PIPE DREAMS FOR SALE
If you just do this one thing, you will increase chances of success by 90%. Fight the fights you can win and retreat from the ones you can’t. But how do you know when to fight or retreat? There’s only one way. KNOWING YOUR OWN LIMITS. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? But being honest with yourself is actually the most difficult thing in this world — where pipe dreams are always on sale. Welcome back to “The 33 Strategies of Sports”, a concoction of Robert Greene and sports. This week…
THE PERFECT ECONOMY STRATEGY
In 1988, The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Detroit Pistons in 7 grueling games at the Forum to win the title. LA was the first team to repeat as NBA Champs in 17 years. That September, the Dodgers won the World Series. 1988 was a great year for the City of Angels. Lakers coach Pat Riley was so sure his Lakers could win a third consecutive title, he copyrighted the term “three-peat” for the eventual third championship (and still owns it).
And why should Riley be wrong? The “Showtime” Lakers had no weaknesses. MVP Magic Johnson, the greatest player of his generation, was 29 and still in his prime. James Worthy unleashed a triple-double in Game 7 to defeat the Pistons — and was only getting better. Every guy on the team was a fucking warrior. Michael Cooper. A.C. Green. Byron Scott. This was an All-Star team. And of course there was legendary center Kareem Abdul Jabbar (who won 5 titles with Magic). Jabbar was 41 but could not walk away from a dynasty. Besides, his conditioning was excellent and his hook shot remained unstoppable (he is still the highest scoring player in NBA history). And of course, there was Coach Riley, the George Patton of basketball.
Riley would say, “The role of the coach is to find the truth — every single day”. He did not just walk the part but looked it. With his slicked back hair and designer Armani suits, this guy was a GQ magazine on two legs. Gordon Gekko before Gordon Gekko existed. But if you thought looking cooler than Jack Nicholson was this guy’s priority, you were in for a nasty surprise. The Lakers were a team full of 6″9 guys who could run like they were 6″2. Their vicious fast breaks earned them the nickname “Showtime”.
Riley’s bread and butter was conditioning and preparation. His training camp was hell on earth. Unlike many NBA franchises, practice at Camp Riley wasn’t media masturbation (journalists were practically given a restraining order). Practice was practice. Every minute was planned. You never saw anyone standing around. You saw guys running, sweating and gasping like fugitives. No team practiced more than LA. Riley was once fined $10,000 for running an illegal practice on New Year’s Eve. But Riley pushed himself harder than anyone. Magic would later say, “There were times when I looked at him and knew he hadn’t slept for days. That helped motivate me. He was always on, never off. We both hated to lose”.
Repeating championships would relax any coach, but not Riley. He knew the Lakers barely beat the Pistons, and even got a lucky call in the final seconds of Game 6, when Pistons center Bill Laimbeer “fouled” Kareem on a skyhook (replays showed the foul was non-existent). Kareem went to the line, calmly hit two free throws to seal the game. To add injury to insult, Pistons guard Isaiah Thomas had a severely sprained ankle for Game 7 — and they lost. The Lakers won because of their home court advantage. One year later, the Pistons finished the season 16-1 to total 63 games against the Lakers 57. Detroit would have home court advantage if the Lakers met them in the Finals this year.
Therefore, Riley had to push his team with thunderous force. The Pistons were bitter about last year’s defeat and nicknamed themselves “Bad Boys” since they played like lumberjacks under coach Chuck Daly (a man who began his coaching career at Punxsutawney High School but was intent on not experiencing “Groundhog Day”). Meanwhile, Riley vowed to make the bad boys look like they were selling Girl Scout cookies.
In the first round of the playoffs, Detroit swept the Boston Celtics. In turn, the Lakers crushed their opponents, the Portland Trailblazers. The Pistons humiliated their second adversaries, the Milwaukee Bucks — a second sweep. In turn, the Lakers annihilated the Seattle Supersonics. Everything the Pistons did, the Lakers did better. Neither team tasted defeat in the playoffs. They were headed for a head on collision of historical proportions.
But now the Pistons would face a team on the rise, the Chicago Bulls, led by a star on the rise, Michael Jordan. The Bulls would take a surprising 2-1 lead. But the Lakers kept their foot on the gas, sweeping the Phoenix Suns, ripping them to pieces, becoming the first team in NBA history to sweep all their playoff games. Magic Johnson won a second consecutive MVP Award. Riley had done his job. The Lakers were superhuman. They were scary. And now they were ready to tear the Bad Boy new assholes.
But before Game 1 started, Byron Scott suffered a hamstring injury in practice. The loss of Scott was huge. It would force Magic to play more defense than usual. But Pistons guards — Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson — proved too much and cost the Lakers their first defeat of the postseason, 109-97.
