riley doesn’t focus too much on the years that passed in between his retirement from basketball and his ascension to Lakers head coach. “I returned to Los Angeles as a color announcer to Chick Hearn and was even a ‘traveling secretary’ to the team,” he summarized in one. “I can still remember making flight arrangements and handing out boarding passes to players at the departure gate.” In another, he mused about a period of home improvement as if he were making suburban small talk. “I had torn down the old shed in back and built a cabana that served as an exercise room and office,” he wrote. “I had built a fence and refaced the whole stucco house with rough-sawn cedar.”

There may have been a little more pathos to it than that; this little refurb didn’t seem to have been mapped out in advance. The carpentry work took place while Riley was otherwise mostly idle, his basketball days behind him and his unclear future unfolding ceaselessly ahead—his tools a destructive distraction. “He got carried away,” is how SI described it in 1982. “Chris left one morning expecting Pat to remove some ivy that had overgrown a little garden cabana,” read the 1985 retelling of the story in the same magazine. “When she came home, he had leveled the whole building.” To Brody, this sort of behavior spoke to a post-retirement restlessness that was a key to unpacking Riley’s motivations. “It’s a very relatable kind of thing,” he says, “not being able to relinquish it, even if he’s no longer able to be that player. To not let go of that love and passion.”

In Winning Time, Riley and Jerry West have a conversation in which West daydreams about leaving the game of basketball altogether. “I’m telling ya,” West says, “I get my foot on a golf course? I’m never sitting here again.” Riley knows better. “I said the same thing about volleyball,” he replies. “After a month in the sand? I didn’t know what I was gonna do with my life.” Soon after, he goes home to that backyard building to record an audition cassette of himself narrating some basketball footage—in a blink of an eye, the shed is reduced to rubble.

Brody’s performance here is magnetic and gutting, a fireworks display of physical comedy (“Alexander Technique” challenge on TikTok, please), extreme self-confidence, extreme self-loathing, an attempted “velvet voice,” and some very funny bad-announcer lines. “’Cause he’s Jerry West, one of the best, one of the best … folks … to ever live …” Riley says into his mic, losing steam with each hacky syllable. He begins to unravel, seeing visions of his dead father and his disapproving wife, growing fixated on that damn overgrown ivy, getting out the chainsaw, accidentally cutting his leg, accidentally cutting down the whole place beneath and around him …

Brody says that he can sympathize with this sort of meltdown, although “I usually spiral out of control after the audition,” he jokes. (One time, for example, he caught a distorted glimpse of himself wearing period military fatigues after an emotional audition for The Thin Red Line in the reflection of one of those brass panels that holds an elevator’s up/down buttons—it was enough to make him burst into tears right there in the lobby.) To Brody, the transition that Riley finds himself in the middle of in the character’s opening episodes “is like an actor finding his way into directing,” he says. “He’s given so much, and he knows he’s spent a lifetime immersed in the game. He understands so much of the complexity of it, and what is needed, and how to lift other players up.” In the show, as in real life, Riley knows how to hustle, so that’s what he does.

“It’s kind of like having faith,” Brody says, trying to describe what it’s like, process-wise, to play a real character who is just about to arrive at the moments in his life that will transform him into the guy everyone thinks they know. “You know where the man ends up and what he’s achieved, and then you’re asked to portray a lower moment in his life, and represent a sense of a drive, and maybe failures of belief at certain moments—but ultimately a sense of belief and determination in what you can achieve,” Brody says. “It’s like having utter faith that it will happen.”

This mentality is evident in his performance of a young, persistent Riley who treats setbacks as footholds to forge ever onward, setting himself up for unlikely success. It also aptly captures the manner of the man himself. In that 1985 SI piece, Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne tries to recruit Riley to play a cop in a new film of his. “The look in your eyes is right,” Towne says. “That’s fear,” Riley responds. “No, fear is paralyzing,” Towne says. “It’s desperation that lets you be calculating. You’re a desperate man, Riley.”

Knowing how suave Riley would become, it’s satisfying to see him stammer in Winning Time. Knowing how long and distinguished his career would be, it’s fascinating to explore its chaotic, random origins. “He knows what he’s capable of,” says Brody. “And we know that as the audience, and so I think it’s kinda like, we’re all in on that, as we watch him kind of fumble occasionally through those moments.” Winning Time is at its best when it shows the way that lifelong pursuit and preparation intersect with quotidian happenstances—those cosmic bounces around the rim, those mortal coin tosses—to shape outcomes, and narratives, and games, and lives, to create the conditions for the evolution from nobody to dynasty.

In Riley’s book The Winner Within, he writes about going on a whitewater rafting expedition with a bunch of successful VIPs: “Top film and music executives, famous actors, people who owned companies worth millions, and other professional entrepreneurs,” he wrote, “the kind of people who usually had staff to take care of life’s basic chores.” But despite all that creative and intellectual firepower, it wasn’t something gleaned from any of these people that stuck with Riley when he reflected on the trip afterward for his motivational book. It was something that one of the river guides had taught everyone for safety that stood out. “If you fall overboard,” was the rule, “you must be an active participant in your own rescue.”

Watching Winning Time, in which Brody portrays Riley as still adrift but eager to keep paddling, it’s easy to imagine the real Pat Riley out there on some river in sunglasses and a life vest years later, reading that instruction with a respectful nod, vowing never to forget it.

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