Deconstructing Pat Riley’s guarantee

In The Optimism Bias, Tali Sharot writes a story about Pat Riley, who was head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s and had just won the 1987 NBA Championship:

In the midst of the postvictory celebration, Riley was approached by a reporter. The journalist wanted to know if Riley believed the Lakers could be the first team in almost twenty years to win the NBA championship twice in a row. The Boston Celtics had been the last to do so, back in 1969, but no team had managed a repeat since. Would the Lakers be able to achieve it by winning the championship again in one year’s time? 

“Can you repeat?” the reporter asked Riley. Without blinking an eye, Riley replied, “I guarantee it.” The reporter was blown away. He had to make sure he had heard right. “Guarantee?” he said. “That’s right,” said Riley.1 With those three words—“I guarantee it”—Riley promised the journalists, the players, and millions of fans a second championship….

Game seven would determine whether Riley’s guarantee was to be fulfilled. The Pistons were ahead at halftime, but the Lakers turned their shortfall into a lead during the second half. With six seconds to go, they were ahead by a very small margin, 106 to 105. During those six seconds, they managed to score once more and won the last game 108 to 105, making good on Pat Riley’s promise….

Riley’s guarantee of a repeat is a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy—a prediction that causes itself to be true. There is no doubt that Pat Riley had good reason to think his team would win the championship the following year when the reporter asked him about it after the 1987 game. His team had just won the final, they were declared the best, and thus they were a likely candidate for the next year’s championship. However, his statement, which conveyed unshaken optimism, triggered a process that made that guarantee much more likely to become true. “Guaranteeing a championship was the best thing Pat ever did. It set the stage in our mind. Work harder, be better. That’s the only way we could repeat. We came into camp with the idea we were going to win it again, and that’s the idea we have now,” said the Lakers’ Byron Scott back in 1988. 

Believing that a goal is not only attainable but very likely leads people to act vigorously in order to achieve the desired outcome. In Riley’s case, he did more than just predict a repeat; he guaranteed it. By promising a second championship, he piled extra pressure on himself and his players.

There are a few important, applicable, insights that’s worth adding to Tali’s introduction:

  1. The prophecy was attainable. Pat Riley didn’t just win this championship before guaranteeing the repeat; this was his third (1982, 1985, and 1987). Pat’s statement seemed more like what Bob Iger calls, “management by press release.” The announcement was a tactic to keep his winning team motivated, to press onwards for greater success.

    James Worthy says, “It motivated us. Guys usually take a month and a half off. We took two weeks off, and we was calling each other, let’s meet at the track. We started running the track — 200, 400 — because we knew it was going to be a track race.” (See aiming high vs. aiming low.)
  2. Prophecies make people pay attention and remember you. Because you’re increasing the other person’s expectations, they may give you more resources—at the very least, their attention. A lot of people now remember Pat Riley’s Lakers team as one of the greatest; even if he had failed, they would have remembered him for his audacity.
  3. Prepare for pressure. The higher the expectations, the greater the pressure. Jeff Pearlman writes in Showtime, “It was the sort of pressure few wanted or needed.” If you don’t respond well to pressure, a self-fulfilling prophecy approach may not be the tactic that’s best suited for you.

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