Fanatics Leadership Series: Pat Riley

Pat Riley's The Winner Within

Riles rule: Getting the Best of the Bench

The team on the court is the team of the moment.  When the first string snaps, motivate the players you have, rather than moaning about the players you don’t have.  You’ll never arouse The Winner Within by making people feel they’re only a fill-in for sidelined greatness.

We lost five games in a row after Earvin’s injury.  Gradually, though, the remaining players pulled together, adjusted, and won twenty-eight of their next forty.  That translates to winning 70 percent of the time, which is outstanding performance. Michael Cooper started alongside [Norm] Nixon, and they both had several big nights.  Inspired by showing what they could do without the guy who had, overnight, become the focus of fans, media, and management, the Lakers held on to a strong second place in the Pacific Division.

This great level of accomplishment actually worsened the Disease of Me because the players grew convinced that no one knew how well they were really doing.  So intense was Earvin’s stardom that his absence seemed more newsworthy than their wins.  As his return grew closer, during the time-outs near the end of every home game, the public address announcer would always say, “And don’t forget to mark your calendars – Friday February 27th. Magic Johnson returns to the lineup of your World Champion Los Angeles Lakers!”  The players, hearing this, would look up from their huddle and shake their heads, as if to say “F________ that.  We’re winning now!”

The Laker organization was so eager to market the excitement of Earvin’s return that they forgot about motivating the guys who were getting the job done on the court.  Their own specialness was being drained away, and maintaining that specialness is something for which leadership is always accountable.  Earvin himself praised the results the team was achieving, but his voice was drowned out by the fuss over his absence and by the power of the marketing mechanism.

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Ultimately, a team belongs to the people who get the job done.  The leader exists to serve them, to create an environment in which their talents can flourish, and that is the coach’s or leader’s obligation to the Covenant.  The only way to do that is through communication, and that doesn’t just mean words.  During playoffs, for example, I have rented pool tables and VCRs with tape libraries and had them set up on the security-guarded hotel suite floors. I’ve had meal buffets catered into restricted banquet rooms.  All so that the players wouldn’t have to hassle even leaving the hotel on the road.  And I’ve asked staff to go to the department stores and buy stacks of regular towels (in real colors, including -would you believe?-pink, but not a single standard issue white), so the team members would feel less like they were besieged in their alien hotel rooms. Some people may think that this should be the work of a social director, but for me it’s a touch of leadership with a clear goal. And it isn’t blackmail or bribery.  It’s giving the warriors everything that they need to go into battle, because that is what warriors deserve.

There’s a fine line between serving and being subservient.  Direction and discipline establish that line.  You have to know when to push and demand.  My time to step up and claim that skill came along in early March of 1982, close to the end of the season.  Despite everyone’s best intentions, effort levels had begun to slip, affecting overall performance.  Suddenly we lost four games in five.  A deeply embarrassing showing at home was against the (then) lowly Bulls was the last straw.  We had been holding meetings, players had voiced opinions about what we needed to do, but these same players had failed to carry out their own recommendations.

The Winner Within listens to the voice of the team and makes that voice confront reality.  Another role of leadership is to be the Enforcer of the Covenant.  With the playoffs only a month away, we had to shed our hypocrisy.  The Core Covenant had to evolve one final step beyond being an unspoken agreement .  We had to make it a clear, conscious contract.  And everyone on the team had to decide-would he sign on the bottom line, backing up his commitment to action? Would he consciously declare himself to be In or Out?

We held a team meeting in the last week of March.  The topic was Standards and Practices.  Everyone was given a chance to speak up.  As a group, we detailed exactly what we needed to do to in a championship.  Then, the next time we convened as a team, I told them, “Talks are great, but if the things you agree to get applied on the floor, we don’t need anymore meetings.  You as a team have set standards that you think will make us a championship team. We as a group will monitor each other.   And I as your coach will enforce them.  You might not like the consequences of failing to get behind the team’s standards.”  The team understood and accepted the rightness of Our Covenant, and some of them knew that if they stayed Out it might mean bench.

This moment transformed me as a coach.  I’ve never changed back. Far more important, this moment prepared the Lakers of the 1980s for an era of significance.  I still get goose bumps thinking about it.

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