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Smooth Operator : Rivers Just What the Doctor Ordered for Clippers

January 08, 1992|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The eighth grader, then known only as Glenn Rivers, was wearing a T-shirt with the image of his idol, Julius Erving, on the front when Rick Majerus got hold of him at a summer basketball camp.

Majerus, then an assistant coach at Marquette--and the main reason Rivers later decided to attend that school--brought the youngster from Maywood, Ill., out before the other campers and announced that, in the true spirit of Dr. J, Rivers would dunk.

Except that Rivers was too small to dunk then.

He missed the dunk, but he picked up a nickname. And a contradiction was forged.

These days, as the Clippers' starting point guard, Rivers is known almost exclusively as Doc, but in almost no significant way does his play resemble the flamboyant Erving's. Both may have doctorates in basketballology, but Rivers is normally as much a part of a highlight reel as a jaywalker.

He takes home films to study opponents, especially guards. And three years ago, at the suggestion of Atlanta assistant coach Johnny Davis, he started writing notes after every game and compiling a catalogue on the NBA--what defense worked against a certain shooting guard, what tactic most rattles the point guard. Although he doesn't make many entries anymore, Rivers still refers to his folder often at home. The funny thing is that he is normally disorganized, the person most likely to show up late to social functions.

But pyrotechnics?

Well, the Rock of Gibraltar isn't thrilling, either. But it is solid, a constant in a changing world. The Clippers, and others who know Rivers, see him that way.

"He is a very good athlete," said Miami Coach Kevin Loughery, who was an Atlanta assistant in what was Rivers' last season with the Hawks. "He shoots the ball well. He is a terrific defender. He goes to the basket hard. But he's not flashy. He does the things coaches want all their players to do."

Rivers was turning 30 and was heading into his ninth pro season, but the Clippers so agreed with that sentiment that they traded the ninth pick in last June's draft and a pair of future second-round selections to Atlanta to get him.

They wanted him for his stamina--Rivers had played in at least 76 games four of the previous five seasons, missing only when back problems limited him to 48 in 1989-90--for his stability on the court, for his reputation as a leader in the clubhouse.

And Rivers has responded as the Clippers had hoped he would. He is averaging about 12 points, four assists and a team-high two-plus steals, but many say he has made his biggest impact, along with another veteran newcomer, James Edwards, in the areas of maturity and leadership.

The kicker in the deal is what this has all meant to Rivers.

"This is one of the most refreshing changes in my life," he said the other day. "I needed this change. It gave me new blood in my career. Being around so many young guys is fun. I see myself six years ago, and I see myself and the team with the ability to change something that's been going on 20 years around here."

It wasn't, of course, always about breaking two decades' worth of Laker domination in the Southland. It was about being a lifer in the Eastern Conference from adolescence to Atlanta, about having such a prominent role in his adopted hometown that he stumped for Andrew Young to become mayor and governor of Georgia, that he received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 1990 from the Pro Basketball Writers Assn. of America for his community activities.

"Everybody in the city of Atlanta feels he was a solid person, that he contributed to their finest stretch of basketball during those years and at the same time was the most giving player in the program in his time and efforts within the community," former Hawk Coach Mike Fratello said. "The community of Atlanta understood they lost a good person when Doc moved on."

Rivers did realize last season that a trade was inevitable if the Hawks went through with their rebuilding plan. But the destinations he heard rumored were cities with good teams. He heard a lot about Milwaukee, an ideal site for him because that's where he went to college and because he has family throughout the Lake Michigan area. He heard about his hometown Chicago. He heard about Boston, Golden State and San Antonio.

Instead, he got the frying pan to the forehead, being dealt to a team that hadn't won more than 39% of its games in a season since 1980-81, Rivers' freshman year at Marquette. When Hawk General Manager Pete Babcock called with the news of the trade, Rivers hung up the phone at his in-laws' home in Elm Grove, Wis., sat alone and wondered why this trade had happened.

"It was not anything toward the city of L.A. or the West Coast because that was someplace I had always wanted to live, even if it was only for a short time," he said. "But I want to win a championship. That's really the only goal I have left. I looked at this team as being as talented as any team, but the knowledge of what it takes to win a title was not there.

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