by Irv Soonachan
Meeting Warriors GM Larry Riley for dinner at his favorite restaurant, it’s easy to see why he is known for being well-liked by his colleagues. Back in town after a long road trip, the hostess doesn’t greet him with a hello; she gives him a big hug. In fact, everyone working at the restaurant seems to be on a first-name basis with Riley. At 65, after more than four decades on the road as a basketball lifer — including 20 years coaching small colleges and 23 working in the NBA — he remains ebullient and seems a little younger than he is.
Riley got his break in 1988 when friend Del Harris, who had previously coached at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana – which happens to be Riley’s hometown — invited him to take an entry-level job with the Bucks. Riley eventually became a respected scout, and in 1994 left Milwaukee to become Director of Player Personnel with the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies. After the team moved to Memphis, former Bucks coach Don Nelson invited Riley to come to Dallas. Riley followed Nelson to Golden State as an assistant coach before moving into the front office.
Despite his decades of experience, Riley was considered a long-shot to make it as a GM. When promoted to the role on May 11, 2009, he was painted as little more than a proxy for Nelson. And when owner Chris Cohan sold the team this summer, it was speculated that Riley was babysitting until the incoming owners installed their own management —speculation which persists as the new ownership settles in.
Yet none of this has impeded Riley from dramatically remaking the franchise. He engineered a series of moves that cleared the payroll and set the team up with a mother lode of expiring contracts; landed a legitimate big man in David Lee; and let Nelson go in favor of longtime assistant Keith Smart. He surprised Warriors fans by signing free agent small forward Dorell Wright and almost immediately tabbing him as a starter, but Wright’s emergence has been one of the season’s highlights. Perhaps most importantly, he put together a balanced roster built for a more traditional style of play than Nelson would have allowed.
Highlights of the 90-minute interview, which wove in and out of a multitude of topics, are grouped by subject but not chronology.
On becoming an NBA GM for the first time at age 64:
The analysis would be that I’ve climbed the ladder slowly. And I did. I didn’t know where it would take me. Actually, I’m probably lucky that I didn’t get a bigger job too soon in life — I’ve seen that happen to some people when they’re not quite ready for it. With me it’s probably a little overdue, but I’m glad it happened at the time it did, because I had plenty of time to be prepared and to spend quality time around a lot of good people.
SLAM: How long are you going to keep doing this?
Larry Riley: I wouldn’t have any idea, because I haven’t run out of energy. I just got off a 10-day road trip. I’ll go with the team to Dallas and San Antonio, visit my home (Riley’s permanent home is in Dallas), and then go off to Europe. When I begin to feel that I’m not enthusiastic or running out of energy, or I don’t want to go, then it’s time to quit. I’m not there yet.
And frankly, I’m enjoying it. I have no motivation to think about retirement at this stage. I don’t even know what I’d do. I probably won’t even retire. I’ll probably do something else, like find one of those little Division II schools out in the countryside and coach there.
You have to develop an eye for it. It takes a while. When I started I was so lucky. Dick McGuire, Stan Novak, who helped draft and build the Pistons when they were good (in the ‘80s), and Scotty Sterling, who is still with Sacramento, those three guys took me under their wings.
You look for the obvious things: Speed, quickness, being able to jump; and feel, shooting touch, all those kinds of things. But if you’re going to draft them on that you may as well watch on TV. You have to go to the gym. I watch a guy’s eyes if I can get close enough. I want to see how he reads offenses and defenses. I want to see how he communicates with other players and coaches. I want to see if he has an anticipation level. You want to see how he handles pressure. Sometimes the pressure situation comes even in the first half. You just develop a feel for it. And you do all the background work and research what they’re all about. It’s not a science; there is no 100 percent (accurate) way to do it.
SLAM: For you is evaluating talent more about intuition than the statistical analysis that a lot of teams use?
LR: It is for me. There are people in our business who are stats-oriented. I definitely want to look at stats and see numbers, but if the numbers are okay and I do the evaluation, then I’ll make the call based on what I see, not on what the numbers say. That’s a little backwards based on where this League has gone. There are a lot of people drafting on numbers. I’ve got some guys working for me who are more about numbers, and they definitely have their say. But I’m still more about putting my eyes on a guy and making the decision.
On the perception that when first promoted he was a proxy for Nelson, and didn’t truly take over until this summer when Nelson was on his way out:
Everybody thought I was there because I was Nellie’s buddy. I couldn’t stand up and announce to the world that Nellie had told me, “I don’t want to be the GM. I want to be the coach. I’m not going to be in your business. We’re going to work together.” The media already believed I was his drinking buddy. It was perception vs. the reality, and all I could do was let reality take over. It took a long time.
