I feel like a
zombie (deadline writing and a few cold ones in the hospitality suite will do
that to a man) sitting in Ainge's office, but he looks as he always
does—wide-eyed and fresh-scrubbed. A devout Mormon, he avoided the celebratory
champagne the way Californians are avoiding plum tomatoes. I try to match the
mug I saw in 1981 to the one I see now, and after adding a frown line or two,
I'm done. Ainge is a 49-year-old whose Facebook page, if he had one, would earn
approval from the LDS elders. It would highlight his six children and six
grandchildren, his avoidance of profanity, his going to church every Sunday
unless an early tip-off gets in the way.
Family photos are
scattered across his orderly desk, but an image on the wall draws my eye: It is
an autographed shot of Ainge and the other four starters (Larry, Kevin, Chief
and DJ) from the '86 championship team. "I got them all to sign it,"
History is always
the subject for the Boston Celtics. It's always about history.
At a press
conference before Game 4, in which the Celtics would overcome a 24-point
deficit to win 97--91, the biggest comeback in Finals history, Boston coach Doc
Rivers was asked a question about his father, Grady, a Chicago police
lieutenant who had died suddenly last November at age 74. There was a long
silence. "He's just very important in my life," Rivers finally said.
"It's still very difficult for me to talk about because I haven't had a lot
of time, really, to reflect on it." Rivers had told stories about Grady
before, how he would show up at his son's basketball games in his police
uniform and take a seat in the first row. He also coached Doc's childhood
baseball teams, keeping the police scanner on at full volume. There's a
thin-blue-line sensibility about Rivers, too, a no-bull orderliness, even
though he has a delightful sense of humor.
I caught Rivers's
eye as he left the podium. "I bring greetings from the citizens of
Tbilisi," I said.
"Thank you, comrade," he said.
In July 1988 I
covered the Atlanta Hawks on a 13-day, three-game "goodwill tour" of
the Soviet Union that was really a poorly disguised business trip for the NBA
and Turner Broadcasting. The Hawks schlepped from Tbilisi to Vilnius to Moscow,
a trip that still provides conversational fodder two decades later for all who
were on it because it was so bad it was good. Bad food, bad rides on Aeroflot,
bad accommodations, bad organization, bad refereeing, bad basketball. Rivers,
then the Hawks' point guard, and his wife, Kris, were among those who made it
good. A smile Krazy-glued to his face, Rivers shook every hand, slapped every
back, signed every autograph and generally made it seem as if he were having
the time of his life. "I don't know how we would've gotten through this
without Doc," Atlanta coach Mike Fratello would say.
Rivers is one of
numerous former players from the 1970s and '80s who are now head coaches in the
league, just as Ainge is a member of the player-turned-G.M. club. It's one of
the reasons I keep covering the NBA: Its legs keep getting younger, but its
head, like mine, is old. As long as coaches such as the Lakers' Phil Jackson
and the Utah Jazz's Jerry Sloan continue to communicate with their players, and
executives such as Ainge, McHale, the Indiana Pacers' Bird, the Lakers' Mitch
Kupchak and the Detroit Pistons' Joe Dumars stay relevant enough to have their
bosses' ears, I figure there is hope for me.
It is simplistic
to conclude, as many did, that Rivers outcoached Jackson in the series, thus
preventing Jackson from earning his 10th ring and surpassing the total of Red
Auerbach, the Celtics' patriarch, who died in 2006. Outcoached is one of the
most overused words in our sporting lexicon. Good coaching (and bad) manifests
itself over time. Rivers juggled his backup guards (Eddie House, Sam Cassell
and Tony Allen) according to no formula that I could discern, yet got strong
performances out of all of them at one time or another; Jackson, meanwhile, had
no idea what he was going to get from his bench and ultimately got very little.
So is that one guy outcoaching the other?
But there is
this: In six third quarters—the period that some say is the most important,
when a team can build a lead and crush the opposition's spirit or render its
strong first-half effort meaningless—Boston outscored L.A. by an average of 7.2
points. Let's put it this way: In these Finals, the Rivers way was superior to
the Jackson way. Rivers roamed, Jackson sat. Rivers lit a fire under his
players, Jackson asked his to figure it out on their own. Rivers acted
glad-to-be-here, Jackson came across as this-is-my-11th-time-here.