LOS ANGELES — It was about 35 years ago that I got my first look at Doc Rivers. In the newspaper stories about this star high school basketball player at Proviso East in suburban Chicago, he was identified as Glenn Rivers.
I was challenged to find him before I knew who or what I was looking for.
I was a young newspaperman. An even younger assistant coach at Marquette University, Rick Majerus, demanded I hop in the car with him to go see something special. I said no four times and then he threatened to sit on me.
Off we went, arriving at one of those summer prep basketball camps. It was a huge gym, seven or eight games going on at once, and Majerus told me I had five minutes to watch and point out the best player.
Majerus never understood. I knew basketball as a reporter does, which is pretty much on the surface. Majerus knew it like Webster knew dictionaries. He lived it, breathed it, dissected it and soon became one of the acknowledged great minds ever to coach it. He could never understand my lack of passion for the pick and re-pick.
To humor him, with no expectation of giving him the right answer, I went up a couple of rows into the stands and surveyed all. There he was. A man among boys. Quicker, more fluid, more aware, more talented.
Glenn (soon-to-become Doc) Rivers.
Even a nitwit like me could see it. I pointed to Rivers and Majerus smiled. I had validated his talent judgment, which, in retrospect, was as meaningful as Dennis Rodman opining on splitting the atom.
Soon, during a break, Majerus took me to meet Rivers, whom he was obviously recruiting for Marquette. There were others around too, and Majerus seemed to seize on a Julius Erving cap or T-shirt Rivers was wearing — I can’t remember which — and started calling him “Doc.”
To this day, Rivers is convinced Majerus just forgot his name at that moment.
“He never remembered anybody’s name,” Rivers says now.
Ah, but had Rivers’ parents named him Double Post, or Screen Out on the Boards, Majerus would have remembered.
Rivers went to Marquette and I headed to California and the Los Angeles Times. But I always kept track of him because of that day in the gym with Majerus. Rivers became a star at Marquette. He also finished his degree work despite leaving for the NBA after his junior year. Most say they are going to do that and don’t. Rivers did.
He became an NBA coach in Orlando, and I took note. Same when his Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers for the NBA title and Paul Pierce poured Gatorade on him. That seemed a special coach-player bond unusual in the long NBA grind. I had trouble conjuring up an image of Kobe pouring Gatorade on Phil.
Then Rivers came to L.A. And though I thought, and wrote, that Vinny Del Negro got a raw deal, I could readily see that Rivers was special.
But what has happened now is off the charts.
Rivers is in a city where we worshiped Phil Jackson and loved Tommy Lasorda and doted on the quiet success of Walter Alston and revered John Wooden and witnessed the managerial and leadership greatness of Pat Riley and Bill Sharman and Jerry West. In L.A., we know our heroes and they become so by exceeding the norm. The ultimate measuring stick, of course, is Vin Scully.
Now, suddenly, we also have Glenn (Doc) Rivers.
Has anybody in our city’s sports history been tossed into a hurricane this wild and emerged unmussed? The way Rivers is handling the Donald Sterling mess is not only unprecedented, but textbook.
Big companies hire big crisis-management firms, at big prices, to handle their public relations disasters. Rivers handled this one mostly by himself and mostly by the seat of his pants. In his spare time, he was also coaching his Clippers through a playoff series against one of the more difficult first-round opponents imaginable.
Most of his peers would have played the “I just coach basketball” card. Rivers has not. He has communicated. He has looked people in the eye. He has been patient and genuine with his responses. He has led. He has put himself out there.
Leadership is one of those intangibles. You can’t get your hands on it, but you know when somebody has it.
Rivers has it.
Without him, the Clippers were a boat with no oars. With him, they have had a motor. When Rivers said he didn’t know what Sterling could say to him to make him coach here next season, it was the perfect response. When he learned of the need for marketing and administrative personnel from the Clippers to hear something from somebody, he made himself the somebody and it was the perfect reaction.
He has a sense of humor. He is properly self-deprecating. He is not afraid to say, “I don’t know,” and he is not afraid to say, “I’m not going to tell you because it is none of your business.”
Future winning and losing can further define him. But his handling of all things Sterling has already done that.
Los Angeles is a city that embraces its special people in sports, but also expects a high level of achievement from them before allowing final graduation. Rivers just skipped three grades.
Majerus, were he still alive, would be proud to see all this happening. I know I am. It’s one of those “I knew him back when” things.
It’s a long way from the gyms of Proviso East to the navigation of the Donald Sterling minefields. Rivers has maneuvered through with nary a scratch.
Thanks to that, the Los Angeles sports scene is a richer place.