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Rivers understands hazards of the business

By Gary Washburn
October 9, 2011

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In the spring, Doc Rivers accepted a five-year contract extension to remain coach of the Celtics with enthusiasm and vigor. It was a heartfelt commitment to a team that has thrived under him and a region that has embraced him.

Such commitments are unusual in professional sports. As Boston fans have seen first-hand over the past several days, long-term relationships between coaches and teams usually end suddenly and unceremoniously.

Rivers would have loved to see his friend and Boston coaching compatriot Terry Francona leave the Red Sox on his own terms, perhaps after a World Series win, in a raucous clubhouse with the championship trophy gleaming next to him. Instead, Francona left Boston in a hastily organized press conference after a miserable ending to an emotionally taxing season.

Such circumstances allowed Rivers to reflect on his coaching past, how he nearly left the Celtics following the grueling seven-game NBA Finals loss to the Lakers two years ago, and knowing when the time has come to end a coaching relationship.

“I did understand what he was going through,’’ Rivers said of Francona’s unhappiness during his final season. “The first thing you’ve always got to think about is whether you like doing what you do. Do you like working with the people you are working with?

“Take the players off the field, and the first thing it has to be is with management and [Celtics president] Danny [Ainge] and [co-owner] Wyc [Grousbeck], and if you enjoy that and you are still working together. That could break, and it doesn’t mean anybody is wrong, it just means it’s not working.’’

Francona was a considerably younger-looking man when he took over the Red Sox in 2004. Coaching is like the presidency - it ages you in dog years. And it became apparent to Francona and Sox management that his message had dulled, that players had begun to carry out their own agendas, and that his authority was in question.

“Nobody is crying for any of us,’’ said Rivers, who was fired by the Magic in 2003. “We make good money and all that, but it is a hard job.

“It’s also what you love doing, but it does take a toll. But we love it. We absolutely love it.

“The one thing I would say about the stress, we are still doing something we absolutely love, so I am thankful for that part. I never take that for granted.

“I get so many enjoyments out of watching players get better and perform, even the guys that you coach and they go away. Sometimes they go away not even liking you and then they come back later and say, ‘Man, I learned a lot.’ That makes your job.’’

Rivers comes across as a very affable and engaging coach, but he is not easy to play for, according to several former and current Celtics. He is hard on rookies and younger players. He has no filter in assessing a player’s talents.

While there may not be a more popular coach around the league with opposing players, Rivers has made sure to avoid the dubious tag of “player’s coach,’’ the same one that betrayed Francona in his final days.

“I have never understood exactly what a ‘player’s coach’ is,’’ Rivers said. “I think everybody is a ‘player’s coach’ if you are doing well and the players are happy.

“I think there’s so many approaches to the way you do your job, and grandstanding is not one of them for me. If showing that you’re not a player’s coach by yelling in front of fans is what you’ve go to do to convince people that you’re not, then I’m not the right guy for that job.

“I have always believed you’ve got to take your stand all the time, and the key for you as a coach is to get the guys to play to the best of their abilities. That’s what I want to be. But there’s times where that’s difficult. You try everything.’’

The Red Sox carried World Series aspirations after signing free agent Carl Crawford and acquiring Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres last offseason. They led the AL East most of the season, but when their collapse began, they were willing to settle for the wild card. And that quest failed on the final day. A team that was considered a World Series lock during the summer couldn’t even make the playoffs.

While management refused to lay any of the blame on Francona, the coach/manager generally accepts that responsibility when his team underachieves.

“There’s no bigger critic on the coaches than the coaches themselves,’’ Rivers said. “Clearly you go through that. As a coach, you have be somewhat unrealistic on how good your team could be, because you have to convince them to be that good so you have to convince yourself. That’s what we do.

“You put a lot of pressure on yourself. You’re competitive through your players. I’m as competitive as any person you will ever meet, and the only way I can be that is through them.

“At the end, it’s the team’s fault. You go into it as a team. But as a coach, I think for the most part whether you get blamed for it or not, you take it upon yourself. I’m looking at what I didn’t do.’’

“This is a great sports town and I get asked every day, ‘I thought you were going to quit, why’d you come back?’ Really, I just like the situation. I love it.

“Just the fact you have the chance to work with the group you work with, and this town - there’s no better sports town. You always have to win, and when you don’t win, you’re going to get the blame.’’

Owners give some back While the powers that be intimated Tuesday that hope was lost for reaching an agreement that would secure a full regular season, it appears the team owners made major concessions that had to cause the Players Association to ponder labor accord.

According to commissioner David Stern, the owners dropped their insistence on a hard salary cap, rollbacks on current salaries, and nonguaranteed contracts. Those were primary issues the players insisted on rectifying before making concessions. The NBPA responded by offering a decrease in its share of basketball-related income to 53 percent from 57 percent, or about $160 million per season.

