The School of Pat Riley

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 27, 2013

The School of Pat Riley

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    The story of Pat Riley’s life reads less like a biography and more like a collection of short stories from the world’s greatest orators.

    This wealth of material can only come from an NBA career that has touched each of the last six decades and spanned the United States. 

    However, simply having that wealth of material available and finding ways to put it to good use are two completely different things. 

    Here's where the man's brilliance shines brightest, as he's molded those moments into a legendary lesson plan. After learning from some of the game's all-time greats, he went on to master the art of leading others.

    Need proof that the man's methods are rock solid? Try perusing through his hardware collection, which features nine championship rings, three Coach of the Year awards and, perhaps its most prized piece, a Chuck Daly Lifetime Achievement award.

    Now it's our chance to follow his philosophical path, immerse ourselves in his teachings and uncover the secrets to his success.

Masterful Motivation

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    Riley's motivational skills have reached legendary status in the business world. For someone who commands up to six figures to speak at an event, his message better be good.

    Of course, those business opportunities would never enter the realm of possibility had he not already shown the ability to lead grown men into battle on the NBA hardwood.

    Perhaps his greatest motivational tool is his ability to adapt his message to his audience.

    Back in 2011, Year 1 of the Heat's "Miami Thrice" experiment," Riley's coach Erik Spoelstra's seat had reached a boiling point. His superpower carried a five-game losing streak into the month of March, and the apprentice was pulled into his master's office.

    To the outside world, this was a meeting that was long overdue. Riley couldn't really watch as his loaded roster went to waste in front of his eyes, could he?

    "I walked in there, and there was a bottle of wine and two glasses," Spoelstra told Newsday's Barbara Barker. "He said, 'Come in here and share this with me.' And the first 20 to 30 minutes, we just sipped the wine and didn't say one word. That's what I really needed at the time. He just has a feel." 

    The Heat would go on to lose just three of their final 18 games of the regular season after that meeting.

    Sometimes a few glasses of vino couldn't cut it, though. Sometimes his message needed to be a little sharper, a little more biting.

    Like the way he handled Hall of Famer Magic Johnson in L.A., for instance. Riley knew exactly how to get his floor general's competitive juices flowing, as Johnson recalled at a business conference:

    He knew that it was about Larry and Michael to me...Pat and an assistant coach are the only two people in the room besides myself. So he's drawing up the game plan on the board. So he would say to Bill, to get me going, 'Bill, did you what Larry Bird did tonight? Wow, he had 30 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists.'

    He don't stop there, because back east they're three hours ahead so their games are over. So he says, 'Bill, I want to tell you another thing. I can't believe that Michael Jordan, I'll tell you. He got 60 tonight, 60 points, Bill!' So he knew that I was listening, but he would never make eye contact with me. But he made sure I knew their stats, so I could go out and have a high triple-double, which he knew I was going to do because I'm mad at what they did earlier.

    A great leader understands his strengths and weaknesses and how to put people around them who will respond to those strengths. But a legendary leader like Riley can change his approach on the fly, doing whatever it takes to maximize the effectiveness of the particular crowd in front of him.

Always Be Closing

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    Riley's mastery of basketball's business world is best seen through his executive experience.

    Dynasties don't come together without superstar players, and Riley hasn't relied on the guesswork of draft night to find them. Instead he's blazed a pioneering trail on the free-agent market.

    "There's nobody you would rather have as a frontman for a franchise going out on those recruiting trips," Spoelstra told USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "He has a gift for burning an impression in your mind what it would be like to play for a title."

    While the rest of the league planned out extravagant presentations for LeBron James in the summer of 2010, Riley knew the real way to the King's heart.

    According to Harvey Araton of The New York Times, Riley's pitch was equal parts simple and brilliant. The executive simply toted a cloth bag of his NBA championship rings and spread them across the table. His hardware collection alone spoke louder than the messages delivered by rival execs.

    Riley's jewelry case has since seen the addition of two more rings, both the direct result of his successful pursuit of James.

    Of course, even superstars need support every now and then. Riley has never failed to recognize their importance.

    Ethan J. Skolnick of The Palm Beach Post captured Riley's genius in his recounting of Ray Allen's courtship:

    (Riley) and Allen had only shared 'small conversations in passing,' but last Thursday, discussed basketball for several hours, at least when Allen wasn't stepping out to do the same with Spoelstra.  Riley gave him books, texted quotes. 'Just a very disarming guy,' Allen said.

    After that meeting, Allen left millions on the table for the chance to play with Riley's team. In other words, he followed the same script as James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mike Miller and Shane Battier when Riley pursued them in previous seasons.

