The Style That Began with His Hair

The Style That Began with His Hair

The theme of this issue being “fashion and style” led me to thinking about my 30-some year friendship with one of the most stylish guys I’ve ever known, Basketball Hall of Fame Coach, Pat Riley. The most fun aspect of thinking about Pat’s personal style is that I take complete credit for it…well, at least for the part of his expanding legend dealing with his much discussed and recognized hair style. 

by Tom Callaway

riley4pic_montage.inddPat’s hair wasn’t always this way. Like most of us Baby Boomers, both Pat and I had gone through a life cycle of hairstyles that reflected the times we lived in, the groups we hung with, and the films we fantasized being in. Like me, I think Pat always was, and still is, a dreamer. He passed through the pompadour years of “Rebel Without a Cause”, to the athletic buzz cuts of our sports heroes of the ‘50s and ‘60s (think Mickey Mantle and Bob Pettit), the mop top hair and side burns of the 70’s (Gimme a head with hair) and eventually into the country phase (Lookin’ for Love in all the Wrong Faces) of the 80’s where this story and our friendship began.

In early 1980, I had recently moved to Los Angeles from New York to continue pursuit of an acting career.  I had always been a huge sports fan, (the NBA and NFL in particular), and had relished every minute of the playoff battles between my New York Knicks of DeBusschere, Reed and Bradley against the LA Lakers of Wilt and Jerry West, with Riley off the bench to back up West.  So here I was, a rookie actor in LA, trying to snare lead roles in TV series and commercials.  Now, several months gone by, my commercial agent called to say she had just signed the retired Lakers player, Pat Riley for commercials… information she thought I’d enjoy, being the sports junkie that I was.  Pat and his wife, Chris, had invited our agent to a game and lunch just before Pat was to broadcast the game on TV and radio with Chick Hearn. She asked if my wife, Claire and I would like to join their little party.

We enjoyed the Rileys immensely, and the gals, (Chris and Claire) exchanged phone numbers for a possible follow up double date, which came to pass just a couple of days later. Now it wasn’t long before we became best of friends, spending months of time together. Along the way, Pat and I realized sports, movies and acting weren’t the only interests we had in common.  In our own ways, both of us had a sense of design. I had studied art history, painting and architecture, so my design sense and our home was more gallery influenced where Pat’s was more music influenced.  Rhythm and Blues and Soul tunes set the tone for both the Riley home and Pat’s wardrobe. In 1979 his clothing style leaned a bit toward Super Fly with custom fitted bell bottoms, the outside leg seams, double stitched in contrasting thread, and their home was cozy and dark, with shag carpet, dim lighting effects, tall column speakers, bongo and conga drums, and sprinkled with sports memorabilia.


At the rear, a small pool was surrounded with lush, tropical plantings, making his every plunge into the cool waters remind one of Johnny Weissmuller diving off a hanging vine.

We celebrated the first of many New Year’s Eves together in 1981.  As a lark, I suggested the four of us go to New Year’s a la The Great Gatsby (Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale of the wild, 1920’s excesses of wealthy New England society). Pat wasn’t clear about what I was suggesting.  “I said, you know, like Redford and Mia Farrow in the film from a few years before, where the guys partied hard with their hair slicked back and wore tuxedos and swilled down champagne while the girls danced all night in flapper dresses.”  Pat and I, like most every other male of those days, were still wearing our hair long and floppy, probably inspired by the Beatles and the Stones.  Pat, reluctantly, said he was game for my suggestion, so we slicked back our hair, gave it a spray, donned dark suits and wing collars with bow ties, and shuffled our delighted gals off to Mr. Chow’s for a dinner with some of our pals.  Within seconds it was clear we had hit a nerve, or, at least Pat had.  Women rushed up to him, suggesting how debonair he looked, completely grooving on his Gatsby flair.  Although deserved, I hadn’t realized how much Pat had taken these flattering comments to heart.  The next day, he slicked back his hair again, and the next, and the next, and it wasn’t long before the new hair arrangement became a permanent part of his new look. About this same time, the world, working in it’s mysterious ways, moved Pat from the broadcast booth to the coaching bench, and once there, the Lakers World Championships began to multiply in short order.

With his new position as Head Coach of the champion Lakers, Pat’s image as a male style setter had a newly accessible stage of national television to help it take flight. After decades of faceless, nervous men, lost in the invisible background of their team’s success or failure, along came Pat Riley with a whole new game.  Never before had a coach, at any level, been recognized for his style, his movie star good looks with a leading man’s hair style, while at the same time, pushing his team of superb athletes to the very pinnacle of championship success and glory through an amazing blend of toughness and finesse.  It was style along with substance.  Every sports fan took notice… man, woman, and child alike.  So did Giorgio Armani, the Italian clothing designer, making sure Pat never walked the sidelines again without a complete Armani ensemble on his back. Soon other coaches caught on, literally changing the concept of how a first rate coach should appear on courtside. The entire NBA followed suit, requiring players to attend games wearing jackets and ties, and shortly, personal style took on a firestorm of importance with each star player’s on- camera arrival into the arena parking lots before games and their after game interviews.


Reflecting back on it, Pat’s successful career as a trend setting coach shaped the remarkable talents of his incredible players to create “Showtime”, “Three peats”, “The Big Three”, and endless championships, the third most ever as a player, coach and front office executive.  I PREFER to think it all began with ME and my world changing New Year’s Eve suggestion… how we should hit the streets in a shining black limo, with our hair slicked back, and our beautiful wives on our arms, as we prowled the Beverly Hills hot spots like imaginary Kings of Sunset Boulevard!  But it goes to show you that a little style suggestion put into the hands of the right man at the right moment can change the entire perception of how we appreciate the world of style.

Pat Riley, the dashing leader of the Showtime Lakers, the mix it up leader of the rockem, sockem Knicks of the 90’s, along with the ever cool leader of the white hot, Miami Heat, has been for all these years, my wonderful pal.  A fun loving guy who had the keen wisdom to sign up for my lighthearted notion that we should both be Gatsby’s for a night.  But make no mistake.  To his credit alone, he has taken hard work and applied it to a philosophy that no detail is too small.  He’s led some world-class teams made up of extraordinary players, but found a way to also make them winners.  He’s also had his share of good fortune.  But through it all, he has created a signature look…a hip, personal style that has been recognized and appreciated around our entire planet with some serious HEAT.  Rock on, brother!

Tom CallawayAbout the author: Tom Callaway is an interior designer and architect, living in Brentwood.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.