How Jerry West gave Pat Riley the confidence to become one of the greatest head coaches ever

Without Jerry West, there might not ever be "Heat Culture."
Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Lakers / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

It was announced on Wednesday morning that Jerry West tragically passed in his sleep at the age of 86. West has been involved in the NBA since the 1960s and is known as one of its founding fathers. For good reason, West is the logo of the NBA, as he has inscribed himself into every role. 

West was …

  • An NBA Champion in 1972
  • The only player to ever win finals MVP on a losing team
  • The Lakers head coach from 1976 to 1979
  • The General Manager of the Lakers from 1982 to 2000
  • The General manager of the Grizzlies from 2002 to 2007
  • A Warriors executive from 2011 to 2017
  • A Clippers executive from 2017 to 2024

Those accomplishments are extraordinary, but nobody talks about how West gave Pat Riley the confidence to become a head coach. After the Lakers fired Paul Westhead in the middle of the 1981-1982 season owner Jerry Buss scrambled, announcing then-scout and former coach Jerry West as the interim.

West refused and then went to the podium to tell the media that he worked for Pat Riley and that Pat Riley would be the head coach. Even Riley himself hesitated. But West told him directly, "You are the only head coach."

Slowly but surely, Riley gained Buss's trust as the Lakers went on to win the 1982 NBA championship, and the rest is history. The Lakers won three more championships under Riley before he departed to the Knicks and eventually found his way to South Beach, becoming arguably one of the greatest head coaches in the history of Basketball.

Pat Riley led the Miami Heat to their first NBA title in 2006 as the head coach and, back as an executive in 2010, helped lure both LeBron James and Chris Bosh to team up with Dwyane Wade. The Big Three went on to four Finals, winning in 2012 and 2013.

Can you imagine what the Heat would be without Riley? No Heat Culture, no banners. Those questions could be left in the air because one man and one person had confidence in Pat Riley as a coach, and that was Jerry West.

Here's Riley's statement following West's passing:

“I loved Jerry West! We loved being Lakers together; it was sacred ground. We grew in life with each other and shared the best and worst of times together. We can only hope there is someone we meet during a crucial time in our lives that will change you in ways you could dream about. Jerry was that person for me.

“Today’s sad, sad news about his passing brought back many of those special moments with Jerry. Those beautiful memories came in a waterfall of tears; all coming so fast, so vivid, so etched in my mind. It was like yesterday after a shootaround at The Forum that we’d hustle to Hollis Johnson’s drugstore in Westwood to eat the best burgers, drink milkshakes and savor a great custard pudding with fresh whipped cream before we headed home to nap. Then it was game time and Jerry would kick ass in a way that was so skilled and relentless. I was so proud to be there in his presence. I watched, I learned. He made me believe. Being in that aura of greatness was mesmerizing. I was told, ‘Pat, Just watch him and model yourself after Jerry.’ He was smart, committed, opinionated, fearless, generous, ultra-competitive, stubborn, but with great grace. These were just some of the characteristics he embedded in my psyche. They emerged at the right time, honed by many years of self-talking Jerry reminders. Jerry kicked down that coaching door for me and said, you can do this, but it has to be now. He knew, then he let me coach. I thank him forever and always for giving me that opportunity.

“Chris and I pray the Good Lord will look after Karen and his family during this most difficult time. May peace be with them. And Jerry, one day, my good friend, we will meet again. Just save me a burger, milkshake and custard with whipped cream. The best lunch I ever had. Until then, Rest in Peace.”