When Your Back is Against the Wall by Pat Riley
“Competition brings out the very best and the very worst in us. Right now, it’s bring out the worst, but if he sticks with it, it’s going to bring out the best.” Pat Riley
“Every now and then, you have your back pushed up against a wall. It seems like there is nobody you can depend on but yourself. That is how the Lakers felt on that day. If they lost, the choke reputation would be chiseled into stone, a permanent verdict. If they won, they had an opportunity to prove they could keep on winning. It was a do or die situation.
Coach Riley faced Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the star center, and said, “When I saw you and your father on the bus today, it made me realize what this whole moment is about. You spent a lot of time with Big Al today. Maybe you needed that voice. Maybe everyone in this room needs to hear that kind of voice right now–the voice of your dad, the voice of somebody in the past who was there when you didn’t think you could get the job done.”
“A lot of you don’t think you can win today. A lot of you don’t think you can beat the Celtics. I want each of you to close your eyes and listen.” And they did.
And Riley began his tale, “When I was nine years old my dad told my brothers, Lee and Lenny, to take me down to Lincoln Heights and get me involved in the basketball games. They would throw me into a game and I would get pushed and shoved. Day after day, I ran home crying and hid in the garage. I didn’t want anything to do with basketball.”
“This went on for two or three weeks. One night, I didn’t come to the dinner table, so my dad got up and walked out to the garage where he found me hunkered down in a corner. He picked me up, put his arm around me, and walked to the kitchen. My brother Lee was upset with him. ‘Why do you make us take him down there? He doesn’t want to play. He’s too young.’
“My father stood up and staring at Lee, said, ‘I want you to take him there because I want you to teach him not to be afraid, that there should be no fear. Teach him that competition brings out the very best and the very worst in us. Right now, it’s bring out the worst, but if he sticks with it, it’s going to bring out the best.’ He then looked at his nine-year-old, teary-eyed son and said, ‘Pat, you have to go back there.’
So Coach Riley told his players, “I thought I was never going to be able to get over being hurt and afraid, but I eventually did get over it.” As he was talking, he was slowly pacing back and forth the locker room. Looking at the players, he saw that Michael Cooper was crying…
Coach Riley went on, “I don’t know what it is going to take for us to win tonight but I do believe that we are going out there like warriors, and that would make our fathers proud.”
The Lakers won the game. They also won three of the next four games. The 1985 championship was won by the Lakers…
During the off season, Michael Cooper told Coach Riley that the pregame message had gone deep for him. As a boy, Cooper had a grievous leg wound, an ugly cut through the muscle. Doctors did not think he would ever walk correctly again, much less become an athlete. He was sustained through those times by a wonderful mother and devoted uncle. So he had heard those voices.
All of us have at least one great voice deep inside. People are products of their environments. A lucky few are born into situations in which positive messages abound. Others grow up hearing messages of fear and failure which they must block out to hear the positive. But the positive and courageous voice will always emerge, somewhere, sometime, for all of us. Listen for it, and your breakthroughs will come.
Fear of failure will lead you to despair, wrong decisions, and host of other problems. However, when the voice comes through it will counsel courage, that affirms your life and your ability, and it will position you to do your very best.