BRTN*: Pat Riley’s The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players

[7-minute read]

’80s elegance: Armani on the sidelines, Magic on the hardwood.

* “Better Read Than Never”. I’m often late to the party, which prevents me from being a mere trend-follower. (Ha.) I’ve done a bunch of these untimely reviews/appreciations.

Covid-19 made me do it! (Alongside its henchpersons Disorganization, Procrastination and Distraction). You see, I’m in peak spring-cleaning form. Purge Mode. Pat Riley, one of the top leaders in the world of sport, has been leaning handsomely on the front cover of 1993’s The Winner Within in my collection of books on athletics and coaching. I had always passed it by, a bit leery of this seeming attempt to reap business fruits from his basketball story, so it seemed a great candidate for give-away. But here’s where my efforts at Stuff Reduction and Orderliness often go sideways; my thinking, exactly, was this: I can’t get rid of it without reading it first, right? So I did. I read it in a day, and when was the last time I gave myself that little gift? Happy isolation, everybody! And I found that I liked it more than I thought I would. The Winner Within is certainly of its time, it’s no masterpiece of reportage, but it has good stories and a solid underpinning of wisdom. And quotes! (I’m a sucker for books with quotations inspiring, and wisdom marginal.)

As I guessed, Riley’s book does have some tedious business cases and stretchy attempts to relate the Los Angeles Lakers Basketball Club to the boardrooms of America. On the other hand, it is actually well-written (no ghostwriter credited, but Wikipedia says there was one) and damned if I didn’t actually appreciate some of the external stories just as much as I did those of the rise and fall of the Lakers dynasty in its 1980s form. I was an avid consumer of that decade’s emergence of the NBA, as the Boston/LA, Bird/Magic rivalries fueled the rise to the prominence this league enjoys today. Since I viewed those rivalries through glasses with a distinct Celtics-green tinge – call it the Larry Bird Bias – it was interesting to read more from the purple-and-gold side of the story.

The Winner Within follows a thematic structure reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s famed Hero’s Journey concept. Riley applies this framework to the changing fortunes of his longtime team, as the Lakers rose from late-70s gloom to Showtime!™ (and, to a much lesser extent, to the championship-ringless New York Knickerbockers that Riley coached in the early ‘90s). The NBA “Team of the ‘80s” undulates from the pre-Earvin Johnson lows to his Magic rookie season, in which (amazing to recall) a 19-year-old “Magic” Johnson energized a jaded superstar, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the entire Lakers franchise in an incredible rookie season, and then replaced him in the deciding game of the Finals, winning the championship MVP trophy.¹ So easy to forget how brilliant Magic was.

¹ Kareem may still resent this.

Riley chronicles these repeated rises and falls according to the following schema of crisis and victory, trial and redemption and the (seemingly) inevitable repeat of the cycle, for his Lakers and by extension for any high-aiming group. Chapter 1 is titled THE INNOCENT CLIMB, what Riley calls the “first rustling of our proper selves”. (It was a rapid climb, jet-propelled by an all-time great at the beginning of his career (Magic Johnson²) joining the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (Kareem) at or shortly after the apex of his: two of the top half-dozen players ever, by any sane person’s ranking.) Riley isn’t suggesting that the “innocent climb” of any sort of team venture is normally going to result so quickly in reaching the heights. Neither, however, hindsight and ego being what they are, is he averse to the idea that he was The Right Guy For The Job – though he wasn’t in the head coach’s chair for that first championship of the 1980s.

² A favourite Lakers tidbit I had forgotten: “Magic” Johnson was generally “Buck” to his teammates. I played high school ball with a Buck, greatest guy ever but didn’t pass worth a dime.

Seemed destined to be A Forever Laker (he was a pretty good player on the ’72 title team), but New York and Miami called.

THE INNOCENT CLIMB to the 1980 NBA title is the frame story of the first chapter, supplemented by Lakers history, other examples of the “climb” drawn from other contexts, and of course the life of Riley (yes, I did that on purpose³) himself. The DISEASE OF ME follows, showing how selfishness is “the most primitive assault on our own goodness” and poison even to uber-talented teams; the Lakers fall early in the playoffs and Larry Bird’s Celtics get yet another championship, Bird’s first. The next chapter’s CORE COVENANT explores the re-established bond that carries the Lakers back to the 1982 Finals win over the 76ers, but THUNDERBOLTS (injuries and other unpleasant surprises) lead to the still-powerhouse team’s Finals loss to the 76ers (1983), while THE CHOKE versus the Celtics in 1984 revealed “our deepest-seated anxieties about being a winner”. This was perhaps the most and no-holds-barred chapter of The Winner Within.

