A decade ago, when Pat Riley was coaching the Showtime Lakers, he instinctively knew when his team needed a jolt. Riley would deliver it literally, smashing his fist into a blackboard to drive home a point. "It was powerful stuff," says one former Los Angeles player. "And it didn't matter when I found out years later that he had tested the blackboard first to make sure he wouldn't hurt himself."
There are many styles of pep talks in the NBA, but the most memorable mix is a pinch of madness and a dash of fail-safe method. Riley, the NBA's current master of the genre, says it has never been his style to set up props, but he adds, "It makes sense to check the plastic trash can to make sure there's not a block of cement in it, just in case you might need to kick it."
After leaving the Lakers, Riley altered his approach with the Knicks, cajoling them with stories of inspiration. One of his staples was the tale of a horse, Black Gold, that won the Kentucky Derby in 1924 and the next year broke his leg during a race but finished it anyway. Like most orators, Riley will reuse as necessary. Asked how Riley got the Heat ready for the critical Game 7 against the Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, one Miami player said, "He used that horse story, you know, the Black Gold one. We'd heard it before."
Knicks forward Charles Oakley says he liked it best when Riley told his "children's stories." (We think he means parables.) "There was one, about a frog trying to get over a bridge," says Oakley. "It sounds dumb, but the way he told it really got us going."
Cavaliers players report that coach Mike Fratello is "a screamer" who is not averse to hurling objects—or insults—around the locker room. "He gets his blood boiling, and his veins start bulging, and his face gets all red," says one Cavalier. "A couple of times I was scared he was going to pop a blood vessel in his head." At game's end, however, Fratello's demeanor undergoes a radical change. "One time he got on me so bad at halftime, I figured I was in the doghouse forever," says another Cav. "But after the game he patted me on the back, like nothing ever happened."
Sonics coach George Karl's most potent weapon, according to one of his veterans, is honesty. "He comes into a locker room at halftime and says, 'You know this team sucks. We should be killing them,' " says the player.
Sometimes pep talks contain more pep than talk. Consider Magic coach Chuck Daly, who believes that if a coach speaks too much, his players tune him out. His approach is to talk in headlines like PLAY DEFENSE! A member of one of Daly's championship Pistons teams recalls that during timeouts "Chuck would call us together, yell, 'Rebound, rebound, rebound!' and that would be it. The rest of the time, we'd stand around and wait for the whistle to blow."