At the top of his game: Pat Riley defied the odds to build a championship team

If part of your core value is being hard-working and well conditioned, that means being in better condition than anyone else. When it’s 40 minutes into the game and you’re exhausted and everything’s on the line, you’ll know you’re in better condition than your opponent, Riley says.

“You’ve covered the details. You’ve focused on all of the things that you have to focus on. In Miami, our No. 1 core value is that you’re all-in,” he says.

So flashing back to that critical moment in the decisive Game 6, Riley says there was no thought of failure.

“The only failure on the part of anybody is your failure to rise again,” Riley says.

Riley faced a tough challenge of his own in 1981 when he took his first head-coaching job with the Los Angeles Lakers, after only 1½ years as an assistant.

“You never think you’re ready, but you’re ready. I was in the NBA for 20 years,” he says.

“You have to understand that change is the highest form of sanity. Change will come rapidly at you, turbulently, and it’s important to raise your head and adapt to it and say, ‘thank you.’ Sometimes even go home and kneel down at your bed at night and say, ‘God, give me some challenges. Give me some changes.’”

He found himself in charge of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and a roster of great players who didn’t want to waste a season on a coach who didn’t know what he was doing.

Riley’s message to them was that a house divided would not stand, and they could win with him or be against him. The team had to be bigger than the individual. They had to separate themselves from the pack and become the best of the best.

After the speech, a player asked him how he was going to accomplish these things, considering that he hadn’t been a head coach.

“I remembered when I was 9 years old. I had my named called,” Riley says.

His response? “If you follow me, I will win.”

“Along the way, what you need to do is defy gravity, defy the odds, which is what people do all the time,” Riley says. “So in defying gravity, you talk about how you are going to get there.”

When it comes to being a world-class organization, one other thing that has to be embedded throughout the core is leadership, Riley says.

“Leadership is nothing more than an interactive relationship whereby we get selected or hired or promoted,” he says. “And anybody who’s a leader in any business, any sport, any family, any school, any country, has to get results.”

To get results, leaders have to earn others’ trust, he says.

“It’s an assured reliance on one’s character, on one’s ability to get things done and get results based on all of the plans,” Riley says.

That trust and leadership were displayed during Spoelstra’s first year as the Heat coach, when it was suggested that Riley take over those duties.

“If he were to leave, someone else would come in. Or if I was told to, I would leave the organization,” Riley says. “I believe in that trust factor. You have to hire someone who believes you have his back, come hell or high water.”


  • Focus on what is most important.
  • Do what it takes to get noticed.
  • Embrace change and face your challenges.

The Riley File:

Name: Pat Riley
Title: President
Company: Miami Heat

Born: Schenectady, N.Y.

Education: University of Kentucky

Playing career: In 1967 he was selected in the first round of the NBA draft by the San Diego Rockets and in the 11th round of the NFL draft as a wide receiver by the Dallas Cowboys. He played three seasons with the Rockets, five with the Los Angeles Lakers and one with the Phoenix Suns.

First coaching job: Named coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981. He led the team to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, including championships in his first season, as well as 1985, 1987 and 1988.

Author: Penned two best-sellers — “Showtime: Inside the Lakers’ Breakthrough Season,” about the team’s 1987 championship; and “The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players,” a formula for success in the sports or corporate arena.