Pat Riley has been known as a man with style since he patrolled the sidelines at The Forum during the Showtime era, wearing impeccably tailored, impossibly expensive suits. His hair, slicked back and product-laden, shined as bright as any star in Los Angeles — even those sitting courtside or playing point guard. Riley’s idea of style is quite rigid, however. Too much so for Golden State Warriors center Jermaine O’Neal.

“I can’t play the game without a headband. It’s just one of those things where I got to have it, I feel very comfortable with it and it’s been 18 years of it. So it’s routine,” said O’Neal, who in 2009 had to fight for the right to don his favorite on-court accessory.

“It’s funny, because I went to Miami a couple years ago and they had the ‘no headband’ rule. And so Pat Riley, obviously he’s an iconic figure in basketball. I had to sit him down and say, ‘Coach Riles, I don’t know if I can play without it.’ Some people think it’s for style, but for me it’s a part of the armor.”

headbandsThat was four games after O’Neal was traded from the Toronto Raptors to the Miami Heat, where Riley had instituted the strict anti-terrycloth policy. In those four games, O’Neal averaged 12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds. Those figures actually weren’t too much lower than O’Neal’s averages for the season, but O’Neal’s plea caused Riley to relent. From Tom Weir of USA Today:

It’s safe to say that LeBron James will never play for Pat Riley.

That’s because LeBron loves wearing a headband as much as Riley detests the adornment, calling it part of “the disease of ‘me.’ “

But the Miami Heat president is making an exception to his long-standing rule against headbands for newly arrived center Jermaine O’Neal.

O’Neal told the Miami Herald he and Riley have an agreement, but he wouldn’t disclose details.

“I can’t tell you,” O’Neal said. “But we made an agreement on things I need to do to keep the headband. I plan on keeping the headband. I don’t want people to think Coach Riley is getting soft.”

Funny thing about Weir’s opening line. O’Neal stayed with Miami for one more season. On July 10, 2010, O’Neal signed with the Boston Celtics — the same day James, headband and all, was traded to Riley’s Heat.

In Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Tim Duncan knocked LeBron’s headband off his head with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. James went from scoring 18 points on 35.7% (5-for-14) shooting in 36 minutes while wearing the cranial covering to scoring 14 points and going 6-of-12 in the last 14 minutes of that classic contest with a naked forehead (including the put-back dunk James converted a split-second after Duncan separated the superstar from his sweat-collector).

James probably could’ve found his headband (or easily grabbed another one) if he felt the need. That’s what O’Neal would’ve done.

“If it gets knocked off, I will stop to pick it up and put it back on while running back down the court. I’m never going to leave it,” O’Neal said.

I asked O’Neal whether seeing James find his rhythm after losing his “armor” gave him any ideas. Would he consider ditching the headband to break a shooting slump?

“Uh, no,” O’Neal said with a laugh.

“(LeBron) caught some slack too, because it showed his hairline. People went crazy with posted pictures and stuff. So the very next game, he came back with the headband,” he said.

O’Neal seemed happy when recalling Game 7, almost as if LeBron returned to the headband-wearing fold.

“Some people do it for looks, some people do it for the fashion, some people do it to hide certain things. Like a hairline,” said O’Neal. “But he’s a tremendous player, so I’m sure it doesn’t matter what he wears.”