- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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," says Ainge.
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.
Rivers laughed. "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.