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Upon return, Celtics fans offer Doc Rivers a warm welcome, and feelings are mutual

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 12, 2013 12:28 AM

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As usual, the thousands of words and breaths spent on the will-they-boo-or-cheer debate -- and I'm among the convicted, this time -- dwelled entirely on the wrong point.

It's not about how and why someone departed. It's about what that person accomplished and meant while they were here.

Celtics fans, I'm happy to report from the ninth floor of TD Garden, recognized as much Wednesday night, and in a vast and vocal majority.

Doc Rivers coached the Boston Celtics for nine years, winning one championship, playing a significant role in the overall rebirth of the franchise, melding extraordinary talents with egos to match.

He conducted himself with friendliness, intelligence, candor and class. Occasional hints of disingenuous motives did show up when at the end when he had a change of heart about staying through another rebuilding process of undetermined length.

That's not an indictment of his personality. It's a confirmation that he's human.

So it was reassuring that Rivers's formal reintroduction to Celtics fans during pregame festivities before last night's 96-88 loss to his Clippers was a warm standing ovation by an incomplete crowd that was either late-arriving or, based on a surprising number of empty gold seats, never-arriving.

But boos? There were a speckled few, noticeable only if you were listening for them in confirmation of your misguided opinion.

The greeting was ... it was pleasant, that's what it was.

"It didn't surprise me,'' said Rivers afterward, a blue Clippers backdrop clashing with the Celtic green podium during his press conference. "You've got to live here to understand that. That's just the way they are. It's an amazing fan base. It really is. I just want everything to go well for them.

Little did we know it then, but that wasn't the final salute, nor the best. The most genuine emotions -- the real feelings Doc Rivers, and Doc Rivers's real feelings about you, would arrive 12 minutes of basketball into the reunion.

During the break between the first and second quarters, a tribute to Rivers played on the video board above center court. It was set to one of the modern go-to standards for such occasions, Dierks Bentley's "Home," and damned if the whole thing wasn't mesmerizing, heartfelt and perfect.

There he is, playing against Danny Ainge during their Celtics-Hawks heyday ... and there they are with their arms draped around each others' shoulders during their time as the Celtics' brain trust ... and there's a shot of him walking to center court, a beaming Paul Pierce a step behind to claim the championship trophy ... and what the heck is Wally Szczerbiak doing in this thing? ... the Gatorade bath! ... and shh, here's a brief clip with audio of him saying "this five" -- and you know exactly the five he means -- "never lost a series together" ... and then, as the cheers reach a crescendo, seemingly unanimous and in full unison now, one more image: Doc, with his arm raised as if saluting the crowd, with the words "Thank you, Doc" on the screen in accompaniment.

Mesmerizing. Heartfelt. Perfect. And that was before the kicker:

The Garden spotlight settled on Rivers on the Clippers' sideline, where it found the coach clearly touched, raising his arm in homage one more time. Then the camera darted to the rafters, settling on the 2007-08 championship banner Rivers helped secure.

That's how you condense Doc's considerable legacy to a two-minute clip, a clip that reminded us that his legacy -- he coached nearly as many games as Bill Fitch and K.C. Jones combined -- deserves every last roar.

Man, you know we've all got our memories. But sometimes you require the visual as a refresher, that reminder of just how good even the most recent of good old days were.

Afterward, Rivers was told he looked like his emotions were briefly getting the best of him while the video tribute played.

"Yeah, I'm still emotional,'' he said. "I thought the fans were ..."

And then he paused, fighting back tears.

Nearly 10 seconds of silence passed. Then he continued.

"It was just ... a really nice day. It's just such a classy place. Here. It was really nice when I walked out [before the game]. I'm not used to walking out that side, and all those [familiar] guys lined up, and I was basically useless for the first 18 minutes.

"I told my coaches I needed halftime far more than the players. And I think they sensed that. At halftime, CP [Chris Paul] kept saying, 'We got it, we got it.' I think they sensed how it was for me."

Among those standing and applauding Rivers during the video montage was the talented rookie NBA coach who replaced him.

"I respect a good coach,'' said Brad Stevens. "And I'm appreciative of the opportunity that I have. And I'm appreciative of the time that he spent here. I'm appreciative of the good times he had, and I'm appreciative of the tough times he had that built toward those good times. I don't know him very well. Obviously I admire what he accomplished. Everybody else was up, and I should be up too."

As Rivers was departing his postgame press conference, he passed the podium-bound Stevens in the hallway. Rivers offered words of encouragement to Stevens, whose remarkable knack for getting the best out a makeshift roster has the Celtics winning more often than anyone could have expected, enjoyable in the moment even if it's counterproductive in the long run.

"[I told him] just to do what he does,'' said Rivers. "He's coached as long as me, just not in the NBA. He's going to be terrific. He's going to be a terrific coach. He's solid. Does his job every night. Brad's going to be a terrific coach. He's going to be here a long time."

Seeing the bright coach of recent past there with the bright coach of the present and future offered one more reminder why Doc deserved his salute: It all worked out for the best.

Rivers has a fine team in the stacked Western Conference, one that has one virtuoso player (Paul, who had 22 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds Wednesday), a very good one in Blake Griffin (18 points), and genuine depth (the Celtics were done in by back-to-back dagger threes by Jamal Crawford, who finished with 21 points off the bench). He deserves to coach a team like this at this stage of his career.

It worked out for the best for the Celtics as well. They got a first-round pick in return, for one thing, and they found a fine successor as well. Stevens is still learning his way around the NBA, and yet the suggestion that he's getting more out of these lovable misfit Celtics than Rivers would is a fair one. (I just can't see Doc giving Jordan Crawford time at the point.)

And let's not even imagine what it would be like if Rivers, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce had all remained. If the two admirable champions are going to crumble, at least the sad decline is happening out of our sight.

It was time for the new Big Three to break up. It was time for Rivers to go. Maybe he just knew it before we did.

But that doesn't mean he didn't love his time here. To hear him speak of Boston Wednesday night ... well, let's let him tell you with his words.

"I tell people all the team, people don't get Boston,'' he said. "They don't. They don't understand. I think you have to be part of it to get it. I think you really do. I don't think you can get it from the outside. It's just a special, different place. People were born here, raised here, and they cheer for their teams. They love their athletes, and it just a great place to be."

It's funny, so much of the talk this week was about his departure from Boston, and how that would influence his greeting upon return.

But it's another arrival, another decision, that Rivers suggested never strays far from his mind.

"The best decision I ever made was 10 years ago when I decided to come to Boston. That was the best decision I ever made."

Doc Rivers gets Boston. He gets you. How wonderful it is that Celtics fans told him with their cheers that he's always welcome, that they get him, too.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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