On his vision for the Warriors:
My vision was to keep the same fast-paced style of play but with improved defense. I think that’s what Keith is trying to do. I did not build the team around a Don Nelson philosophy. That was a thing that had to be adjusted. I couldn’t draft players or sign free agents for Don Nelson, because he was going to be one more year and then out. As it turned out, he didn’t start the season this year. We did not have any purpose to build the team around Don Nelson as the coach. If he had been here we would have made that work, but we were building the team for the long haul. Right now, we have to wait and see. This team has been built down the road. It’s one year, two years from now that we’re concerned about.
On trade deadline deals, and the flak the organization took after last year’s deadline for not trading the Warriors’ expiring contracts for new talent:
It was one of those things where I would have liked to do a few things a little earlier. I knew last year at trade deadline time that I wanted to make some changes. But I couldn’t get the right deals, so we had to wait until the summer. We had some vision of wanting to change the team, and tried to set the dominoes up early to see what we could get done.
Very seldom does something come up spur of the moment. I’m a little gun-shy about spur-of-the-moment trades anyway. If somebody calls us on the day before the trade deadline and says they’ve got a deal for us, I’m just about ready to hang up the phone. Because if you come up with a deal on the day before the trade deadline, then why couldn’t we talk about that two weeks earlier? It’s the same thing on Draft day. On Draft day, when somebody wants to do a new trade that’s never been discussed, usually there’s something wrong with it.
On the Warriors owning three expiring contracts totaling more than $17.5 million, as well as Charlie Bell’s contract, which expires next year at $4 million — putting the team in a strong position for midseason trades:
That was part of what we wanted to do. The initial moves we made were to position ourselves better in regards to the salary cap. There weren’t many basketball moves. This summer, we had gotten ourselves into a good position salary cap-wise, and it was time to acquire some basketball players. We were able to accomplish two things: We changed the team over, we are better. And we have positioned ourselves well with the salary cap, which means that we can take one more step at some point to add to the team. Then you have the Draft. So in theory, there could be two good pieces coming into our team in the following year. Or it could happen in February, and then we acquire another player in the summer.
SLAM: You’ve got a locker room with a lot of expiring contracts and the franchise is in a rebuilding phase. How do you hold the team together in the middle of that kind of situation?
LR: We tried to change the locker room to our benefit. We think we did. I think most of our players look at our team as having an outside chance to be successful and get to the Playoffs. So they’re not looking at this as a rebuilding process — when you say “rebuilding process,” that means pain and losses. Our players aren’t looking at this season that way. They’re looking at building something they can hang onto and be part of. I really see that in our guys. Every NBA player in the last year of his contract knows what his status likely is. Not all of them know what their exact status is, but they know what it likely is. But we don’t have anybody complaining and saying, “I’m in the last year of my contract and I need more minutes, this is my career and I need to show what I can do.” Keith has done a pretty good job of keeping our guys focused on preparing for the next game. I really think it’s a credit to the way things have changed around guys like Monta and Andris Biedrins and of course Steph is a solid guy. David Lee is a solid guy. We’ve got some people who are pretty solid.
And most of the guys who came here came here with a purpose. We were able to get guys who would stand up and say, “I want to play for Golden State.” That was what David Lee did, that’s what Ekpe Udoh did, that’s what Dorell Wright did, and that’s eventually what Lou Amundson did. There used to be more people who would say, “Who would want to play for the Warriors? They’re a losing team.” It was not a reflection on the Bay Area — it’s a great area. It had nothing to do with our fans, everybody you talk to understands that it’s a great fan base. Now you’ve got some people who said, “I want to play here.”
On running the team during the transition to new ownership:
SLAM: Were you under instructions to keep the team’s salary structure and contract obligations relatively flat during the ownership change?
LR: The guidance I was given by ownership was to stay below the salary cap.
We had a vision of where we wanted to go. Fortunately, Chris Cohan did not stop me from doing basketball moves. We were able to do several things before it was even known who the finalists to buy the team were going to be. When we learned that the finalists were Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, we began to work with Mr. Cohan and Mr. Lacob, who is the spokesman for that group. They were both cooperative and easy to work with, and we were able to get some things done. Sometimes in that situation, someone says that everything has to stop. But it didn’t turn out that way, probably in the best interest of all parties. So here we sit with a changed team, with a pretty good look about it and good reason to think it can get better.
