Sermon Illustrations

WHEN YOUR BACK IS AGAINST THE WALL, PAT RILEY, NBA COACH

The Los Angeles Lakers were dominating the Boston Celtics in the final round of the 1984 National Basketball Association championship. The Lakers beat Boston on their home floor in Game 1. They beat them by 33 points in Game 3. They were ahead by 10 points in Game 4 and cruising and then it all changed.

Two days after losing the deciding seventh game, the Lakers were back in Los Angeles for their last team meeting. Coach Pat Riley looked at the young faces and said, “Even though we lost, they can’t take away our pride and our dignity; we own those. We are not chokers or losers. We are champions who simply lost a championship.”

The Lakers came back for the 1984-1985 season sharply focused. All year long, they heard about how they were a “show time” team that folded as soon as things got tough. The Celtics and their fans referred to us as the L.A. Fakers. Abuse and sarcasm were heaped on, and the Lakers had to take it. Yet still they achieved a tremendous season and ripped through the place at a high pace. On May 27, they got to face their tormentor, the Celtics, in Boston Garden.

The next day’s headlines called Game 1 of the 1985 finals The Memorial Day Massacre. A 148-114 humiliation was the most embarrassing game in the history of the Lakers franchise. The Lakers saw themselves become exactly what they had been called: choke artists, underachievers. The troubling question was why was it that every time the Lakers faced the Celtics, they became paralyzed with fear.

Before they went out for Game 2, the Lakers gathered in the dinghy locker room of the Boston Garden. The players were sitting there, ready to listen and to believe. 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. A couple of other players looked as if they would start crying too.

Coach Riley went on, “I don’t know what it is going to...

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