But Game 2 proved even more tragic. Tied 75-75, Pistons forward John Salley blocked Lakers forward Mychal Thompson’s shot, triggering a Detroit fast break. Magic dropped back to play D and ripped his hamstring. The great point guard was livid. And shocked. And angry. At his own body for failing him. His swung his arms like he needed somebody to hit, as he hobbled off the floor. For good. The guy who averaged 22.3 pts, 11.4 assists, and 6.6 boards would be out for the remainder of the finals. It was a shocking sight. But Riley would not concede. The Lakers would take a 9-point lead without Magic. He insisted they could win with the guys they had. But they lost Game 2, 108-105, on a missed free throw by last year’s hero, James Worthy.
This would be the closest the Lakers would come to winning a game in the ’89 Finals. They would experience another heartbreaker (114-110) and a convincing close out game (105-97), as Chuck Daly and the Pistons celebrated on the same floor they ate defeat the year before — in Los Angeles. The Lakers own the distinct statistic of being the only team to sweep their playoff opponents, only to be swept in the Finals. Kareem finally retired after this game and Riley barely slept that summer.
“The last two years, he tried to control everything,” Kareem would say about Riley, “he used to drive us nuts with practice time. Of course, no player ever wants to practice, but then he had us move to an isolated training camp in Santa Barbara during the playoffs. I thought that was a bigger distraction than playing at home. I hadn’t seen my kids all winter.” Wow. Riley took his team into training camp during the playoffs.
The ’89 Lakers may be the greatest basketball team to not win a title. They may also be the greatest example of Pyrrhic victory, as Robert Greene explains, “a triumph that is as good as a defeat, for it comes as too great a cost. The victor is too exhausted to exploit his win, too vulnerable to face his next battle”.
Pat Riley would spend another two decades absorbing pyrrhic victories in Groundhog Day-like fashion. He left the Lakers on bitter terms a year later to coach the New York Knicks, where he rebuild the franchise into a terrorizing force, but he worked that team like there was no tomorrow, and he would fall short of a championship (by one game). He would leave that job in 1995 via fax to coach the Miami Heat, who were also worked to the very limits of humanity. Failing to turn them into champions, Riley retired in 2003 but returned to coach half a season in 2006, leading the Heat to his 5th title. But a year later, the Heat was once again worn out. Their stars, Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, were frequently injured. Guys were always injured on Riley teams. And the great coach retired once again, promoting Erik Spoelstra.
Riley should have won 4 or 5 more titles, had he not lost his perspective. His desire to win blinded him to the human limits of his men — and himself. He rarely slept. He dreamt of “three-peat” while he was awake. But reality and exhaustion finally awoke him, because he did not adequately examine what getting the prize required.
KEYS TO ENGAGEMENT
You know you can’t speak Polish. So, if you get a job in Poland for 5 years, you’ll probably learn the language, right? Unfortunately, most of us don’t even know we DON’T speak Polish. We’re always exaggerating our own abilities. Then, we find ourselves in Warsaw in mid-December, incapable of asking where the bathroom is — and piss on ourselves. But if you learned Polish, you only need to ask one person to use a toilet. Only by knowing your limitations can you go beyond them.
“[Riley] started as a hang-loose guy, but the longer you get into it, because of the competitive nature of the job, the more control you want over every element”, Jabbar added. Riley is one of the greatest coaches in basketball history. His desire to win was greater than even Phil Jackson. But perhaps, that is what made Jackson a more successful coach. Jackson understood his team’s limits (and certainly never took them to training camp during the playoffs, when players are exhausted from the 82 game season) and “three-peated” three times.
Riley fought battles that were unnecessary, never having outgrown an experience from when he was nine. His father told his older brothers to take Pat to play pickup games in Lincoln Heights, a hangout for local gangs and bullies. Little Pat was prey and usually ran home crying and hiding in the garage. “I want you to teach him not to be afraid,” his father told his brothers. And they kept dragging little Pat to Lincoln Heights. Pat eventually learned to fight back. “What my dad was telling my brothers was, “push him off the cliff, tell him to take the challenge. And he was right. Once I got out on a limb and realized I wasn’t going to die, there was nothing to be afraid of”.
What Riley didn’t realize was that he was now the bully. And bullies do not have to expend as much energy as their victims. Bullies win fights with limited bloodshed. Just think of a typical horror film. The victim runs like hell. The boogieman walks calmly. And eventually catches them. Understanding that distinction about yourself could be the difference between triumph and failure. You can economize your energy for the battles in your life that will actually make a difference.
Just as you do not want to waste energy, you want to force your opponent to waste theirs. Like Chuck Daly did against Pat Riley. Push them psychologically and watch them squander their resources and exhaust themselves preparing to face you.