It was gray and blustery last Friday in rural Indiana, and at the intersection of County Road 1 and County Road 30, not far from Goshen, Notre Dame basketball star David Rivers stood silent, looking, trying to remember and trying to forget. The only sound was the wind across the remains of the long-ago harvested corn. Rivers kicked the toe of his basketball shoe at some loose gravel. He said nothing. The silence was deafening.
Finally Rivers spoke. "I thought I was going to die," he said. And his eyes shifted to the roadside ditch, four feet off the pavement, where just 103 days earlier he lay bleeding to death after a horrendous auto accident, a seemingly brutal end to a life that began with little hope of success in a Jersey City housing project. Yet 21 years later Rivers had become one of America's finest college basketball players—his coach, Digger Phelps, saw him as a combination of Spud Webb and Isiah Thomas, two little guys making it big in the NBA—at one of America's finest universities. And it was all ending, in a ditch alongside a lonely road.
But it didn't end. That Rivers, a 6-foot, 180-pound junior, was returning last week to the scene of that awful morning, Aug. 24, for the first time, finally brought the story of this outstanding young athlete full circle. Indiana coach Bob Knight said the other day of Rivers, "Here's a kid who is what's right with college athletics."
Last week, just 15 weeks after the van in which he was riding veered off the road, then rolled, pitching him through the windshield and slashing his abdomen 15 inches, leaving the blood flowing freely, David Rivers was back as starting point guard for Notre Dame.
Although the Irish lost narrowly last week to Indiana, then beat Cornell and BYU, the story was not in wins and losses but in Rivers. He was rusty, sure, but he was back—thanks both to innovative and exhaustive rehabilitation and to his own enormous fighting spirit. He was weaving his magic again with his lights-out passing and his verve, and his delight in playing hoops for all 94 feet.
Did we say playing hoops? Good heavens, he was dominating the hoops. He may still be only 80% of his old self, but never mind. Bob Knight hates using a zone even more than he hates sportswriters, yet he used a 2-3 in the Hoosiers' 67-62 win over the Irish in an attempt to subdue Rivers. Although Rivers scored only nine points he was always a factor, zone or no. Afterward someone joked with Phelps: "Hey, since Knight had to use a zone to beat you, does that mean you won?"
In the 60-56 win on Thursday over Cornell, Notre Dame was sluggish, but Rivers put it all together. A perfect example: With 14:58 left in the first half, the righthanded Rivers came down the court with the ball—he always has the ball—and rifled a pass lefthanded across the court that went over, under and through the outstretched hands of various defenders, then at the last moment made a quick 90-degree turn into the hands of the Irish's Sean Connor. Or so it all seemed. Connor scored easily.
Big Red coach Mike Dement mused afterward that "you have to play off of Rivers because if you don't, he'll go right past you. But then what happens is, he pulls up and shoots over you." And that ignores what he might do passing. Indeed, as a freshman Rivers led the Irish in assists (4.2 per game) and in scoring (15.8), a rare combination, then did the same as a sophomore, upping his assists to 4.9 per game and his scoring average to 16.7. Says Rivers of his own talents, "You can have plays and strategy, but the bottom line is reaction."
"He knows what the nine other people are doing on the court like no one I've ever seen," says Phelps. "The game of basketball belongs to him."
In Saturday's 62-46 win over BYU Rivers played 40 minutes, scored 22 points, had 8 assists and 6 rebounds. "Rivers is back," Phelps said. "That's the Rivers we know. He took control of the game when it counted."