This is where the situation gets sticky. The owners would like fans to believe that a 50-50 split would be fair for both sides, but the players are not budging for a figure lower than 52, urged by veterans such as Kevin Garnett and high-powered agents, who could lose millions of dollars from reduced contracts.

A key component is the NBA’s television contract that expires after the 2015-16 season, which would occur during a potential agreement. The players want their share of the increased revenues expected after the most successful season of the post-Michael Jordan era.

But union president Derek Fisher has quite a quandary on his hands. Does he call for a vote on an offer that hardly resembles the drastic proposal from the owners several months ago - one that included a 40 percent share of basketball-related income, 15 percent rollbacks on current contracts, and a $45 million hard salary cap?

The question is whether executive director Billy Hunter possesses enough power to get the players to agree to a deal. Several agents, including Arn Tellem, Mark Bartelstein, Henry Thomas, and Leon Rose, distributed a letter to all players pleading for them not to accept any basketball-related income number below 52 percent. It’s apparent from the letter many agents are challenging Hunter’s authority.

The lowest figure the players would receive under the owners’ proposal is 49 percent. Hunter does not appear to carry enough influence to suggest to his constituents that they accept such a deal and eliminate the potential for a lost season. The mistake Hunter wants to avoid from the 1998 lockout is waiting for a better deal and then panicking when Stern sets a drop-dead date for the season.

Twelve years ago, those veterans whose careers were on the brink decided to accept what many other players and observers felt was a substandard deal, one that included a rookie salary cap, a maximum contract, and limits on length of contracts.

It was obvious after last week’s negotiations that the owners wanted to strike a deal. Stern floating the idea of a 50-50 split was primarily to win public support, especially from those hard-working fans who now believe the only thing separating them from a new season is the Players Association accepting an even split of the league’s profits.

That is perception, of course. That is why Stern mentioned the idea of a 50-50 split while murmuring that it wasn’t officially a proposal.

Stern ended his session with the media by acting rather uninterested in a player migration to Europe and Asia, especially a superstar such as Kobe Bryant, who is considering an offer from an Italian team.

“So a player who is going to earn $16 million here is going to go to Turkey to play for $3 million?’’ Stern asked. “Or a player who is going to earn $5 million here is going to China to earn a million?

“I think that in some cases they may need the money, and we understand that. In some cases, they may be exploring new opportunities. But those are their rights, and we have no reaction to that other than telling them to be safe and to come back when we settle, if they haven’t precluded themselves by coming back from some contractual provision. But it’s not an issue at all for the owners.’’

Howard eager to go to work Josh Howard has spent the past 18 months recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, spending most of last season on the sideline before playing in 18 games with the Wizards. A free agent at age 31, Howard said he is just now reaching 100 percent health, but the lockout - and the lack of a summer league - has prevented him from showcasing his game.

In last weekend’s Chris Paul-organized all-star game in Winston-Salem, N.C., Howard participated in his first organized action of the summer, expressing full confidence that his knee is healed. During his prime, Howard was an effective swingman who averaged 18 or more points for three consecutive seasons (2006-09) and was an effective defender

The former Wake Forest standout enjoyed his best season in 2007-08 when he averaged nearly 20 points and 7 rebounds per game for the Mavericks. He has shown flashes of that talent over the past few years but his role decreased during his final years in Dallas. The Celtics, meanwhile, have only seven signed players and may be seeking established veterans of Howard’s ilk.

“Boston is a great organization,’’ he said. “I also have a good friend in Marquis Daniels that spent a lot of time up there and who spoke highly of the organization. So that would be one of the teams I would actually look at if I had the opportunity to go there.’’

Layups Last night was a significant moment for the Celtics in regard to their immediate future. Rajon Rondo made his first on-court appearance since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Heat - his first appearance with a healthy left elbow - in the South Florida All-Star Classic at Florida International University. Rondo dislocated his left elbow during Game 3 of the Miami series and labored through the final two games. He was booed by the Miami crowd last night. The game also was an opportunity for Caron Butler, a free agent who missed the Finals last June with the Mavericks because of a knee injury, to showcase his skills for interested parties. Eddy Curry, who was considered a lost cause after failing to get into shape in New York last season, was a late scratch . . . Kobe Bryant was noncommittal when asked during labor negotiations about a potential deal with Virtus Bologna, although he finds the offer intriguing. It appears that he does not want to make a season-long commitment to the club, even with an NBA out . . . An integral figure in the labor meetings in the last week was Paul Pierce, who participated in the final meeting before the sides broke off talks. While Pierce remained mostly distant during the summer, he spent last weekend in New York and made some important statements to owners about recent successes of smaller-market teams such as San Antonio and Oklahoma City . . . There are some disappointed fans in Amherst after the NBA wiped out the preseason game between the Celtics and 76ers Oct. 19 at Mullins Center. Those who bought tickets directly from the Mullins Center will have to return there for a refund, while those who purchased from Ticketmaster can return to the website for a refund.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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