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NBA PLAYOFFS: LAKERS vs. JAZZ : Riley’s Guarantee--Forthright or Folly? : Laker Coach’s Motivational Ploy

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<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

There’s a difference, and most folks can recognize it, between going out on a limb and taking a header off the World Trade Center. Pat Riley, for example, is considered to have done the latter when he guaranteed-- guaranteed! --a repeat championship for the Lakers. Bold stuff. Dumb stuff. No chance of rescue for ol’ Riles, whom NBA tradition seems to have condemned to a grim free fall.

Well, ol’ Riles, a modest four wins into his immodest proposal, doesn’t seem too worried. He is sitting in his home office, examining the lawn beyond, looking quite comfortable, actually. Casually dapper on his day off. He might not be a man walking on air, but he doesn’t look like a man dropping through it either. Still enjoying the view from up there.

“People said, ‘Riles, think of the risk,’ ” he recalls of the uproar his bravado incited last year. Nobody repeats, ever. Last team in pro basketball to do it was the 1969 Boston Celtics. There were some Yankee teams, Green Bay and Pittsburgh teams, who achieved it. But nobody lately. And here’s ol’ Riles, celebrating a Lakers’ championship by promising another.

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What happened to that old coach’s quote (they used to think this was so cute): “Cautious optimism?”

What happened was the coaches said it and then never repeated. “What did I have to lose?” he asks. Exactly. It’s not as if he added, “money back” or “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” or something like that. If the Lakers lose and he looks foolish, then he plans to feel miserable about it. If the Lakers lose, he plans to feel miserable anyway. Like the summer of 1984, “after we choked,” and “we never thought we’d live through the summer.”

The point is, Riley recognized back then he had something to gain at that “silly” press conference. The man will grab at a motivational tool when he sees one. Always has.

Riley, you see, is not just a guy in a tailored suit, waving a rolled-up program, somebody who rolls out a ball or two at practices. He admits he’s working with “the best talent in the league, two living legends and a couple more working on it.” Sixty-win seasons may be automatic for talented teams, but championships evidently are not. “What are the differences between a team that wins one year and doesn’t the next,” he asks. “Same talent, same coach, should have better strategy. One thing only--motivation.”

Riley, you should know, is a motivational maniac, albeit a well-dressed one. Every season, he says, has a philosophy, a handle, that he addresses the players in preseason letters. Last season, after “the Houston year,” the season’s proposal was career-best. That goal, that motivation, did indeed push some players to all-time highs, Magic Johnson in particular, and the Lakers came away with championship No. 4 in the last eight years. Of course, Riley knows how to motivate the Lakers toward a championship. He’s proven that. He just can’t get them to repeat. He’s proven that, too.

He needed something new in the way of motivation.

It occurred to Riley that championship teams tended to talk themselves out of defending their titles. “You hear all these qualifications,” he says, “all these reasons why it can’t be done. Winning teams have been guilty of talking themselves into losing. And I believe you are what comes out of your mouth.”

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He remembers the 1985 championship when the Lakers beat the dreaded Celtics. They were not chokers after all. There were no leprechauns under that Boston parquet. No skeletons in the closet. “And Kareem (Abdul Jabbar) said to me, ‘How can we top this?’ It was the truth but right then I knew we were in trouble.” The doubt surfaced in the 1986 championships. Some fans may regard Ralph Sampson’s winning shot as a miracle in that series with Houston. “It was a miracle shot,” Riley says. “He wasn’t even looking. But we had earned that bad luck.”

The Lakers had been doomed long before that shot, he believes, way back when they were wallowing in self-satisfaction.

The perils, even the pratfalls, in attempting to repeat are obvious to Riley. “There’s the thinking, next year we have to rest. You begin walking on eggshells. You have to be careful. Players don’t have time to get hurt. Even the veteran players, especially them, are saying, ‘It’s really going to be tough. We’re defending champs and every game is going to be Armageddon. We’ve got to save ourselves.’ ”

Riley recognized he’d have to provide some sense of urgency for this season, so he upped the ante. Never mind playing for a championship, play for greatness. Leave a footprint.

This was all that “tweaked” him and, presumably, his players. Said Riley: “Kareem, Earvin, they have great reputations, they’re established superstars. They have security, money, five championship rings in a box. They have all these things and they can never lose them. They are everlasting. If they lose, they lose none of these things. They only lose an opportunity. It’s taken eight years to get this opportunity and they’ll never again have this opportunity to play for greatness, if the criteria for greatness in this league is back-to-back championships.”

Riley further pointed out that the “cycle was winding down.” Kareem is a year from retirement. There will be rebuilding in any event. “This,” he explained to them, “is the only thing left to play for.” And they must do it now.

He admits he has at times been calculated in his motivational techniques. “Times when you have to set props,” he said. But this “Last chance for greatness” was such a natural that he couldn’t wait to fine-tune it much. He blurted it out as soon as he thought of it.

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“The pot at the end is greatness,” he said. “By now the players have all had their walk in the lights. But now they have a chance to be a great team. Not a flash in the pan, a team like the 71-72 Lakers, but a team like the Celtics, because of what they did over 10 years. This can only happen one time.”

Not can happen. It will happen. He guaranteed it. “Why not take a risk, stick your face out there,” he says. The grooming of greatness is no easy thing. Riley’s guarantee may provide that needed urgency, whatever makes James Worthy plunge into the third row to bat a ball back to Magic in 1985, but causes nobody to scrap for it in 1986. “Or maybe, it was just a great thought,” he said.

But the idea that there is something beyond excellence is a worthy idea. Nobody sustains excellence anymore. “I think,” Riley says, laughing, “the Lakers have demonstrated a mastery of certain elements of the game.” But they have not sustained it. Nobody does anymore. Continued excellence is just a way of upping the ante, of claiming a legacy.

His guarantee could prove to be just another coach’s stunt, of course, a sidecourt game on us all. But still, what’s the worst that could happen. We throw it back in his face for a while and the Lakers come back with a more predictable motivation for the next season.

But what if it works, what then? The motivational frontier is getting kind of weird as it is. The Celtics’ K.C. Jones appears to have tapped out by announcing his retirement early in the playoffs. This is considered extreme, even by his fellow motivators. It gives him such a poor opportunity to repeat. Riley, on the other hand, says he’s already got something up his sleeve for the next season anyway, and it allows him to continue on the Lakers’ payroll.

“I think I would be arrested for manslaughter if I didn’t ask the team to send Kareem out on a high note,” he says.

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As campaigns go, it’s a natural. Win one for the Big Fella. He seems ready to guarantee it.

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