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Keanu Reeves’s Coaching Clinic

Sure, his team in ‘Hardball’ went to the ’ship — but is coach Conor O’Neill an elite motivator?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The borders of the story are a bit hazy, and maybe one or two or three of its parts have been embellished a bit over time for effect, but mostly everyone involved agrees that it’s true (enough) and accurate (enough) to stand: In 2006, with the Miami Heat down 0–2 in the Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, Pat Riley decided his team needed to be jolted back to life. He needed to do something beyond just relay to them how dire the situation was: He needed to relay to them the exact level of belief and desire that was going to be required for them to escape alive. So, prior to Game 3, he settled on an idea. He gathered his team for a Wake The Fuck Up speech and he began talking. And by all accounts, it wasn’t anything extreme. Until all of a sudden, it was.

Near the end of his talk, he said, “If you want to win a championship, you have to want it …” and then, cutting himself off, he dunked his whole head into a bucket full of water. And he left it there. And left it there. And left it there. Then, just short of drowning, he yanked it out. Gasping for air before finishing his thought, “… like it’s your last breath.” I remember when the story first came out; the line then was that he’d kept his head in the bucket for well over a minute. This past Finals, when the Cavs also found themselves in an 0–2 hole, Shaq recalled the story, this time saying that Riley held his in the bucket for more than three minutes, which is weird because I didn’t even know that Pat Riley was a fish.

But so, the point of the story: Occasionally, the coach of a team — basketball team, football team, lacrosse team, gymnastics team, whatever — will find himself or herself in a spot where only the slickest, most clever, most effective kind of motivation is useful. And that’s where another of America’s great coaches, Keanu Reeves’s Conor O’Neill in Hardball, found himself in 2001, when life tossed an untested, unpolished, assumed-to-be-uncoachable inner city Little League team onto his shoulders.

Have you seen Hardball? This is Hardball: Connor O’Neill is a drunk and a degenerate gambler. After a couple of bets go bad on him, he ends up in the bag for a bunch of money that he can’t pay to a bunch of bookies that he can’t outrun. As a way to make money, he begins coaching a Little League baseball team. Predictably, he’s horrible when he begins. But as the movie moves forward, he gets better and better, smarter and smarter. His motivational tactics go from being nonexistent to almost unfathomably sly and effective. And then, at the end, he pulls off what has to be the most nuanced, most unflinchingly wily motivational tactic of the whole movie, and maybe even the history of organized sports.

This is the evolution of Conor O’Neill, master motivator:

Tactic No. 1: Ignoring the Players

Conor’s first practice session is a nightmare. He does zero coaching because he has zero interest in any of the players or the season or their lives; he just sits on the sidelines and waits for a friend of his to show up while the players do whatever TF they want. He has two interactions total with the players that day:

The first one is when Jefferson Albert Tibbs, a lovably round and asthmatic kid, tells him that practice needs to end because it’s going to be dark soon. (Tibbs is rightfully afraid of having to walk home in the dark, as him and the other players live in a dangerous project complex.) Conor tells him to be quiet, to just keep practicing because he’s waiting for someone. Tibbs, defeated and directionless, wanders back out onto the field.

The second one happens after one of the team’s pitchers accidentally hits a kid with a pitch and they begin to fight. Conor, finally moved enough to get off the bleachers, comes running onto the field to break up the fight. That’s it. That’s all of the ways he attempted to motivate his players that first practice.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 1? Not motivational at all. In fact, it ended up being the opposite: As the players left, Tibbs asked Conor if he could walk him home. Conor blew Tibbs off, telling him, “No, umm, I’m not going that way.” Tibbs walked home alone. He was robbed and beaten up before he made it there. His injuries were so bad that he had to be hospitalized.

Tactic No. 2: Attempting to Build a Relationship

Conor visits Tibbs in the hospital. He tries to pretend that he cares. Tibbs, likely able to tell that Conor is drunk, doesn’t buy it. “You’re never gonna stay being our coach,” he says. Conor hangs his head in embarrassment.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 2? It wasn’t. He was only there because he felt guilty. He still didn’t have interest in actually motivating any of his players yet.

Tactic No. 3: Shaming and Reintegration

During the team’s second practice, Conor has the players stand in the outfield while he hits balls to them. He notices that Kofi, the team’s most assertive and profound player, makes fun of each of the kids as they miss the balls hit their way. Conor then fucking crushes a line drive at Kofi’s head. Kofi ducks. “What’s up, Kofi?” Conor asks in a mocking tone. “You scared of the ball?” The team laughs at Kofi. Connor declares: “New rule: No one can say anything bad to anyone else on the field.” For the next few moments, nobody talks. He encourages them to say nice things and be friendly to one another instead. So they begin to say nice things and be friendly to one another instead.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 3? This was the exact moment when Conor decided he was interested in being able to control his team. And while I cannot in good faith recommend rocketing baseballs at the heads of children, I also cannot deny that his method was motivational.

