October 2, 2009 • Basketball

Dressed For Success

With his Armani suits and slicked back hair, Pat Riley has brought style and panache to the hardwood. He is perhaps the most recognizable coach in sports. Sartorial splendor aside, the man who presided over “Show Time” in Los Angeles and not only coined the term three-peat, he trademarked it, is a proven winner and surefire Hall of Famer. During his 20-year coaching career Riley has amassed nearly 1,100 victories, second all-time to Lenny Wilkins, and was voted among the NBA’s Top 10 Coaches of All-Time. He possesses six championship rings, including one as a player. What’s more, his corporate speeches have earned him the title of “America’s Greatest Motivational Speaker.” When Riley articulates his views, people listen. We were all ears when the president and head coach of the Miami Heat granted Scholastic Coach & Athletic Director an exclusive and stimulating interview.


COACH: You were born in Rome, NY, and grew up in Schenectady, NY. How did you pass the time as a kid? What sports did you play?

RILEY: I grew up in Schenectady, which was a factory town – basically General Electric and Alco Locomotive. My dad was a minor league baseball manager who worked for the Schenectady Blue Jays and traveled around. My days were like those of every other kid back in the 50’s: When you got up in the morning, you took off. My days were filled with sports, activities, and chores. You met your buddies at the park and played ball, went swimming, or skating; whatever the season offered up. And that was it. There was no technology. There were no cell phones or BlackBerry’s – nothing to distract you other than just having good friends. I sort of miss that. It was a great time.

COACH: Your father, Leon, was a major league outfielder for the Philadelphia Philles in 1944, and later became a minor league manager with the organization. In addition, your brother, Lee, played defensive back for the Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants of the NFL and the New York Titans (now the Jets) of the American Football League, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. How vital was it for you to have two family members of such athletic prowess provide you with the temperament, drive, and work ethic to achieve your athletic aspirations?

RILEY: They definitely were role models. There’s no doubt. My father was too busy working, traveling, and trying to provide for his family. He had six children. Like everyone else, World War II interrupted his playing career. But he was really, really busy working 12-15 hours a day. I didn’t really get to see him that much. My brothers were always involved in sports so they definitely influenced me by their success. I got off to a late start. I didn’t really start with sports until I was about 10 or 11 years old. Everything came pretty fast from that standpoint. Once I got into sports it changed my life. 

COACH: You were a two-sport star at Linton High School in Schenectady, playing both football and basketball. How about the impact your basketball coach, Walt Pryzblo, had on you as a young, aspiring player? What wisdom did he impart on you that helped develop your character as a player, person, and later, as a coach?

RILEY: I actually played as many sports as I could. I also played baseball and ran track and field. One time I ran cross- country. Basketball and football were my primary sports with football probably being the one that I loved the most, and basketball the one I became the best at. Walt Pryzblo was like a second father to me when I was a young man.

There was a little bit of waywardness on my part when I was in the fourth through seventh grades. Once he got a hold of me – and once a coach really gets a hold of a player and begins to talk to him, and work him out, and drill him, and motivate him, and tell him what life is about – I could have gone either way.

Walt was a person, along with my father – because my father was so busy working – that became an active participant because he was my high school coach and sort of my mentor. He had a huge impact on directing my attitude, my work ethic, and my discipline – all those things that most young kids don’t know anything about. You get the basics from your father, but when you go into a practice facility with a lot of other players it gets organized by the teachers and coaches that you have. 

COACH: After high school, you were offered a scholarship to play basketball for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky as well as a football scholarship to play for Bear Bryant at Alabama. That had to be a tough choice. What made you decide to opt for Kentucky, where you were a three-time MVP, and what was it like to play for the Baron? What indelible impressions did he have on you?

RILEY: The transition from high school to Kentucky was absolutely overwhelming for me. Coming from a small town- being in a very good program at Linton High School- going to Kentucky was like going to a factory. Not only were there a lot of kids going to school, Kentucky basketball was an institution and they were very, very serious about it. I didn’t realize just how serious they were about it until I went down there. Bear Bryant at Alabama did recruit me, but when Adolph Rupp visited Schenectady, N.Y. and recruited me personally, he charmed me, my family, and especially my mother. It just seemed like that was what I was going to be doing- my destiny was going to be in basketball. And Kentucky, at that time, was probably considered the top college program in the country along with Duke and a few others.

