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Be significant — Pat Riley on fulfilling a career and leading a team

"It's great to be here — It's almost great to be anywhere after 50 years of being involved in one industry," Pat Riley joked, inspiring laughter in a packed room at the Becker's ASC 23rd Annual Meeting: The Business and Operations of ASCs in Chicago on Oct. 27.

Mr. Riley, a six-time National Basketball Association World Champion, has been immersed in the game of basketball for quite some time, coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat.

Now the president of the Miami Heat, Mr. Riley understands what it takes to be a leader.

"I'll start with this statement: A man or woman's greatest fear should be their fear of extinction, but what they should fear more than that is to one day become extinct with insignificance. And to me, that's been the driving force of my career," said Mr. Riley, recalling how his roots drove him toward sports.

"I was nine years old and I had a penchant for digging holes underneath my house. That's what I was doing when I was nine," Mr. Riley said, with a laugh. His ultimate goal was to dig a tunnel beneath his family's house and grab his mom's ankle while she stood in the kitchen.

His father reacted to this master plan by telling Mr. Riley's older brother to take "him down there." Now, 'down there' is Lincoln Heights, N.Y., where all the athletes played ball. His brothers took him down there and threw him in games; he didn't do well and often ran home crying.

After a couple games, Mr. Riley's brothers told their dad he may be better suited for digging holes. To which their dad replied: "I want you to take him down there because I want you to teach him not to be afraid and not to be afraid of competition; not to be afraid of failure, losing." So, Mr. Riley kept going 'down there,' until finally, he sent another 10-year-old kid running home, crying.

Ultimately, this experience taught Mr. Riley how to "plant his feet, stand firm and make a point" about who he was. He didn't do it alone, though, but rather listened to eight major voices, all belonging to coaches, who were teaching him how to develop core values.

"They were all telling me the right things; they were all telling me the same things from a different platform," said Mr. Riley.

And once he transitioned to a coach himself, Mr. Riley always told his players: "You don't merely want to be considered the best of the best; you want to be considered the only ones who do what you do…There's nothing wrong with being unique and significant." To achieve this significance, Mr. Riley emphasized passion and hard work will yield the reward.

But, you can't allow bad habits to take over your life, despite the stresses of work. When he was coaching, Mr. Riley slept three hours a night, smoked cigarettes and drank endless cups of coffee. After decades of this lifestyle, he read a book about a physician-patient relationship. The book outlined three main components of a healthy lifestyle, which he embodies today:

  1. "You got to move your blood…and you got to eat right."
  2. "You have to have the passion for what it is you do."
  3. "You got to have a mate, somebody who believes in you."

Mr. Riley also shared his experience coaching the New York Knicks when they faced off with the Chicago Bulls in the 1992 playoffs. His team had lost to the Bulls 12 consecutive times, and he considered what he should do as a leader to motivate his team against the reigning basketball champion, Michael Jordan. He realized his players treated Mr. Jordan with reverence, and instead they needed to "treat him with no respect by showing him all of our respect."

Mr. Riley imagined a scenario for his players: Mr. Jordan dribbling toward the key, setting for a dunk and sweeping past all the Knicks' defenders. He asked his players if they wanted to be "Michael Jordan's 1992 Nike poster boy…on the wall of every nine year old in this country?"

After the pep talk, the Knicks ran onto the court amped up, and sure enough, Mr. Jordan played out Mr. Riley's scenario. But instead of defending against Jordan, the Knicks' player ran out of the way.

"I said, 'hey that's not what we talked about.' He said, 'coach, I was not going to be his poster boy,'" Mr. Riley said, laughing.

He shared this story to remind the audience that you can't meet your competitors on the floor — if you want to win, you have to meet that at the rim. "You can't beat Michael Jordan on the floor…if he's going to play up there, then at least get up there."

And as a leader, it's imperative to help your followers jump to the rim. Mr. Riley views leadership as an interactive relationship, where all players are placed in a position to yield results. The ultimate key to leading is helping others achieve what they want and earning their trust.

"Trust is an assured reliance on somebody," said Mr. Riley. "You have to be really sincere with great integrity when it comes to people trusting you." He also mentioned competency as a key trait of leadership, as people look to leaders to learn.

Mr. Riley concluded by recognizing the challenges life presents, but left the crowd with a silver lining: "I love adversity and everybody should go through it. In every adversity, there's a seed of equivalent benefit."

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