Former Boston Celtics coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers meets members… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
Doc Rivers was a McDonald's All-American, one of the top recruits in the nation, a budding star bound for Marquette.
None of that made any difference to the phrase on the wall of his high school gym that confronted him each day as he jumped rope before practice.
If you think you're so important to this team, stick your foot in a bucket of water. When you take your foot out, the hole you leave will be how much you'll be missed when you walk out of the door.
It was just another harsh message in a childhood dripping with them.
Rivers' father, Grady, was a police lieutenant in the Chicago suburb of Maywood who threatened to leave his son in jail if the fights he invariably found himself in ever landed him behind bars. His grade school teacher twice wiped out the career ambition he scrawled on the classroom blackboard — "Pro basketball player" — before dispatching him to the principal's office after he wrote it a third time.
You experience enough of this and you quickly become an expert in the art of being blunt.
Of course, Rivers also benefited from plenty of nurturing. The same high school coach whose message told Rivers he was no better than anyone else always made sure he was more than prepared than his opponent, down to the nuances of each play. The same father who promised to leave him in jail bailed him out with the grade school teacher, admonishing her for daring to tell his son what he could not do.
Maybe this convergence of early influences explains in part the duality of Rivers, the new Clippers coach whose gravitational personality sharply contrasts with his ability to tell his players what they don't want to hear but often need to know for their own benefit.
"I think as a player I appreciated it — even if it hurt — when I felt like the coach just told me the truth and stopped sugarcoating it," Rivers said last week during a quiet moment inside the Clippers' training facility in Playa Vista. "And that doesn't mean there's not different ways of saying it at different times, but it always has to be the truth and your heart always has to be in what you say."
The words of his late father still resonate in NBA locker rooms before games. Sayings such as "Trust everybody but cut the cards" and "Finish the race" were staples during Rivers' nine seasons with the Boston Celtics. It was a largely successful run that included a championship in 2008 and another trip to the Finals in 2010 before the Celtics last week allowed the Clippers to assume the final three years of Rivers' contract in exchange for a first-round draft pick.
"Finish the race" could be a particularly useful catchphrase for the Clippers, a franchise that for most of its existence has been a 10-minute-miler trying to win a world-class marathon. The arrival of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul in recent years has nudged the team toward the front of the pack but not past the second round of the playoffs.
"My dad always told me, 'Keep running, keep moving,'" said Rivers, who turns 52 in October, "and you can make a case that's what I'm doing now."
What's up, Doc?
Rivers' new job came with a second title: senior vice president of basketball operations.
Those were the six words that made him willing to forgo the rebuilding efforts the Celtics accelerated Thursday with the proposed trade of veteran stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Brooklyn Nets. Rivers said he coveted the challenge of assembling a roster in tandem with Gary Sacks, the Clippers' vice president of basketball operations.
General managers who get Rivers on the phone don't need to fret about what to call him. He still prefers Doc, the nickname the late Rick Majerus gave the eighth-grade boy when he wore a Julius Erving (a.k.a. Dr. J) T-shirt to a basketball camp.
Rivers, whose given first name was Glenn, initially resisted the nickname before relenting once he signed with Marquette to play for Majerus and Hank Raymonds. He had learned by then that it was always best to defer to his coaches.
"When you were on that court, they were in charge and that was the bottom line," said Grady Rivers Jr., Doc's older brother. "He got that young and it's carried over."
As a coach, Rivers has been the boss since Day One, dispensing barbs that could pierce even the most rugged exteriors.
He openly chided the Celtics' Rajon Rondo early in his career, telling the point guard that his teammates hated playing with him because of his bouts of sullenness and exasperation over their mistakes.
"That's pretty unheard of in this league, to speak to your stars as you speak to the 15th man," said journeyman center Ryan Hollins, who spent part of the 2011-12 season playing for Rivers in Boston and played for the Clippers last season. "If they're out of line, he would speak on that and have it known."
Using the criticism as motivation, Rondo became a more team-oriented presence for the Celtics.