LEXINGTON, Ky. — If we didn’t know it before, we know it now: “The Godfather” is the most successful University of Kentucky basketball alum ever.
Of all the great players and coaches that UK has produced over the years, it can be argued that none has had a bigger impact on the game of basketball than the now 78-year-old Pat Riley.
Thursday night, when the Miami Heat play the Denver Nuggets in the opener of their seven-game series for the NBA championship, it will be an astonishing 19th NBA Finals for Riley, the Heat’s team president who starred as a forward for UK from 1964-67, including Adolph Rupp’s famous Rupp’s Runts team in 1966.
Those 19 finals represent a ridiculous 25% of all NBA Finals in the 76-year-history of the league.
Three of those NBA Finals came when Riley was a player — twice for the Los Angeles Lakers championship team in 1972 and its runner-up 1973 team; once for the Phoenix Suns when the Suns lost to the Boston Celtics in 1976.
Ten came as a coach. Riley was an assistant to Paul Westhead on the Lakers’ 1980 title team. After replacing Westhead as Los Angeles’ head coach during the 1981-82 season, Riley guided the “Showtime” Lakers with Magic Johnson/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/James Worthy to the finals seven times, earning championship rings in 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988; and losing in the finals in 1983, 1984 and 1989.
After Riley moved on to New York for the 1991-92 season, he coached the Knicks to the 1994 finals, where Patrick Ewing and New York lost to Hakeem Olajuwon and Houston.
Riley took over the Miami Heat in 1996 and did two tour of duties as head coach. He left the sideline to become full-time president after the 2002-03 season, but he replaced Stan Van Gundy 21 games into the 2005-06 campaign and led the Heat to the title.
He returned to the front office after the 2007-08 season, naming former video coordinator Erik Spoelstra head coach. Since then, the Heat has been to five NBA Finals, losing in 2011, 2014 and 2020 but winning back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013.
Those two titles had much to do with Riley convincing none other than LeBron James to leave Cleveland as a free agent and bring his talents to South Beach.
The Miami Heat made the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed
This season marks Miami’s sixth finals under the Riley/Spoelstra combination, and perhaps the most satisfying. After all, Miami was just 44-38 in the regular season and needed a play-in game win over the Chicago Bulls to make the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.
Once included, the Heat beat the Eastern Division’s No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks in five games, the No. 5 seed New York Knicks in six games, then won Monday night’s deciding seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals 103-84 in Boston.
They’ve done it with the help of a group of undrafted players, including Caleb Martin, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Duncan Robinson. Heat star Jimmy Butler was named the MVP of the Celtics series, but a strong case could have been made for Martin, who scored 26 points in the Game 7 victory and averaged 19.3 points a game for the series.
After Martin was cut by the Charlotte Hornets, his friend, the singer J. Cole reached out to his friend, Heat assistant coach Caron Butler, to see if Miami would give the former N.C. State and Nevada star a shot. Butler recommended Martin to Riley. And the rest is history.
There is a Kentucky basketball flavor to this year’s finals. The Heat starts forme UK center Bam Adebayo. Teammate Tyler Herro, the former Cats sharpshooter, hopes to be ready after suffering two broken fingers in the first game of the Milwaukee series. Do-everything center Nikola Jokic is clearly Denver’s star, but former UK guard Jamal Murray averaged 32.5 points per game in the Nuggets’ sweep of the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
While Denver will be favored, don’t count the Heat out. After all, Miami has Pat Riley.