    Riley identifies his roster's needs and meticulously scans through the classifieds for ideal candidates. As soon as his sights are set, he's as good of a closer as the basketball world has ever seen.

The Product Is Only as Good as Its Warranty

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    In this fickle, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately generation of professional sports, stars have risen and fallen in the blink of an eye.

    What has made Riley such a unique success story is his ability to consistently put elite-level product on the floor.

    He's always understood the fact that his recruitment efforts aren't finished the moment the ink dries on his superstars' contracts. The importance of standing behind those signings and those players after the fact helps to not only bolster future free-agent pursuits, but also helps maximize the production of the ones who are already on board.

    Take last season for instance. After James complained about the lenient officiating in Miami's 101-97 loss to the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics team president Danny Ainge said it was "almost embarrassing that LeBron would complain about officiating," via NESN's Terrence Payne.

    Rather than let his players respond, Riley issued a statement through a team spokesperson saying that Ainge should "shut the [expletive] up and manage his own team," via ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz.

    If it seemed like the latest rallying cry in the Boston-Miami rivalry, Riley said that simply wasn't the case. He was just doing what he felt any competent executive would do—support his player.

    "Somebody on the outside weighing in, I don't think that's right in the league," Riley told the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "LeBron has battled for so long that he'll deal with it. We have to try to protect him."

    Could Riley's history with Ainge have played a part in his emphatic response? Sure it could: In that same statement he later called Ainge "the biggest whiner going when he was playing."

    But this wasn't just Riley's chance to lash out at Ainge; this was his forward-thinking approach to reiterate to James just how much the Heat care about his best interests. With the four-time MVP's possible next trip to the free-agent market a little more than one year away from this incident, Riley seized the opportunity to earn his team some power at the negotiating table.

    And this type of situation isn't just saved for the King, either. Riley feels an inherent duty to repay all of his players for the sacrifices they made to become a part of his club.

    "These guys took less money to come here because of promises we made them," he told The Sporting News' David Steele after the Heat won the 2013 NBA title. "I don't think I could have looked them in the eye if we didn't win the championship."

    Loyalty isn't simply a part of Riley's sales pitch. It's actually a vital piece of his business model.


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    Each stop on Riley's coaching journey has been a wildly successful one, but the way he's reached that success has been anything but consistent.

    As the brains behind the Lakers' "Showtime" attack, his team overwhelmed the opposition with an offensive barrage that they just couldn't match. During Riley's eight-year tenure, the Lakers never finished outside of the top five in offensive rating and held the category's No. 1 spot six different times.

    "We didn’t care who we were playing, we didn’t care how many points we were down," Magic Johnson told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap. "Our whole goal was to run you into the ground.”

    But when Riley took over the Knicks for the 1991-92 season, he hit the ground running as a defensive guru. New York had the best defensive rating in three of his four seasons, finishing with the second-best mark in his debut campaign.

    Riley's assistant in the Big Apple, Jeff Van Gundy, says this transformation was hardly a surprise. As Van Gundy saw it, the high-powered offense he left behind in L.A. was the real shocker.

    "L.A. was his alter ego," Van Gundy said. "At heart, he's a scrapper, fighter, angry passionate."

    Getting a little dirt (or even blood) on those Armani suits didn't seem to bother Riley at all.

    "We're going to be the best-conditioned, hardest-working, most professional, unselfish, toughest, nastiest, most disliked team in the NBA," he said.

    By the time he landed in Miami for the 1995-96 season, he really had the best of both worlds.

    His Heat teams had just as much fight in them as his Knicks had, but they could score points in bunches when needed. During the third year of his stay in South Beach, the Heat cracked the top 10 in both offensive and defensive ratings.

    For Riley, though, only one statistic mattered.

    "There's winning," Riley told Sports On Earth's Shaun Powell, "and there's misery."

    That's why he molded his methods around his players however he needed in pursuit of the game's most glorious gift.

Image Is Everything

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    From his trademark slicked-back locks to his perfectly tailored Armani suits, Riley needs just a fleeting glance to leave a lasting impression.

    It's the subtle art of demanding attention by always remembering to shake hands with the one adorned in championship bling. Or dimming your office lights to always a cast an air of mystery upon your guests.

    If Pat Riley is in the building, rarely will he go unnoticed.

    "Very few guys in the NBA have a presence about them," Shane Battier told Newsday's Barbara Barker. "Pat Riley has a presence. He is a living legend. He knows of what he speaks."

    He cuts the kind of striking figure that other people simply gravitate toward. Even if you knew nothing of his roundball exploits, you could still recognize the aura of success that surrounds him.

