Rivers has overcome firing in Orlando to succeed in Boston
Doc Rivers has turned disappointment with Magic into motivation in Boston
'If you rebuild the Boston Celtics,' Rivers once said, 'you're set for life'
Rivers is in midst of his best coaching job, turning old Celtics into a contender
Glenn "Doc" Rivers is living up to his nickname again. The Boston Celtics coach loves to joke that he's Doc, not a doctor, when you ask him about player injuries. But Doc is quite skilled at making ill teams healthy.
During these NBA playoffs, Rivers is attempting to complete one of his best coaching jobs, squeezing the most he can out of a creaky Big Three, maximizing the strengths of mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo and helping the Celtics lurk as a surprising contender. It figures Doc would be ideal for this challenge. Among Rivers' greatest traits is the ability to survive. He smiles frequently, even amid hardships, revealing pearly replacement teeth because he lost a few as a player. He is not one to be dismissed easily.
I know this because I called for Rivers to be fired nine years ago. It's the only day in my journalism career that I regret. And with Rivers poised to defy detractors yet again, it's time to admit it.
In November 2003, the Orlando Magic fired Rivers after a 1-10 start. One bad stretch and he was done. He had won the NBA Coach of the Year award in his first season and then guided the Magic to three straight playoff appearances despite Grant Hill's notorious ankle problems, but now he was a scapegoat three weeks into his fifth season.
Looking back, the Magic organization was a laughable disaster. John Weisbrod, a former minor league hockey general manager with a Harvard degree and a serious power trip, was the team's chief operating officer and made the decision to fire Rivers. General manager John Gabriel had fallen out of favor and would soon depart. And star guard Tracy McGrady was balking at signing a new contract, feuding with Weisbrod and planning an exit strategy that would come to light at season's end.
Rivers was the first to go because that's what it says to do in the "How To Wreck A Franchise In Seven Months" book. As a former Magic beat writer recently promoted to columnist at The Orlando Sentinel, I let the news junkie in me overtake the critical thinker.
We're bad at humility in this business, but for some reason, I feel like I owe it to Rivers. He's perhaps the most honest and introspective coach I've ever covered. That's why he is able to change and persevere. If you think Rivers made a bold and season-changing decision by moving Kevin Garnett to center earlier this year, consider that he once turned around an extremely limited Magic team by promoting an undersized, skinny 6-foot-9 shooter named Pat Garrity to starting power forward. Garrity couldn't jump over a basketball, but he gave the Magic enough of an edge to make the playoffs by playing cat-and-mouse basketball with bigger, more physical teams.
Nevertheless, sources were indicating nine years ago that Rivers was on the hot seat. The whispers started when the Magic had a 1-4 record, which is hardly enough time to judge a coach who was juggling a roster with eight new players.
Whispering sources can be intoxicating. There's nothing like being in the know, having the scoop. But if you don't question motives, you're being naive. As a 25-year-old trying to prove myself as a columnist, I fell into that trap. The Magic knew I would support the firing if I was kept in the loop.
On Nov. 17, 2003, I wrote a column that carried the headline "From Hot To Hotheaded, Rivers Is About To Lose His Job." Shortly thereafter, Rivers was fired. Even if I hadn't written the column, he was gone. But Rivers shouldn't have been fired -- not that soon, not after doing quite a bit with very little for four seasons -- and while unfair firings happen all the time in professional sports, I didn't have to suggest it without giving it more thought.
I'll never forget running into Rivers several days later at a Monday Night Football game in Tampa. It was the first time I'd seen him since the firing. He nodded and offered a terse, "Sit down."
We had a good conversation. Always professional and engaging, Rivers made his points in a cordial fashion. I told him that I could have handled his final days better and that I should have communicated better with him during the process. Rivers told me to avoid his wife, Kris, who was upset with me. But he was already coming to terms with what happened.
Rivers moved on quickly and redefined his status. His eight-year run in Boston has been tremendous: one championship, two Finals appearances, six playoff berths. Still, getting fired by the Magic cost Rivers plenty of personal happiness. He decided not to move his family to Boston -- why uproot in such a volatile profession? -- and being displaced is a constant struggle for him. He couldn't take short drives to Gainesville, Fla., to watch his daughter, Callie, when she played volleyball at the University of Florida. He missed most of the incredible high school basketball career of his son, Austin, a prep All-America who played at Duke last season and recently declared for the NBA draft. Doc has no remedy for those disappointments.
At least he has achieved professional success, though. When Rivers accepted the Boston job, the Celtics had endured a losing record in nine of the previous 11 seasons. I wondered why Rivers would go to another rebuilding situation after being burned in Orlando.
"If you rebuild the Boston Celtics," he said, "you're set for life."
Here he is now, set for life, seeking eternity.
If the 50-year-old Rivers wins a second championship with the Celtics or even if he leads a successful transition from the Big Three in the coming years, he will be regarded as a great steward of Boston's enviable tradition.
In the past nine years, Rivers has grown. (And I have been careful not to call for a coach's head without complete conviction.) His teams now have the mental toughness and defensive edge that defined his playing career. He often disagreed with Gabriel in Orlando and the lack of synergy hurt the organization. But in Boston he has a solid partnership with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. For the most part, however, Rivers is just a more polished version of the coach who helped the Magic be respectable even though the McGrady/Hill duo never materialized.
The last time I saw Rivers, the Celtics visited Seattle, my new home, during their 2007-2008 championship season. It was the first year of the Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen trio. After consecutive losing seasons, after enduring 18-game losing streak in 2007, Rivers had arrived with a big-time team. Finally, he had a star combination that could do something special. Naturally, I asked him if he still wondered what could have been in Orlando.
"That was a helluva plan," Rivers said. "We could've done something special with a healthy Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. I don't sit around moping about it, but I know it would've worked with those two."
He paused and added, "I'm happy to be here, coaching this team now, though. It helps that the Celtics were patient with us to allow us to put it all together. Know what I mean?"
Jerry Brewer is a columnist for The Seattle Times.