Kentucky taught me how to take the whole game of basketball, along with a work ethic and preparation, to another level. A very professional level, even though I wasn’t a professional. But a very high level of effort, energy, and efficiency. That’s what Kentucky basketball was all about to me. Every single day in practice, everything was choreographed. Every drill was timed. Every movement was talked about. During practices nobody ever talked. You just did your work and after practice you went to study hall. It was quite overwhelming for me at the beginning but I caught on rather quickly because I wanted to stay there.

Another thing I took out of Kentucky was that it was the best four years of my life. I think the best four years of any person’s life could be that transition from high school through college. The overall responsibility of now being on your own, away from home. The accountability that is necessary for going to class and getting good grades on your own. And also the socialization of meeting people and sort of defining the disciplined life socially is something that you didn’t do in high school because you always had curfew. So college is an incredible growing experience and it was for me.

What I took from Adolph Rupp was a sense of organization, preparation, and discipline. 

COACH: You played in two of the more memorable games in history on both the scholastic and collegiate levels. Your high school team defeated the vaunted Power Memorial Academy team that featured Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar) and you also played in the 1966 NCAA Championship in which Kentucky lost to Texas Western (now UTEP), which featured the first-ever African-American starting five in college basketball. What do you remember about those games and their place in basketball lore?

RILEY: As far as Schenectady, N.Y. went, the game against Power Memorial in 1961 was probably the biggest game ever in the history of that city because it brought one of the phenoms-to-be in the history of basketball, Lew Alcindor. There was so much publicity about him and that he was going to be the next Wilt Chamberlain. Plus his size, and his grace, and his ability, even as a ninth-grader at that time was overwhelming. They had a great team and they came up for a holiday festival during Christmastime and we ended up beating them at Linton High, which was an incredible experience for me. You never know if you’re going to be a part of those games. When you are, it just seems like another game. But years later, because of Kareem’s career and my career, all of a sudden that game took on an added significance.

It was the same thing at Kentucky when we played in the NCAA finals against Texas Western, during a period in our life that was rife with civil unrest and racism and questions about segregation and integration. Massive marches. Dr. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy. During that period we were going through a very difficult time for the youth in our country in understanding everything that was coming at us. But this team from Texas-El Paso just rose up out of the ashes and won an NCAA Championship when they weren’t supposed to.

That game, because it was five black players, for the first time, playing against five white players in an NCAA Championship Game, really opened up the doors to integration in the south. There were no black athletes on scholarship in the ACC, SEC, in the Southwest Conference, in the Southern Conference. I think that particular game made people realize what that team had to go through. Being able to become NCAA champions was incredible. It was the watershed game in which after 1966 all the schools opened their doors to black students and black student-athletes on scholarship and sports took a giant step forward. 

COACH: Your award-winning motivational video, Teamwork, applies winning philosophies to business and life in general. What is your definition of teamwork as it applies to sports?

RILEY: Teamwork is the essence of life. And teamwork is an interactive relationship, whereby all of us are either hired or brought together for whatever reason to get a result. It is the essence of life in family. It is the essence of life in sports. And it is the essence of life in business. In order to be successful as a group of people the dynamics of being a team are all the same, with the exception that you are jumping off a different platform – probably from a different industry. But really, the principles are the same. People have to come together for the common good.

The only way you are ever going to do that is through trust. It’s even more than belief. Belief just isn’t enough. You simply have to get to a point where you trust one another – in their motives, in their approaches, in their games, in their idiosyncrasies, and their personalities, and what they bring to the table – and not be judgmental as a coach, or a teacher, or a parent. No student, no player, no child will ever let you coach, parent, or teach them unless they trust that you are absolutely sincere, competent, and reliable. They are smart enough to see that. If your intentions as a coach or a teacher or a parent are nothing less than sincere, because you want to get something out of it yourself instead of what’s in the best interest of the person, then they won’t let you. They will sort of punch the clock with you.

You have to be competent because they want to learn. Most kids and most players simply want to learn and get better. And so you have to know what you’re doing. It’s the same thing when it comes to reliability. If they know you’re going to be there, then the trust and the fact that teamwork can cross over from sports into real life will be there, too. 

COACH: What is your team-building leadership philosophy?

