On a percentage basis, the Los Angeles Lakers' Pat Riley is professional basketball's winningest coach. During his previous five years as head coach, his teams have made four trips to the NBA finals, winning two world championships. Recently, they captured their sixth straight Pacific Division title. A former All-American and a Laker squad member for six years, Riley believes that much of what basketball has taught him can be applied to any team situation, whenever people need to combine forces effectively. The following is from material he is assembling for a book to be published next winter by Simon & Schuster.
The Quest for Career Best
Fifteen seconds can be a long time in an NBA game, especially when they are the last seconds of a season. I can still recall, second by second, the finale of our season-ending game with the Houston Rockets in last year's playoffs. The Lakers were the defending NBA champions and had gotten off to the second-hottest start of any Laker team in history (second only to the 1971-72 Lakers). But in the playoffs, the hungry and talented Rockets put us behind three games to one. In the fifth game we still had a chance to turn it around. With about 15 seconds to go, Magic Johnson hit a base line jumper, giving us a three-point lead. If we could just play smart defense, we would be standing on a win. Coming out of a timeout, the Rockets set up a three-pointer from behind the 22-foot line for point guard Robert Reid. His shot caromed off the rim into James Worthy's hands, then somehow slipped out of Worthy's grasp. Mitchell Wiggins snagged the loose ball, and the Rockets again found Reid outside the 22-foot line. I knew he wasn't going to miss the second one. And that tied the score.
We missed a shot, and Houston called time out with one second left. Small forward Rodney McCray sent the ball flying in from out of bounds, and I could see Ralph Sampson going up and twisting in the air. Afterwards, he called it a "funky" shot. He sort of turned in midair and flipped it toward the basket. The ball caught the heel of the rim, bounced straight up several feet and dropped through the net like a torpedo.
On the way to the locker room, Bill Fitch, the Houston coach, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "It's a tough way to lose it." In fact, I was tremendously disappointed. It isn't always making a shot that makes the difference between winning and losing; sometimes it's the goal that is scored against you. Sampson's funky shot raised a question for the Lakers and for me. How were we going to deal with losing?
I'm a management person. My role is to create an environment in which the talent of my players can flourish. They're the ones who truly get the job done. I do what I can, through organization and guidance, to put them in a position to win. I'm at my best when I'm of service to them. Not subservient, but of service. As much as I can, I remove my ego. In the long run I know that I will benefit from their success as much as they do. It's the same for all managers.
At the start of last season, the pundits were saying that we might be the best team in the history of basketball. At the end, they were saying we were over the hill. This year, people are already predicting that we're going to be in the finals. That's a high expectation. And if we get distracted, if we don't live in--and for--the present moment, we'll get our fannies kicked. My challenge with this team has been to keep the players present-day-oriented and to make sure they understand exactly where they need to try harder.
At the start of this season, I wanted the Lakers to have a new perspective, and I called it Career Best Effort. I didn't mean just in terms of points or statistics; I meant everyone's best effort spiritually and mentally and physically. I tried out the concept as soon as our players checked into training camp in Palm Springs last October. Some of them were still moping over the loss to Houston and wondering how we were going to muster a comeback. The Career Best campaign gave them a positive focus. Several of our players--Kurt Rambis, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper--are performing way above last year. Two of them, A.C. Green and Magic Johnson, are having the best season of their NBA careers.