³ I know, we don’t hear of someone “living the life of Reilly” much anymore, but I couldn’t resist. Patrick James Riley is a perfect example, a fortunate son.

The star cast was still in place, though, and BREAKTHROUGHS follows the 1985 championship, the conquering of “our own self-devised handicaps” that finally allowed a spooked Lakers franchise to beat the hated Celtics in a title bout. Can you guess what comes next? Another crisis! COMPLACENCY rears its entitled head, and the Showtime Lakers miss their date with Celtic destiny in 1986. Then, an increased commitment to unyielding MASTERY (“Trust the process”, before the Sam Hinkie Sixers were even imagined) embraced by the team in 1987 allows them to again vanquish the Boston Boys. ANTEING UP follows Riley’s famous “guarantee”, soaked in 1987 locker-room champagne, that the Lakers would repeat in ’88 – no spoiler alert needed, they DID, over the rising Detroit Pistons – to become the first team since the ’69 Celtics (those guys again!) to win back-to-back NBA championships.

What happened next? The Covenant’s CORE CRACKS (the Pistons swept the Lakers in a lopsided 1989 Finals series) and “one must MOVE ON MENTALLY and perhaps physically, too, to a new rebirth…” This last chapter, like all that preceded it, is well told, though if you’re looking for lots of scandal and dirt (or even self-blame, though Riley does admit his failure to motivate a team that had lost Kareem and was led by a now-veteran Magic), you’ll have to dig. Riley doesn’t even mention that the Pistons repeated in ’90, and doesn’t acknowledge that his move to the New York Knicks coincided with the domineering rise of the Michael Jordan Bulls and their “three-peat” from 1991-93. (To be fair, the book came out in 1993.) Still, the stories are what matters, and they are numerous and mainly satisfying.

Still leading, still motivating, still learning and *winning* as Miami Heat president.

The Winner Within is unapologetically more of a self-help, ignite-your-inner-leadership book than it is a straight-ahead chronicle of Riley’s years as head man of the Los Angeles Lakers. I was fine with that. Someone with more time and obsession could likely identify unnamed players who were overweight/selfish/clique-bound/choke-prone, according to Riley, but he doesn’t name names except in tribute. I respect that, too. I was impressed by the quality of the writing and thought, but its style is straightforward and it only rarely creeps into biz-speak pretentiousness. I mean, folks more cynical than me might sneer at the whole notion that a basketball team’s ups and downs constitute some guide to living in The Real World, but I can’t.

I actually believe that, with a little humility and perspective, we CAN view sports as laboratories. What goes on in these more or less sealed workshops – brightly lit and breathlessly televised, at least until a global pandemic shifts our priorities — offers parallels to the workings of the larger world. And like any coach, I hold dear the principle that what we learn on the field of play can illumine and strengthen us for whatever life calls us to do in that wider arena. While The Winner Within does strike the odd flat note, it’s a worthwhile read. It might pull those with mild sporting interest into the inside stories of the “just folks” that play the pro sports game, and it offers for the dedicated fan not only a cool lookback but also a chance to view the rise and fall of one beloved team as something we can, y’know, actually learn from. Pat Riley clearly has. At 75, he’s still a force in the NBA and a revered figure in pop culture.  

Comments (3)

  1. Ken

    I wondered what you’d be doing without basketball. Now I know–reading about basketball! 🙂
    While I’m appalled that once upon a time you even bought a book about the Lakers, I do admire that you always passed it by. Your recent decision to read it can be forgiven, as we know isolation is having unique affects on all of us. I’d suggest dressing in Celtics green and then conducting a ritual burning of the book as a way to purify your tainted soul.

    • Getting back on ‘D’ quickly: a) pretty sure I didn’t buy the book, or paid next to nothing for it; b) I can learn from *anybody*; and c) must admit, these days I’m more of a St Paul HS Golden Bears fan (and, secondarily, an admirer of a rather more successful outfit, the Carleton University Ravens). Again, not to be too defensive, but my wee soul is barely tainted at *all*, and I DO have more green in my wardrobe than purple. Thanks for reading, and good luck with your therapy! (Man, Celtics fans!!)

      • Ken

        Just read this. Ok James, all’s forgiven–you’ve got more green in your wardrobe than purple. I should’ve given you the benefit of the doubt. And glad to hear you barely spent anything on the book…which, BTW, I still think you should burn while dressed in green and doing an Irish jig. (Post it to youtube and it will go viral throughout Celtics land.)

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