Jackie MacMullan

Parental guidance

Rivers still feels late father's influence

(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jackie MacMullan
Globe Correspondent / June 8, 2008

People don't hold their gaze when you are losing. It's too awkward, too uncomfortable, as if your colossal misfortunes might be contagious.

Doc Rivers found this curious, particularly since he had been brought up to look everyone squarely in the eye, but he grew accustomed to averted glances and cursory hellos last season.

After all, what can you possibly say to a coach who has lost 18 straight games?

"Not much," said longtime NBA coach Mike Fratello. "Just brief words of encouragement like, 'that was a better fourth quarter,' or 'improved defensive effort.' I tried to leave Doc little messages like that throughout last year. I never expected him to call me back. It was just too hard, with everything he had going on."

When Minnesota coach Randy Wittman encountered the Celtics, he scanned the eyes of his friend for something he hoped he wouldn't detect: doubt.

"You have to keep believing in yourself, because when you stop doing that, the players see it," Wittman said. "I'm sure Doc had some reservations, but if he did, he never let on."

The 2008 Celtics, steeped in veterans and All-Stars, are in the hunt for the NBA championship and will play the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 2 of the Finals tonight at the Garden.

Yet, one short year ago, the Celtics were a young team pocked with players who struggled to accept their roles and maintain their concentration.

When Rivers corralled them after practice, he would echo the words of his father, former police officer Grady Rivers, as he barked out instructions. Stay on task. Remain consistent. Don't ever think of giving up.

Winning might be futile, but learning never is.

Sometimes, Rivers's players would straighten up in response to the words that had molded him as a boy growing up on the West Side of Chicago. Other times, the 2006-07 Celtics stared back at him with the dulled eyes of a beaten team.

"You've got to stay on them," thundered Grady Rivers, when his son shared his frustrations during their long phone conversations. "You told me you didn't want to just be a pro player, you wanted to be a champion. There is no time limit on that."

Maybe there was, his son gently explained. How much longer would a restless ownership pay him millions without results? Although head of basketball operations Danny Ainge resolutely stood by him as the losses mounted, the scrutiny intensified, and the cries for Rivers's removal became more insistent. The future was tenuous.

The criticisms varied. Doc didn't know defense. He was too much of a player's coach. He couldn't develop young talent. He was too congenial. He was too much of a "feel" coach, and not enough of an X's-and-O's guy.

"Ridiculous," sniffed Fratello. "Doc is one of the best in the league at devising plays in the final seconds of a close game. He has an excellent 'X and O' background. But that's what happens today. There's so much media, so many blogs, so many opinions, that one person labels you something and it sticks, and there's nothing you can do."

His family retreated from the hostility. Kris Rivers and her children remained in Florida, a healthy distance from the boos and the blogs. His mother, Betty, and father, who stopped flying after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, watched the Celtics on television, and Grady talked through each result with his son by phone.

"You know the game," Grady reminded Doc. "You played the game. The game will take care of you."

"I wanted to believe that," Doc Rivers said.

Instead, he found himself wondering, "When, Dad?"

When will the game take care of me?

Emotional run

Eight months into the 2007-08 season, the Celtics hold a 1-0 series lead over the favored Lakers and have a chance to win it all.

The 98-88 victory in Game 1 was the byproduct of an effective defensive scheme that limited the Lakers' perimeter opportunities and forced Kobe Bryant into 9-of-26 shooting.

Rivers's strategy was solid, his substitution patterns successful. In the third quarter, when Paul Pierce crumpled with an injured knee, Doc delivered an emotional speech in the huddle, imploring his players to band together. "Don't let up!" he shouted, as his players locked hands, then went out and delivered the win.

The game is finally taking care of Doc Rivers, just as his father predicted.

Yet Grady Rivers is not here to cackle, "I told you so." He died last November after a brief illness, before the Celtics and their infusion of Hall of Fame talent had a chance to embark on this remarkable NBA journey.

Last week, Doc called a meeting to remind his team that making it to the Finals was only half of what they hoped to accomplish.

As he contemplated what he would say, the voice of Grady Rivers crept in his head, as it so often does. Before he could face his team, Doc locked himself away in the team massage room and wept for the man he ached to share their success with.

"It's been very emotional for me," Rivers conceded. "Most of what my dad taught me is what got me through last year. I couldn't have done it otherwise.

"I needed to close the door to that massage room because I needed a little peace. I think about my father a lot. It's tough, because I haven't had time to grieve. And it never goes away. I guess that shouldn't surprise me, because he meant that much to me.

"But I won't let my team see it. What's happening is too important."

Since the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Doc no longer has to blow his whistle repeatedly to capture his team's attention. But he did have to lay down some specific guidelines on how he expected his newest superstars to play the game.

For a player cemented in his routine like Allen, those guidelines presented a major adjustment, as they did for Pierce when he first played for Rivers.

"It was frustrating," Allen said. "Doc didn't want to listen to anything I had to say. He told me, 'I don't care what you used to do. This is how we do it here.' "

Asked when he finally became acclimated to his coach, Allen cracked, "Probably up until about two weeks ago."

The early battles between Pierce and Rivers have been well-documented. Yet, according to Pierce, his respect for Doc's commitment to the team never wavered.

"I'm watching our guys at the end of last season, and everything is a mess," Pierce said. "I'm hurt, the team is horrible, but even during the last week, when we don't have anything to play for, Doc is showing up every day and coaching them hard. That really showed me something."

Man of deep faith

The consistency that Grady Rivers preached remains with his son, both on and off the court.

"As bad as last year was, and as good as this year has been, I can honestly tell you there's been minimal change in Glenn's mood," said his wife, Kris. "It's really amazing, when you think about it. He is always on the same even keel."

The Celtics' success has provided renewed cachet for the coach. Ainge points out even with their dismal record last season, the Celtics were among the top three in the league in converting scoring opportunities out of timeouts. Wittman noted Doc's effectiveness at devising offensive sets for Allen, who has struggled at times in the postseason.

Rivers promises he will not be distracted on Father's Day next Sunday. He will continue to prepare for the Lakers on June 17, the day Grady Rivers would have been 77 years old, if the series is still going. He is a man of deep faith and believes his father is at peace.

Kris Rivers further contends that Grady Rivers is with the team during this magical playoff run.

"I know my father-in-law," she said. "He's lurking around here somewhere."

You need not look far. He is in the heart and mind of the coach of the Celtics, a man who was taught to look you squarely in the eye whether his team was at the top or the bottom of the NBA.

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