RILEY: The overall philosophy is that you have to, voluntarily, get out of yourself and get with the program. Whatever the program is. You have to find a way to decide to either jump in or jump out. And getting yourself to that point first, instead of riding the fence philosophically, is first and foremost in trying to develop the confidence of the team. You’re either with me or against me. A house divided against itself surely will not stand. The most difficult thing any coach or teacher or parent ever has to do is to get someone to do the things they don’t want to do in order to achieve what the team needs. And that’s our challenge. 

COACH: One of your two books is entitled, The Winner Within. Based on your expertise, what is the most important thing a coach needs to know in order to unleash the winner within his or her players?

RILEY: I wrote the book 13 years ago so my answer might be a little bit different, but it still comes down to the amount of desire that the individuals have. Their will, their want, their attitude, their approach to wanting to be better. Not merely the best of the best but to be unique one day or to separate yourself from the pack.

When you find people who are highly motivated, highly disciplined, and have this deep, deep desire to be part of a team and to succeed, then I think as a coach you can help them unleash it. But they have to be totally open to you. Most of those people who have those qualities are open. They want to be led.

COACH: You are considered by many to be the greatest motivational speaker in the country. From where do you draw your inspiration when addressing an audience? And as a follow up, can players truly be motivated externally?

RILEY: Motivation is simply defined as having a motive and then taking an action based on it. It’s a big part of my approach. I don’t think a majority of players or kids in any walk of life are really motivated enough to get the most out of what they have to offer. People just aren’t geared to push themselves that hard, or to go the extra mile, or to do things above and beyond because they don’t know what to do a lot of times. I think that’s where coaches come into it. They can take these people to a higher level because they are competent, they are sincere, and they are reliable in how they are going to do that.

It’s about trying to find ways to motivate individuals and I believe every individual can be motivated. You motivate through communication first with a message, the tone of your voice, or your body language. But constantly trying to find out as much as you can know about that individual. I believe professional athletes need to be motivated. I think you’re making a big mistake if you don’t come in as a boss, or a manager, a teacher, or a coach trying to get these people into a more highly achieving-type state of mind.

COACH: How important is it to relate to individual players and how can a coach improve his or her interpersonal skills?

RILEY: It depends on what level you are coaching. When it comes to coaching on a youth level, in a junior high school level, or a high school level, where kids are still maturing emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually, I think the communication, talking, educating type of approach transcends the actual X’s and O’s. I think you have to develop the mind and the will as much as you develop them on the court.

As players get older, especially as professionals, they will bring the philosophies of five to 15 coaches with them. That means they have been talked to, they have been coached by a lot of different people; they have been motivated and inspired, and they know what it’s like to be a player who is being coached. Sometimes in professional basketball, saying less is best. Your actions and how they work and what you put in front of them every day will be noticed.

If I were coaching a high school team, I would be teaching, teaching, teaching, and teaching verbally every single day to every single individual. 

COACH: How do you avoid complacency in a team setting?

RILEY: First of all, you have to realize that complacency is a way of life. You don’t ever avoid it. You have to alert your players to the fact that there are so many things that can get between them and what you are trying to teach them.

You can’t become distracted and let all of these things get into the way and take your mind off of the prize. It’s a deadly disease because it simply gets in the way of your energy and your effort. And when your energy and your effort are down, your efficiency is going to be down. 

COACH: Following your playing career, you became a broadcaster for the Lakers. Then, in 1980, Paul Westhead brought you on as an assistant, your first coaching position on any level. What was that first experience like and at what point in your life did you aspire to become a coach?

RILEY: I always thought about coaching during the latter part of my professional playing career. Actually, I applied for some college jobs, but I didn’t get them. I then went back to the Lakers and filled a number of duties on the lower spectrum of the business side – traveling secretary, traveling assistant, color analyst – a lot of different things before I was offered an assistant coaching job.

I went from the broadcast booth to the bench and got into a world that I fell in love with. I always thought that I would like it, because I was very good at clinics and went to a lot of schools that taught drills. As a coach, I had a sequential mindset to go from point A to point B to point C and not skip all over the place. That’s one thing I learned from all of the coaches who taught me- that there was a continuity and a sequential mindset that you had to have as a coach.

