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

Many organizations can point to one defining moment behind their success. For President Pat Riley and the Miami Heat, that came in 2010 when LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade signed as free agents.

That trio led the Heat to the NBA finals three years in a row, winning championships the last two seasons. Speaking in November at the EY Strategic Growth Forum® in Palm Springs, Calif., Riley says he’s often asked how they were able to pull off the trifecta of signings.

Preparation was a crucial factor, Riley says. From 2008 to 2010, Heat executives knew how much money it would take and how much salary space was available to sign those players.

“It was going to be quite a risk,” Riley says. “We were really going to be rolling the dice with our team. It was all or nothing, most likely.”

Finding your main thing

In his book, “First Things First,” Stephen Covey describes the need to make sure you’re focused on what’s important — and that’s the point Riley was getting across.

“Make sure the main thing remains the main thing, whatever that is for you,” Riley says.

For the Miami Heat, that meant building a culture based on family, faith and trust. When it came time to convince the free agents to sign with Miami, Riley and fellow team executives and ownership sold them on that culture. For example, a group of team personnel gathered to deliver that message to James.

“There were seven of us there, and everyone had been there since the beginning of the existence of the franchise. The owner (Micky Arison) was the original owner, I had been there 18 years and the coach (Erik Spoelstra) had been there 17 years. Everyone had built their way up and we presented him with that,” Riley says.

Heat executives also let the three free agents know that they were going to have to make sacrifices to win a championship.

“They gave up $51 million to play together. That’s a lot of money in today’s sports world, where selfishness really runs rampant,” Riley says.

Sacrificing also meant addressing matters such as positions, rotations, how many shots they’d get per game, who’s on the all-star team and who gets the most points and touches.

“All of those things had to be vetted, because we had some really big egos. They were all ‘the guy’ in those different cities,” Riley says. “In the first year, we had a hard time with it. In the last two years, it has come together perfectly.”

Riley says that the process wasn’t easy, and he was concerned that the franchise could be ruined. They had spent two years building a philosophy and planning for this moment. Although the team did make the playoffs both years, that accomplishment was far from the championship vision management had.

“All of the research and development we did to make this moment happen came to fruition,” he says. “I believed that they wanted to be in Miami. I believed that they wanted to be together. I believed that they wanted to win. I didn’t believe that they just wanted to lead the league in scoring or be the MVP or make a lot of money.”

Getting your name called

People often carry lessons learned in childhood with them into their adult lives and careers. For Riley, the experience that most resonates came as a 9-year-old growing up in Schnenectady, N.Y.

Riley wasn’t into sports, but his father — a former minor league baseball player and coach — told Pat’s brothers to take him down to the local basketball court.

“Every single day I was bullied. I was put on the sidelines and never selected to go back into a game,” Riley says.

Every day for a couple of weeks, he would go home and hide in the garage before dinner. One day, his dad walked into the garage, grabbed him and pushed him into the house.

“He did not say a word to me. It’s a seminal moment in my life that has been etched into my mind about where it all starts for an individual in business or wherever,” Riley says.

Then his dad said the words he’s never forgotten — “You’ve got to make them call your name, Pat.” Riley says his dad’s insistence that he fight his fear, go back and compete is a lesson he’s carried with him throughout his career.

“So that’s what I have been doing the last 40 years as a president and a coach is to try to let people know that, in spite of the rings I have and the residual rewards of what that brought me, I had a father that taught me to plant my feet, hold firm and make a statement about who I am,” Riley says.

He continues to try to get people to make somebody call their name, and says that approach works as long as you’re sincere.

“If you’re a leader of some young company, your sincerity is going to be taken in great trust if you let that person know that you want what is in their best interests. You’ve got to be able to teach them, because everyone wants to be taught,” Riley says.

Defying gravity

In the business world, everyone is always trying to figure out how to go above and beyond. That involves defying gravity, defying the odds, Riley says.

One gravity-defying feat for the Miami Heat occurred in the final 28.2 seconds of Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.

“We’ve all been in that situation — 28.2 seconds, down five in a Game 6 and the other end is already celebrating. They think they’ve got a world championship,” Riley says.

The Spurs went from being up 94-89 and taking the series to blowing the lead, going into overtime and ultimately losing the game and series to the Heat.

Everyone talks about the details and planning that go into building a successful company, he says. Things like how you lead, and what are the company’s core values.

Riley says that Miami media asked him when he arrived in town about the team’s identity.

“We are the hardest-working, best conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, nastiest and probably most disliked team in the NBA,” he says.

The disliked part isn’t a goal, but it comes with success, he says.

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.