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Riley Is Green, but It's Not With Envy

Basketball: His trademark of 'three-peat' still good, former Laker coach would make money off L.A. win.

June 05, 2002|BRADY MacDONALD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the Lakers win a third straight NBA title, former Laker coach Pat Riley will likely join the celebration--all the way to the bank.

During the 1989 playoffs, when the Showtime Lakers were seeking a "three-peat," Riley formed a licensing group that officially registered that phrase as a trademark. The Lakers failed to win three in a row, but Riley's company--Riles & Co.--held onto the patent.

If the Lakers beat New Jersey in the best-of-seven series that begins tonight, Riley's payday could be as high as $150,000, industry insiders say.

Riley, now with the Miami Heat, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But at the time he secured the patent, he explained that the "business proposition" first arose when he was with the Lakers, but did not pay off until the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls pulled off the trifecta in 1993.

During the week to 10 days after the Bulls' third championship, 15 companies were licensed to use "three-peat"--or "3-peat," which Riley also owns--on T-shirts, hats, pennants, backboards, towels and posters.

Laker and NBA officials say the team and the league have no plans to produce any three-peat merchandise of their own, but third-party manufacturers are expected to produce thousands of T-shirts and trinkets, from bumper stickers to welcome mats.

Within hours of a Laker championship, Minnesota-based manufacturer WinCraft plans to print, pack and ship up to 100,000 triangular wall pennants--all bearing the three-peat slogans. And should the Lakers take a three games to none lead or the championship-clinching game becomes a blowout in their favor by halftime, 10 silk-screen presses in Long Beach will begin churning out 6,000 T-shirts per hour.

"You go gangbusters until the parade, and then you're done," said John Allenberg of West Coast Novelty, one of four companies licensed to print Lakers' three-peat T-shirts.

In all, approximately $3 million in three-peat merchandise will be sold, Allenberg estimates, with Riley's take about 5%.

Legend has it Riley didn't even coin the phrase, he was just a shrewd speculator. Laker insiders credit Byron Scott, now coach of the New Jersey Nets, with first uttering "three-peat" during the 1988 victory parade.

Riley also patented "Four-ward"--"In case we won four in a row, we also had the next year covered too," he said at the time.

"Four-peat" has already been scooped up--by dozens of claimants, including the Bulls and the NBA (but not Riley).

Media coverage of Riley's patent triggered an onslaught on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1993. Sports fans filed 10 applications--at $210 a pop--for "Fourmidabull" and a dozen variations on the "Quadrup-Bulls" theme.

At that time, Riley's New York Knicks were battling the back-to-back champion Chicago Bulls in the NBA semifinals--a win-win situation for Riley, as many journalists pointed out.

Riley stood to earn about $57,000 if the Knicks won it all and thousands more if the Bulls three-peated. The Armani-clad, slick-haired Riley said he never saw a conflict of interest in his capitalizing on the fortunes of one team while coaching another.

"It's the American free-enterprise system," he told reporters.

Riley's trademark idea was hatched in 1988 after the Lakers had won consecutive championships.

"I was having dinner one night with a friend and the friend said, 'Why don't we just copyright it?'" recalled Riley. "And I said, 'Go ahead.'"

In 1998, Jordan & Co. completed the three-peat repeat and Riley scored again. Riley has said he has never asked the Bulls--or the Lakers this time around--for compensation for using three-peat in any marketing or merchandising efforts because his licensing agreements always have been with the NBA or third parties.

Riley has said that all net proceeds from his three-peat licensing contracts have gone--and will continue to go--to charity. But he refuses to name any of the charities or disclose the amounts of past donations.

The list of modern-day major league teams that have three-peated reads like a who's who of North American pro sports franchises: New York Yankees (three times), Montreal Canadiens (twice), Toronto Maple Leafs (twice), Chicago Bulls (twice), Boston Celtics, New York Islanders, Oakland Athletics and Minneapolis Lakers. No NFL team has won three straight Super Bowls.

Ironically, the universal popularity of Riley's "three-peat" could ultimately spell doom for his trademark-protected phrase. With the help of sportswriters and fans, three-peat has quickly slipped into the public domain of sports cliches that describe a distinct feat (i.e. hat trick, shutout, triple-double). Once that happens, patent holders no longer earn money off their use.

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