Tactic No. 4: Investing in the Players’ Success Outside of Sports

Conor shows up to the kids’ school and sits in on one of their classes. He wears a tie and also he opens a briefcase from the wrong side and all its contents spill out onto the floor. Everyone laughs.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 4? I think you can lean either way here. Because on the one hand, this was for certain a good move for team building. On the other hand, it’s hard to call it specifically motivational. I think what’s more important is to point out that right around this point, it becomes clear that Conor is going to actively try to be a successful coach.

Tactic No. 5: Exercising Blind Faith in His Players

Tibbs, finally home from the hospital, shows up for the team’s first game. Conor doesn’t ask to speak with his mother or see any kind of release or anything. He just puts Tibbs in the game out of guilt. A starting spot in the lineup hardly seems like a fair trade for getting assaulted, but I have very little experience with Little League so I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m wrong about that.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 5? It wasn’t. Tibbs was a goddamn disaster in the game. As was everyone else. They were blown out. This is when Conor found out successful coaches have no time for guilty consciences.

Tactic No. 6: A Strict Adherence to the Rules

Prior to the start of the game, Conor hands out jerseys to all the players. G-Baby, who is Kofi’s younger brother and sort of the mascot of the team, looks in the box but doesn’t see one for him. Conor tells him he’s a couple of weeks too young so he’s not getting a jersey. G-Baby starts crying.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 6? It wasn’t. Mostly, it was just a dick move. (G-Baby doesn’t receive a jersey until the second-to-last game of the season, at which point he shines very brightly. More on that later.)

Tactic No. 7: The Phil Jackson Approach to Game Management

This is a list of all the things Conor does during his first proper game as coach:

  • He says “That’s all right” after a player strikes out.
  • He chews on a piece of gum. He looks up, realizes his team is down 7–0, then he spits the gum out, hoping it will motivate the team. It doesn’t help. They continue to score zero runs.
  • He decides to stand up at the entrance of the dugout, hoping that seeing him stand will motivate the team. It also doesn’t work. Now his team is down 10–0.
  • Frustrated with the score, his players start arguing and fighting with each other. He allows them to argue and fight, hoping the quarreling will motivate the team. It doesn’t work. 14–0.
  • He cheers when Kofi gets a big hit. Following a couple of fielding errors, it turns into an inside the park home run. He says “Good job” and points at him as he heads back to the dugout. They’re down 16–1.
  • Game over.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 7? Quick sidebar: Several years ago, I started coaching a middle school football team. I was an assistant coach who was being groomed to potentially be the head coach in two, three, four years. We were playing one game late in the season and our boys were throttling their boys and so I said to the head coach, “Hey, let me call the plays for the next offensive series.” He looked at the scoreboard, saw that there was no way I could do enough damage to cost us the game, and so he said, “OK. Go for it.” We got the ball back on offense and I whistle to our quarterback. He jogs over to me and asks what to run. I lean in so that no one else can hear, and I say, “Yo, do whatever you want. I’ll pretend like I told you to do it.” He said, “What?” I said, “Go on.” He smiled and ran off and called his huddle. The head coach was an extremely strict play caller. I wanted to lean the opposite direction, give the kids some freedom. I thought it would work out best for everyone involved.

I was wrong. I stood on the sideline and watched the quarterback call four straight Hail Mary passes, all of which were incomplete. We turned the ball over on downs. So what I’m saying is that it’s generally good to be more involved when you’re coaching kids. They don’t think the freedom is motivational. They just think it’s an excuse to do dumb shit.

Tactic No. 8: Establishing Discipline

After their first game, two players (Kofi and Andre) get into a fight. Conor breaks up the fight, then begins to admonish Kofi, who’s immediately like, “Man, fuck this,” and quits the team. Conor doesn’t chase Kofi. The rest of the boys, having seen that Conor’s willing to let even their most talented player leave, settle down.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 8? Fairly motivational. (I think this one happened by accident. Once he saw how effective it was to have a firm hand, he stayed with it.)

Tactic No. 9: A Pizza-Based Reward System

Conor sees that all the kids are sad about having lost their first game and the team’s best player, but he also seems to finally realize that they are children, so he knows how to fix it: “Anybody hungry?” he asks. “How about pizza?” They all perk up. While eating together, he establishes a pizza-based reward system for successful play on the field. The kids are excited about future games, and begin to discuss the possibility of playing in the championship for the first time ever.

How Motivational is Tactic No. 9? Very motivational. This is like the kid version of those stories where NBA players get paid $500 for every charge they take.

Tactic No. 10: Nurturing Talent

Miles, who was otherwise playing shortstop, tells Conor that he wants to pitch. Conor, perhaps remembering the Tibbs debacle, is hesitant for a moment, but then gives in. He tells Miles he can pitch the next game. Miles smiles.