    According to Riley, consistently keeping his best foot forward is no accident. In fact it's something that he discussed at length with the late Chuck Daly in the Associated Press (via ESPN):

    He was always dapper and very stylish. We talked a lot about clothes, how he loved to go shopping, window shopping, go try on things and stuff like that. And then I used to ask him, how can you wear your polo coaching shirt with your collar up? Every time I saw him, he had his collar up...I think we were very proud to be a coach.

    You have to remember that the hierarchy in professional sports is nearly unparalleled in the business world. Subordinates often out-earn their superiors, sometimes by a tremendous margin.

    Coaches and executives have to give players a reason to buy into their message. Maintaining the image of prosperity can be the first step toward building that respect.

    Respect is perhaps the most oft-cited concept that comes to mind for Riley's players.

    "When he talks," Wade told The Washington Post's Amy Shipley, "you listen."

The Art of Storytelling

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    The motivational skills and keen business savvy both stem from the same place: Riley's ability to tell a good tale.

    With mountains of material to mull over, Riley always finds a way to deliver the right message at precisely the right moment.

    "He's a master of timing," Wade told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "That's what he's always been great at."

    Of course, the fact that his words come from decades of experience only strengthens their meaning.

    "That man there has a lot of history," James told Zillgitt. "He's been around a lot of Game 4s, Game 3s, Game 7s. He's seen everything."

    Sometimes he doesn't rely on his basketball background for his most impactful speeches, though. Sometimes he's drawing more from the basic life lessons he's taken from embracing the cutthroat world of capitalism, like the one Dan Le Betard shared with his Miami Herald readers:

    Seems an army spent years building boats in preparation for a war. Upon arrival on the shores, the general turned around and demanded that his troops burn the boats they’d spent years building.

    “But why?” his soldiers asked. “We will have no escape if things get bad.”

    “Exactly,” the general replied. “You win or you die.”

    Riley gives his players a purpose, helps them realize the full effects these 48-minute snapshots of their lives will have on their lasting legacy. His words, carefully crafted and impeccably delivered, often travel straight from his mouth into the history books.

    What seems so easy to outsiders, though, is actually the result of a carefully learned craft. As Riley told Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber in the video series Winning Voices, his knack for storytelling isn't as simple as it sounds:

    Storytelling is very, very important. It isn't 'Once upon a time' type of stuff, it's day-to-day-living-type of stories that they will relate to that can inspire them. But it takes a lot of thinking, it takes a lot of time. I felt a lot of pressure in always having to come up with the right words for them.

    Looking at his track record, it's safe to say that he's thrived in these pressure-packed moments.

Planting the Seed

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    There is no greater testament to one's success then the rise of former apprentices to masters in their own right.

    Riley's coaching tree is as deeply rooted and has abundantly bloomed as any man who's ever graced an NBA sideline.

    His tenure with Miami has helped propel three men into the head coaching ranks. Erik Spoelstra and Stan Van Gundy both served on Riley's staff with the Heat, and Marc Iavaroni (who coached the Memphis Grizzlies for parts of two seasons) worked as Miami's director of player development from 1999-02.

    Spoelstra credits Riley not only for helping him crack the coaching ranks, but also for providing continued guidance along the way.

    "I use Pat as a resource as much as I possibly can," he told Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel. "He's a walking motivational leadership speaker, and he can pontificate about so many other elements outside of X's and O's."

    Jeff Van Gundy was part of Riley's staff with the New York Knicks for four seasons (1991-95) and went on to coach the Knicks and the Houston Rockets. Two of Riley's players in New York, Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson, have since secured their own coaching positions.

    Jackson, who had no prior coaching experience before signing on as the head man for the Golden State Warriors, said playing under Riley was akin to attending a coaching clinic.

    There were "so many knock-it-out the park speeches, moments, that I don’t care if you played for him and you didn’t have dreams of coaching, you sat and took notes," Jackson told Ethan J. Skolnick of The Palm Beach Post. "You were sitting there watching everything you needed to get it done, from holding guys accountable, to motivating to leading to details to how you treat people."

    In L.A., Riley also led a pair of future coaches in Byron Scott and Kurt Rambis.

    Scott told The News-Herald's Bob Finnan that Riley was responsible for planting the coaching seed in his mind:

    Pat Riley told me I would be a coach. He said, ‘You'll understand some of the things I have to deal with.' I told him he was out of his mind. There was no way I was going to be a coach.

    Scott would eventually lead three different franchises (the New Jersey Nets, New Orleans Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers) and was named the Coach of the Year in 2007-08.

    Riley's coaching tree has even branched out to include second-generation entries. Eddie Jordan and Larry Drew (who honed their crafts under Scott) and Tom Thibodeau (a Jeff Van Gundy disciple) have each taken their spin on the NBA's coaching carousel.