On the expectations of the new owners:
Mr. Lacob has been very good to deal with. He has been very realistic as far as we’re concerned on the basketball side of things. While I think he embraces the idea of getting to the Playoffs and I know he wants a winner, I don’t expect him to be unrealistic. And I do appreciate that he wants to be in the Playoffs right away. I do too. And so do our coaches and so do our players. But I don’t set unrealistic expectations.
While working for the Vancouver Grizzlies in January 1997, Riley was scheduled to take a flight from Cincinnati to Detroit. A few hours after his flight was delayed, Riley changed his ticket and flew home to Vancouver. The flight he’d originally been scheduled for, Comair Flight 3272, crashed over Detroit, killing all 29 people aboard. Riley on his “second birthday”:
SLAM: I’m sure people must ask you about this all the time, but would you be willing to discuss the day of the flight you were scheduled to take to Detroit?
LR: People here don’t seem to know about it, and that’s okay by me.
It was a mid-morning flight, and knowing there was a snowstorm coming our way, I set my alarm early. I got up, looked outside, and it was quite a storm. I don’t want to tell you I pray every morning and that I walk a straight line, but I sat down that morning and prayed a simple prayer. I remember it well. I said, “God, take care of my wife, my kids, my brother, my mother,” and I named them all. And then I said, “Take care of me, allow me safe travels.” I got up and went to the airport.
When I got there they said that everything was grounded and nobody was going anywhere. So I said, “Okay, good enough.” I ran into another guy who was traveling to Detroit and we both did some computer work and I was entering scouting reports. We both got a little bored after an hour or so. He was a businessman in a brown suit … We exchanged a few words and then we both got impatient and walked up to the counter. I asked, “What is the likelihood that the storm will clear and what are you seeing?” The man at the counter said, “Well, we won’t know if we’re going to go for another two or three hours.” And as I was standing there I just had a voice come to me and it said, “Go home.” And I thought – it’s almost like talking to yourself – “I can’t go home, I’ve got a job to do, I’ve got to go to Michigan. I’ve never missed a game in all the years I’ve been working. Out of the question.” He said to check with him again in an hour about weather report. So I went back and visited with the guy that had on the brown suit and made a couple phone calls. I went back to talk to the guy at the counter, and he said, “It doesn’t look like we’re going to go anytime soon.” He said that if we go it will be 4:30 or 5:00.
At that time the same voice came back to me and said, “Go home.” I don’t know why but I looked at the guy at the counter and I said, “When is the next flight that I can get back to Vancouver?” He checked and said, “In 20 minutes there’s a flight to Seattle that connects to Vancouver. I’ll hold the flight if you want to go because you can get there.” We were in Terminal C and I think it was in Terminal B, and I was carrying my luggage. So I said, “Okay, change my ticket and I’ll go home.” I virtually ran to catch that flight. I didn’t have time to notify anyone that I’d changed my flight.
When I landed in Seattle I was walking down the ramp and (Grizzlies GM) Stu Jackson was calling. He was pretty upset, you could tell in his voice. He told me that the plane to Detroit had gone down and that everybody who was on it was killed. He said that my mom had been calling. She knew my travel schedule. My wife and my kids didn’t know, they were all busy. The team’s secretaries had called the rental car company and I hadn’t picked up the car. They had called the hotel and I hadn’t checked in.
I went home and couldn’t believe it. I was totally overcome by what had happened. I was really worried about the guy in the brown business suit.
SLAM: Did you ever find him?
LR: He died in the crash.
I’m no better than anybody else. I’m lucky. I did ask the question, “Why do I get off this flight, and the other people didn’t?” I struggled with that a little bit. It was kind of like, “What’s the difference between me and everybody else?” It wasn’t because I’m better than anybody else. At all. I was finally able to come to grips with it.
Stu Jackson’s wife Janet Taylor is a psychiatrist, she’s on TV a lot. I talked to Janet briefly, and talked to my pastor quite a bit.
On choosing basketball over baseball, which he also played and later coached at the collegiate level:
When you grow up in Indiana, basketball is your blood. It really is. I coached baseball in college and loved it. I played it and love playing it too.I don’t know if it’s the same way now in Indiana, because I haven’t been back there, but from the ‘50s through the ‘90s, every little gym was full, and every big gym was full. It was where the excitement was. There was no question that the identity of every little town in Indiana was based on what their basketball team was. It was the thing to do.