In 1989 the Showtime Lakers reached their 3rd finals in a row by sweeping the series against Phoenix Suns. Up until that point, they didn’t lose a single game in the playoffs. The Lakers were ready to face the Joe Dumars’ and Isiah Thomas’s Detroit Pistons, the team they beat in the previous year’s finals in a tough seven-game series. However, since they swept the Suns, the Lakers were going to have an eight days break before playing their first Finals game at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Michigan. Lakers’ coach Pat Riley wanted to keep his players in peak condition and maintain a competitive spirit during those rest days, so he decided to hold a three-day mini-camp and spiritual retreat in Santa Barbara.
The mini-camp resulted in hamstring injuries to Byron Scott, and later to Magic Johnson, causing the Lakers to lose the series to Pistons. Some were wondering it Riley’s workouts were the reason why the two got injured and maybe if Pat should have done things differently, by giving them days-off and letting their bodies recover.
“That’s a good question because it’s mental now with these guys. I mean, they work hard, and a couple of guys come up lame. But that’s always been my policy. I never walk around on eggshells. I think conditioning and competitive spirit over eight days is what it’s about. To do anything less, you can’t.”Pat Riley, via LA Times
Some of the Lakers’ players half-jokingly described Riley’s practices during playoff breaks as torturous. Michael Cooper called Riley “Coach Hitler,” and Mychal Thompson labeled Riley’s mini-camp in Santa Barbara as “sadistic.” However, Byron Scott, a player who suffered the injury allegedly because of Riley’s brutal practices, did not blame the overload.
“That’s not it at all. I was feeling great, very rested coming into the series. I was feeling in better shape than during the regular season.”Byron Scott, via LA Times
Riley defended himself by saying that the mini-camp wasn’t only exclusive for the 1989 playoffs and that he has taken the team to Santa Barbara in the past without repercussions. During the 1987 playoffs, Lakers were there for “almost five days and had three double sessions,” after which the Lakers beat the Celtics and won a championship. The finals loss to the Pistons was also Kareem’s farewell to the league. Years later, Kareem was asked about the 1989 playoffs and what he thought about the connection between Camp Riley and injuries to Scott and Magic.
“Technically, Pat has to take the blame; he had the reins. He’s not responsible for the guys getting hurt, but is it possible that he trained us past the point where guys could make it through the playoffs without getting hurt? I’m not throwing stones at Pat; he had to call it as he saw it.Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, via ESPN
Riley has always had the reputation of a hard-working and hard-demanding coach, and there are many instances when players talked about Riley’s crazy practices, whether they were during the playoffs or three-hour practices during the preseason. Riley’s demands are the reason he was so successful as a coach, winning four championships with the Showtime Lakers and one with the Miami Heat. He transferred his demeanor and work ethic to the next chapter of his NBA career, working as an Executive for the Miami Heat and winning the 2012 and 2013 NBA championships as the team president. Riley has had a philosophy that he carried throughout his whole career and which allowed him to thrive.
Camp Riley fits all Pat ever represented. It’s hard to blame the injuries on him, especially since it wasn’t the first time that the camp was held. That’s why the speculation about a correlation between Riley’s mini-camp and injuries to Scott and Magic will always remain just that, speculation. The logic behind Riley’s decision not to have eight days off before the biggest series of the season is cognizable, and as a coach, you have to make decisions based on your main goal.
You can’t control injuries, they are and always will be an unpredictable part of the game. Riley used the recipe that paid dividends in 1987 but didn’t have the same outcome in 1989 playoffs, and you can’t blame him for that. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the beauty of the NBA.