Doc of all Trades
He’s big. Wikipedia says six foot four, 185 pounds. I say: yup. He’s charming. As I enter his glass-enclosed office he bounds toward me. An outstretched hand swallows mine and we are instantly connected, comfortable, copacetic. He’s sincere. Though a boyish grin occupies most of the real estate on his ruddy face, there’s room left over for a set of intense, intelligent eyes.
Sixty seconds with Glenn “Doc” Rivers is all it takes to realize that the man could have been a teacher, a preacher or a therapist. As it turns out he scored all three.
The Los Angeles Clippers acquired Rivers two years ago in a swap that gave the Boston Celtics an unprotected first-round draft pick. In sports valuations, that put him up there with the Hope Diamond—understandable given that he had rebuilt the struggling Celtics from the ground up, recorded over 400 wins, brought home a championship in 2008 and earned another trip to the finals two years later.
With the Clippers fighting for shelf space in Laker-dominated Los Angeles, Coach Rivers unpacked his bags and got to work, digging in with his West Coast players much as he had during his nine seasons with the Celtics. He’s seen as a player’s coach who is at once demanding and businesslike. But ask Rivers to describe his coaching style, and those characterizations take a back seat.
“I’m a big believer in communication,” he said, demonstrating as much as he leaned forward and fixed me with an are-you-listening stare. “I don’t follow a script, because sometimes you have to communicate 15 different ways to get 15 people to understand the message. If there’s a mistake we make as coaches, it’s trying to speak to our players as if they’re one.”
In his 13-year career as a point guard in the NBA, Rivers sported four team logos and had a chance to observe several head coaches at close range. Did his time as a player influence his coaching style today?
“I know what I didn’t like,” he said with a wry smile. “What I liked, and what I try to emulate, was a coach who had as much passion for the game as he wanted to see in his players.
“Pat Riley was the best communicator I played for,” said Rivers. “We would have run through a wall for him because we believed that, at the end of the day, he was in it with us. That was his secret.”
In rebuilding the Celtics, Rivers assembled three pivotal players and developed the rest of the roster around them. The strategy caught on, and coaches from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to the NBA began following suit. Yet, despite the undeniable success of the Big Three construct, Rivers prefers to blend it with a longer-term approach to team building.
“The three-star system comes from a belief in a core, and whether that’s three, four or five guys, a strong core makes fitting the pieces around it that much easier. The core supports the outer, and the outer supports the core.”
But a core is meaningless, says Rivers, unless you focus on getting every player on message. “The whole key is buy-in. And that process can take time.
“It’s very difficult to motivate players on a daily basis. The benefits are short-lived. Becoming a great team is more about where we’re going than where we’re at.”
One Degree of Separation
Rivers knows of what he speaks. Growing up outside Chicago in a working-class neighborhood not accustomed to college aspirations, it would have been easy enough to let things slide. But thanks in part to Rivers’ talent on the court, college became his brass ring. When Marquette University came calling, he grabbed it.
“My mom pushed us toward education,” he said. “When I went to college, I went to graduate. Why do something if you’re not going to finish?”
Drafted by the Atlanta Hawks at the end of his junior year, Rivers vowed to complete his studies, and returned to Marquette after his rookie season.
“I attended back-to-back summer school sessions,” he said. “And because I didn’t have to be there—but I wanted to be there—I became a far better student. I didn’t know how long I was going to play basketball,” he said. “My dad always told me, ‘You can’t sprain your brain.’ ” As luck—which according to Rivers is what happens when opportunity and preparation collide—would have it, basketball provided him with the perfect platform on which to hone his blend of athleticism, passion, smarts and nurturing instincts. For Rivers, the definition of a coach begins and ends with father figure, mentor, therapist and confidante.
“The individuals are more important than the nuts and the bolts,” he said. “Anyone can draw up a play. But how many guys can draw up a play that the players will actually follow? I see all these coaches at basketball camps with their white boards. I tell them: the X’s and O’s only work if the Mo’s and Jo’s follow. You have to give yourself to each player and hope that he gives himself back to you.”
Speaking Up and Out
Like so many men and women of color, Rivers has walked a path paved by those who stood at the crossroads of the struggle for civil rights and racial equality. Both professionally and personally, he has had to choose his words—and his actions—with care. When faced with these challenges, he channels “the only guy on my wall:” Muhammed Ali.
“Athletes by nature don’t take stands,” said Rivers. “It’s safer to be safe. But Ali had this ability to lead. He lost three of his best years as a boxer when we jailed him for draft evasion [during the Vietnam War.] What athlete gives away his prime earning years for a belief?”
Rivers shakes his head at today’s social media-driven conversations. “I call it the invisible speak-up,” he said. “No one sees your face. But you still have to use your voice at the right time. If it’s the right thing to say, you say it.”
Whether he is speaking with his players, his children, his boss or even giving himself a talking-to, Rivers draws on the convictions of his heavyweight idol to deliver the bottom line. “There’s never a right time to do something uncomfortable. You just have to confront it.”
In their first two seasons under Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers broke the franchise record for wins and secured back-to-back division titles. The team’s powerful core and impressive supporting cast have delivered many times over, and most pundits predict that the 2015-16 season will not disappoint. The Clippers no longer need to pick off fans or dream of sharing the stage with those guys down the street.
“People look at us as a serious team now,” said Rivers. “The spotlight comes because we’re a better team today than they are.
“But,” he added, “we want our own fan base and our own community. I say, let the Laker fans stay Laker fans. We’re creating fans, a brand and an identity. There are enough people in L.A. to go around. We can share.”