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Pat Riley's Leadership Brings Championship to Miami

Midway through the fourth quarter of game three of the NBA Finals, it looked as if the Miami Heat were finished. The Dallas Mavericks led by 13 points and the Heat appeared to be playing at their best. The Mavericks had already vanquished the Heat in games one and two.

I would guess that it looked like the end of the season to everyone except Heat Coach Pat Riley. I could not read Coach Riley’s thoughtsPat Riley.jpg but as he stood on the sideline, he appeared to be his calm yet determined self. And I wondered, what does he say to his team in this timeout? He has been in so many big games; can he do something in this desperate situation? Is he disappointed or frustrated enough to accept this defeat? How would being swept by Dallas affect Riley’s coaching career?

We may never know many of the answers to these questions because Riley did not let it happen. Instead in the final six minutes of that game, he inspired the Heat’s odd collection of misfit veterans and wunderkind and Finals MVP Dwayne Wade to eke out a win. It was as if Riley magically transfused the energy from Dallas players into the Heat players. The Heat went on to win three more (four consecutive NBA Finals games), becoming only the third team in league history to win despite an 0-2 deficit.

Riley has indeed a magical way of inspiring and leading. Could his job be harder? How do you motivate and inspire millionaires, egomaniacs - players that seem to have everything and need nothing? How do you bring together players that Mike Wise from the Washington Post fondly called resurrected "Reprobates," "former knuckleheads" and a "second-chance club." What are the leadership tools Riley could use? 

Start with including everyone and forging unity among a diversity of experience, egos and talent. Riley started talking about “15 Strong” and did not stop even after the win. There are 15 players on the Heat roster and somehow Riley convinced all of them that they could contribute and that a championship could be won if all 15 were committed. Heat Championship.jpg

“15 Strong” became the idea, the watchword, the mantra that the players could fall back on in those difficult times like game three. Riley said, “We look at ourselves as ‘15 strong.’ One team, guys start, guys come off the bench.” Riley doesn’t just talk it. He carried a business card with that saying on one side of the card and an image of the NBA championship trophy on the other. He created the vision and the unity on this team – it worked. Could such simple motivational trickery work in the high stakes game of the NBA? Does the fact that Riley has 1,151 regular-season wins — most in NBA history, help answer that?

For Riley and the Heat, “15 Strong” was about finding a role for every player. It meant everyone was needed to support the cause – to contribute something even if it is only on the scout team or cheering from the bench. And it meant believing in your teammates and your coach. Sounds like something my high school coach told me.

Last night, Shaq said that Riley predicted on June 8th that the Heat would win the NBA championship on June 20th. Riley never wavered on that resolve stating before last night’s game, "I packed one suit, one shirt and one tie" – not expecting to stay in Dallas for game seven. It was a stunt he tried before but failed.

Mark Whicker from my home town newspaper, The Orange County Register notes it was Riley’s ideas that made the difference in the finals. “15 Strong” was just one tactic he used to unify this team that he inherited in December. It may have been the difference. In the waning moments of difficult games, the Heat seemed to indeed get stronger and summon the very best from all their players.

For Riley, the NBA championship is a promise fulfilled from 11 years ago to Miami Heat fans. He now has a championship ring for all the fingers on hand; the third-most among NBA coaches.

Photo credit to MARC SEROTA, REUTERS (trophy)

1 Comments/Trackbacks

When Pat Riley took over as head coach for the Heat, I thought it was a mistake. I thought Riley's days were over--his coaching style far too out of date and out of favor. Was I ever wrong.

I realize that part of Riley's leadership on this team was his hand in building it. Riley has a very singular coaching style--motivational speaker-esque, rah-rah-rah, intensity. Almost gimmicky, with his catch phrases and bold goals. But part of his genius was that he signed on guys to the Heat he knew would respond to his tactics. And they did. His players responded in a way I thought no one ever would again.

But think about it. Shaq is military-raised--very much into motivation and slogans. Zo is cut from the same fabric: intensity, passion, get behind a theme and goal--these traits brought him back from his kidney problems. These guys were perfected matches for a coach like Riley, and Riley did an exceptional job of getting them to buy into what he was doing and become team leaders themselves.

Props to Riley, the master architect, and to the Heat. Eight months ago, I never thought I'd see them in this position.

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