How Motivational Was Tactic №10? Extremely. Miles dominates in the following game. He wears headphones while he pitches because the music helps block out the crowd noise and the jeers from the other team. The opposing players make fun of him initially because the music causes him to do a little dance before his first pitch, but once he throws that first ball it’s a fucking wrap. Conor’s team is officially a contender moving forward.

Tactic No. 11: Offering Second Chances

Kofi shows up to the third game. G-Baby tells Conor that Kofi wants back on the team. (G-Baby is there to negotiate Kofi’s return.) Conor welcomes Kofi back, though ultimately leaves his fate up to the team. They vote to allow him back on. They also confirm that their previous victory was not a fluke, winning Game 3 by an even larger margin than Game 2 (10–3).

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 11? I’d lean toward saying this was somewhat motivational, as it was right around here when the kids began to exhibit signs that they’d become very invested in the team’s success. Conor choosing to let them decide whether or not Kofi came back was a very slick move.

Tactic No. 12: Telling the Kids to Fuck Off

The team’s fourth game of the season is against the Bua Was, their division’s most dominant and unlikable team. Before the game, the Bua Was coach informs Conor and the league president that Jamal, one of Conor’s main players, is two weeks too old to be on the team. Conor tries to buck back, but there’s ultimately nothing to be done. He tells Jamal that he can’t play. Jamal starts crying and runs away. Conor lets him go. Jamal joins a gang.

The Bua Was coach then objects to Miles wearing headphones while he pitches. The league president forces Miles to remove them. Frustrated by the bureaucracy of Little League baseball (and also his mounting gambling debts), Conor snaps. He tells the team he’s quitting after the game. (“What’d you expect? I was gonna coach this team the whole year?”) They’re crushed.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 12? This one was the least motivational of all Conor’s tactics. They lose the game, Miles loses his confidence, Conor loses his way. It’s the bleakest hour. Very ineffective.

Tactic No. 13: The Apology

Conor shows up to the team’s practice following his explosion, drops off the equipment, then gets mad when the kids start telling him that they don’t need him anyway. “Good luck on your own,” he barks as he walks away. “Call me when you get to the ’ship on your own.”

He gets to his car, turns around, charges back at the kids, then tells them all to shut up because he’s done listening to them, and done listening to everyone else, too. He asks them if they have ever been to a big league game. They tell him no. He makes fun of them for being so poor and underprivileged. Then he takes them to a game.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 13? Extremely motivational. The team finally feels fully formed. They go on a three-game win streak. (This is when Conor starts to turn the corner toward becoming an elite coach. Him dangling those big league tickets in their face is the same as Phil Jackson dangling his rings in front of Kobe’s face in 2000. Once you get to the mental-warfare level of coaching, that’s when you become special. Conor’s last two coaching tactics prove he understood that.)

Tactic No. 14: (Possibly) Sleeping With the Teacher of the Kids’ Class

Early in the movie, one of the players asks Conor if he was asking out their teacher when they see him talking to her. Conor tells him no. Conor remembers this exchange later, though. And so on the eve of their biggest game (a rematch with the Bua Was to determine who goes to the championship), he asks her out. She says yes. He does this so the kids have even more faith in them as they head to their crucial, crucial next game.

How Motivational Was Tactic No. 14? Extremely. They play so much better in the rematch. They get to the last inning tied 2–2. G-Baby, who was finally given a uniform, ends up getting a game-winning single. All because he knew Conor was knocking down the teacher.

(A smaller tactic within this tactic: At the end of the game, Conor moves Miles back to pitcher. Miles, who’s still without his headphones, is terrified. But then Conor begins loudly singing the song Miles was always playing in his headphones and Miles is able to focus. It’s a brilliant move. Miles strikes out the side.)

Tactic No. 15: Leveraging the Death of a Child to Secure a Championship

In an especially dark turn, G-Baby is killed by a stray bullet during a shootout after Conor drops the kids off following the game against the Bua Was. The league says it is going to call off the championship game. Conor, by this point a very seasoned and savvy coach, doesn’t panic. He knows he can’t force the kids to play, and he also knows that if he tries to force them to play he’ll be vilified forever, so he lays in the cut. He pretends as though he’s going to let the game get canceled. The players on the team call a meeting. Conor shows up. He knows they’re going to tell him they want to play the game but he plays it cool. “Yeah, it’s over,” he tells them. “You guys don’t have to play. You guys had a great year. You can keep the uniforms.” He turns and walks away sadly. “Wait,” one of the boys shouts. “You’re quitting again?” Conor, oil slick and devil evil, lets them walk right into it. “What do you mean?” he asks, already knowing the answer. They tell him they wanna play. With just the right amount of disbelief, he responds, “You guys … wanna play?” It’s a fucking masterclass in coach-to-player manipulation.

How Motivational Was Tactic No.15? They win the championship, that’s how motivational it was. Same as the 2006 Heat team won the championship. And Conor didn’t even need a bucket.