During the off-season I would follow Bobby Knight and Pete Newell all over the country at their clinics. I would meet with five or six coaches at seminar-type situations on the East Coast, the West Coast. It was a daily experience for me to learn and study from other coaches and their philosophies and from other leaders and their principles. I read every leadership biography and other “How To” books. All of the things you need to be able to address a team fluently.

Although I always had it in the back of mind to become a coach, it actually took the action of going down to the bench for me to realize that this was my calling.

COACH: Having coached some of the biggest stars in NBA history, you have had to deal with some massive egos. What tips can you provide to coaches in similar circumstances or for coaches who may be faced with that scenario in the future?

RILEY: It all has to do with attitude. There definitely needs to be rules. Rules of conduct, decorum, and timing. What we know in sports, universal rights and wrongs of respecting all individuals, respecting the game, respecting the coaches’ and school’s needs. All of those things. You can sit down and come up with a set of rules and make your players abide by them. But if they don’t really believe in them, they will break them.

Rules are a part of the whole philosophy. It’s a way of life. The real good coaches don’t even have rules. They just teach the universal rights and wrongs of being part of the team. I don’t care what kind of team it is. In the NBA it’s the same way. I only make a big deal out of them when somebody maliciously makes an attempt at something or through insubordination tries to overrule something. That’s what you have to watch. Players who are late for practice because they were really late – they overslept or did something human like have a flat tire or ran out of gas – you have to deal with that. Those things happen in life and you simply move on. But somebody who is chronic with their attitude and their approach to the rules, has to be dealt with differently.

You have to have some patience with it. Lay down a set of rules, which I call covenants, which are nothing more than agreements that we set up to make everyone feel part of a team.

COACH: As a former role player in the NBA with the Lakers and Phoenix Suns, you know the mindset needed to come off the bench and how you liked to be handled in certain situations. How have you used that knowledge as a coach?

RILEY: I know how they feel. I was a starter my whole life. I was an All-America all through high school and college. I was a first-round NBA draft choice of the San Diego Rockets. I knew what playing meant. I knew the satisfaction and the recognition I got from playing and playing well. That’s one of the things that we play for. That’s why we work; to be successful. In any walk of life recognition is a big part of people going further and trying more and taking some risks. Then all of a sudden when that changes for you and you’re no longer being recognized as a starter or a contributor or as a star player, your persona changes. Your esteem changes. How you feel about yourself changes. How other people react to you and relate to you changes. Sometimes they feel sorry for you.

I learned that the most important thing to me, when I got to the NBA, was that this is my livelihood. And I was now a professional basketball player, whether I started, came off the bench and was part of the rotation, or whether I was a practice player who never played. It didn’t make any difference. I learned to deal with the dynamics of not playing or coming off the bench. I did that for nine years. So I know how these players feel. And I think I can relate to them or talk to them about what they are going through and help them understand that they are sacrificing and doing something for the team. But they also have to realize where they are in this league. And maybe there’s a reason why they are a rotation player for nine years. That’s your place. You’re not the best player and you’re not the worst player. You’re somewhere in the middle of the pack.

You do what you have to do to help the team win. I learned that early. I learned to be part of it. I didn’t want to go against the grain. I was always a team player. I think that helped me a lot when I became a coach, to be able to relate this to guys who might have some difficulties coming off the bench. But I do treat everybody, 1 through 15, the same.

COACH: Is the pursuit of the perfect game possible? If so, how, as a coach, can you instill in your players the mindset to make that a reality?

RILEY: There’s no such thing in basketball as a perfect game. There just isn’t. If you ever think that there is then there’s no room for growth. You can play a great game and you can play a highly efficient game that will go above your normal numbers at the moment of truth when everybody is in sync and simply plays at the top of their game.

I can remember when Villanova beat Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA finals. Villanova shot 79% from the field. They only had three or four turnovers. They had to play at that level in order to win by two points, where Georgetown had a sub par game. Georgetown was the better team.

But on any given night, a team can rise to that incredible occasion of playing what might be called flawless basketball. There’s no such thing as perfect. There’s always missed shots. There are always turnovers. There’s always missed free throws. There are always mistakes. You’re always trying to get your team to improve.

Basketball is a game of fatigue and a game of mistakes. And the team who is the freshest will think better and perform better. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes – shooting mistakes, defensive mistakes, turnovers, and mental mistakes – will also win. You’re always saying to your players that word perfect will come up. There is great, but there is no such thing as perfect. 

