Paul Westhead and Pat Riley are arguably among the most fondly remembered coaches in the history of the LA Lakers. The duo worked together at the turn of the decade in the 1980s and ushered in an era of dominance in the NBA that we today know as “Showtime.” Westhead and Riley worked with stars such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Norm Nixon and led the Lakers to several memorable moments. However, HBO’s ‘Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,’ a fictionalized retelling of the Lakers’ Showtime era, hints at a rift between Westhead and Riley over some major coaching decisions. As a result, viewers must be wondering if Paul Westhead and Pat Riley are friends in real life, and here is everything we know about their off-court relationship!
Are Paul Westhead and Pat Riley Friends?
Paul Westhead was hired as an assistant coach when Jack McKinney was appointed as the head coach of the LA Lakers at the start of the 1979-80 NBA season. However, when Jack McKinney suffered a horrific, near-fatal injury in a bike accident, he was unfit to continue coaching the Lakers. As a result, his assistant, Westhead, was appointed as the interim head coach before the position was given to him on a full-time basis. Meanwhile, Westhead hired former LA Lakers shooting guard Pat Riley as his assistant. At the time, Riley was working as a broadcaster for the Lakers, following a five-year stint as a player between 1970 to 1975.
Westhead led the Lakers to the 1979-80 NBA Championship with Riley by his side, forming a steady working relationship. The same is depicted in the first season of ‘Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.’ However, Westhead and Riley have a falling out in the second season, especially after the latter hides Magic’s knee condition from him. The heated argument comes towards the end of the 1980-81 season with the Lakers crashing out of the Playoffs in the first round. In reality, the Lakers fired Westhead during the initial stages of the 1981-82 season. After a public fiasco, Riley was named the interim head coach, succeeding Westhead.
In the book ‘Showtime’ by Jeff Pearlman, the author mentions the rising behind-the-scenes tensions that led to Westhead’s firing. However, Pearlman does not mention any rifts or falling out between Westhead and Riley. It is possible Westhead might have felt betrayed by the assistant he hired to take over his job, but Pearlman states that Westhead refused to appear bitter about his firing. Hence, it is unlikely that his firing impacted his relationship with Riley.
After leaving the Lakers, Westhead coached the Chicago Bulls during the 1982-83 NBA season. Riley’s Lakers faced Westhead’s Bulls twice in the regular season and emerged victorious on both occasions. In the years since his firing from the Lakers, Westhead and Riley have spoken little about each other in the press or publically. However, in an interview conducted in March 2022, Westhead spoke about the nature of his relationship with Riley. The former Lakers’ coach revealed that he and Riley got along well during his time with the NBA outfit.
Westhead admitted that he and Riley have failed to keep in touch over the years. However, Westhead clarified that the lack of communication between him and his former assistant was for logistical reasons. Westhead explained that he spends most of his time in Los Angeles, while Riley is based in Miami, where he serves as the General Manager of the Miami Heat. Moreover, Westhead praised Riley’s coaching skills and had nothing but good things to say about Riley’s coaching career.
Ultimately, Westhead found himself on the receiving end of a situation similar to the one with Jack McKinney, which led to his appointment as the head coach of the LA Lakers in the first place. Moreover, Westhead and Riley seem to have shared a good working relationship, and they were most likely friendly colleagues during their time together with the Lakers. Although Westhead and Riley have not stayed in touch in the past few decades, both have had successful coaching careers and seem to share a fondness for each other and their work together.