COACH: One of your more famous mantras is, “No rebounds, no rings.” Is a relentless rebounder born or made?

RILEY: There are all different molds of players. And they are who they are. There are players who have a very aggressive nature and personality. Also players who have been given the role a long time ago, or were told it was the only way they were going to get in: you’re strong, you’re physical, you have heart, rebound the basketball, be a good defender. And they get stereotyped for that.

But in order to win, and to really win big in any game, is, you must finish a great defense by pursuing and getting the ball. The team that controls the ball a good percentage of the time will probably win the game.

Rebounding to me has always been one of the first things that we talk about as we build our defense backwards. We always talk about jumping, blocking out, and pursuing the ball. But the most important is getting the ball.

I’ve always said this to my players: When that ball is in the air is when the game is going to be won or lost. When the ball is on the floor is when the game will be won or lost. And so what are you doing when the ball is in the air and everybody is staring at it? Are you standing or are you going to pursue it? When the ball is loose on the floor, what are you doing? Staring or going to get it? A player has to be in a constant state of propelling himself in some way, shape, or form. Or being ready to propel himself to pursue and garner rebounds. Without that, I don’t think you’re going to go very far. 

COACH: Another one of your famous quotes is, “A champion needs a motivation above and beyond winning.” As a coach, how do you tap into motivation?

RILEY: The way I look at is, while you always want to win and have a great desire to win, especially when the game becomes a big part of your life, that’s great. But you have to find a way to get out of yourself and get with helping other players get out of the game what they want, too. To me that is the key element with great players. They will help other players achieve in this game what they want also. It isn’t just an individual thing. You have to feel like what you did in this sport matters and that it counts. And I’ve always used this quote. It’s one of my favorites: A man’s or woman’s greatest fear is their fear of extinction. But what they should fear more than that is to one day become extinct with insignificance.

What that always meant to me was, I just want to make sure that after 20 years or four years in basketball that it counted, and it mattered. And I feel that way. It matters to me the most because I was able to get into coaching. I was able to help teach championship-thinking players and how to help teammates get what they want also. And they could see the benefits of that.

COACH: You have said that discipline is not a dirty word. Some coaches are wary of disciplinary action fearing it may have an adverse effect. What is your approach? How can a coach use discipline to his or her advantage?

RILEY: Whenever somebody goes outside the covenants and does something that can break the spirit of the team it cannot be allowed. As a coach, I liked to take some of my most experienced players and converse with them about what they think should be done. It isn’t just a my way or the highway thing. Even though at times someone can do something so egregious that yes, he’s out of here. And I think we understand what those things are. When that happens, there is no team consultation.

COACH: Talk about the importance of the family support structure being a coach, an important aspect that is sometimes overlooked? Obviously it is imperative to have an understanding wife and children.

RILEY: For the last 38 years, my wife, Chris, has been my assistant coach. And the only way you’re truly going to be successful in any walk of life, if you are married, is to make them a part of it, bring them into it. Let them be as much a part of it as they want to be. When we started this together, she was a marriage family therapist. She had a thriving business – 20, 30 clients a week. Spending 60 hours a week counseling families.

When I became a head coach she just felt that it was her responsibility and be with me and with the team and play her part in it. You have to have your personal life, your family life, your married life, in order. There can’t be any conflict there. There has to be a real understanding that coaching hours are long hours. That there is emotional swings in winning and losing. A lot of times your career is on the line and you might get fired. Or the threat of being fired exists. The fact that sometimes you’re an absent parent because your children are growing up and you’re traveling all over the country.

There are so many dynamics that go into creating a negative environment in the family that these thing all have to be discussed, understood, and you move forward with them.

COACH: What motivates Pat Riley?

RILEY: I think right now, just coaching and teaching. What motivates me now is that I don’t have to motivate myself anymore. Everything is in my brain. I’ve learned what works and doesn’t work. I have a level of confidence when it comes to standing in front of a group of guys that I believe I can say the right thing just about every time. That comes from experience.

So my motivation is simply to continue to coach a game that I love. Compete in a world that brings you tremendous joy and at times, tremendous pain. That’s what life is all about.

Staying healthy, and staying one step ahead of the posse is what it’s all about for me.

About the Author

Kevin Newell is the former editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.

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