Moments of crisis tend to reveal the true colors of those involved. In the case of Doc Rivers, the chaos surrounding Donald Sterling's racist remarks and subsequent banishment from the NBA by commissioner Adam Silver have shown those of the Los Angeles Clippers' head coach to be red, white and blue.
Of the classic American vintage, sure, but mostly of the Clippers' own variety.
With Sterling out of the picture and team executive Andy Roeser taking on duties in the interim, per Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, Rivers has assumed the role of face and voice of an embattled franchise.
Not that Rivers relishes this opportunity in any way. He's a basketball coach, first and foremost, and, as such, would much rather focus on the task at hand (i.e. beating the Golden State Warriors and advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals) than concern himself with damage control.
"We're going to keep growing and getting away from this, and that's good," Rivers said at his postgame press conference following L.A.'s 113-103 win over the Warriors at Staples Center to take a 3-2 series lead on Tuesday night. "I can't wait to talk about just basketball."
In truth, though, Rivers didn't come to L.A. just for basketball reasons. The Clippers didn't go through the trouble of prying Doc Rivers away from the Boston Celtics just to be their coach. They didn't give up their 2015 first-round pick in exchange just so Rivers could assume a role in the front office as well. They didn't sign Rivers to a five-year, $35 million contract just to placate Chris Paul, who was due to explore free agency last summer.
All of those factors contributed to the franchise's fortunate upgrade from the bumbling Vinny Del Negro to Rivers, one of four active head coaches with a championship on his resume.
More than anything, though, the Clippers needed a leader. They needed someone who could foster a positive atmosphere in the locker room. They needed someone who could mold a roster of talented individuals into a cohesive, competitive whole. They needed someone to stabilize an organization rendered rudderless by former general manager Neal Olshey's swift departure to Portland in the summer of 2012—in which Sterling, in all his repulsiveness, undoubtedly played a pivotal part.
Rivers was certainly fit for the gig. His coaching credentials aside, Rivers is held in high regard around the league. Players love him. Coaches respect him. Media members admire him.
And not by accident, either. Anyone who's spent time around Rivers would agree that he's an affable guy, one who speaks clearly and concisely. He gets along with just about everyone—except, perhaps, for the referees he often berates during games—and might be as deft at handling public relations as he is in motivating his players.
Frankly, that's part of the description of any high-level job in the NBA. At some point, every coach and GM is going to have to answer for a move of his own or respond to a situation that's not his own creation. To that end, Rivers may well be the best in the business.
Rivers, too, seemed to understand early on that turning the Clippers, long the league's laughingstock, into a legitimate basketball powerhouse would be a uniquely challenging undertaking.
Back in July, just days after the C's traded him to the Clippers., Rivers was faced with his first Sterling-related "crisis." According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, Sterling nearly nixed the three-team trade that ultimately sent Eric Bledsoe to the Phoenix Suns and landed J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in L.A. Sterling was none too keen to pay Redick, whom he viewed as a role player, $27 million over four years.
Even less so in light of Redick's whiteness. "He thought it was too much to pay for a white player," an anonymous source told Yahoo! Sports.
Rivers may well have resigned had Sterling followed through in undermining Rivers' authority over personnel decisions. To some extent, though, Rivers probably knew that Sterling could (and would) be more than a thorn in his side even before he agreed to take over. As NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper wrote:
Rivers never wanted to work for Sterling. He wanted to lead the Clippers, in a city he enjoys, with a roster he felt could win a title. He knew he would have to live with the fact that his paychecks would be signed by the same guy who needed to be neutralized. So Doc, aware of some of Sterling’s shortcomings as a human but insisting he didn't know about the racial problems, lowered his standards in the name of a desirable job. He felt he could tolerate Sterling from a distance.
That's all Rivers will have to do from here on out, assuming Sterling's exile from the NBA does, indeed, stick. To that end, Rivers' job description now isn't all that different from what it was when he first arrived.
The biggest difference? Rivers won't have to put any effort into avoiding Sterling. Instead, he can focus on coaching the team through the end of its run and adjusting the roster thereafter, albeit with plenty more PR work in between.
"Let's just be honest. I think this is going to last for a couple more days, and we have to go there now," Rivers added after Game 5. "It's going to be brought up all over again."
Still, better that Rivers not have to tiptoe around the man who's still writing his checks. Rivers' job is difficult enough as is, without the owner's absence casting a pall over the organization.
To be sure, Rivers hasn't been pitch-perfect on every point. He welcomed Sterling's estranged wife, Shelly, to Staples Center for Game 5. "She asked if she could come, which I thought was a very nice gesture," Rivers said, via Yahoo! Sports. "And she just wanted the players to know, she told me to tell them that she loved them. I thought, 'Why not?'"
Well, because Shelly's hands aren't exactly clean of her husband's transgressions. According to the Los Angeles Times' Nathan Fenno, Shelly allegedly made racially insensitive remarks on multiple occasions while posing as a health inspector "in order to gain access to tenants' apartments" in her husband's buildings.
In Rivers' defense, it's not his job to know every last lurid detail of his employer's past, much less that of his employer's spouse. Rather, his charge is to fashion the team into a bona fide title contender.
So far, so good. In Rivers' first season in L.A., the Clippers won a franchise-record 57 games, thanks to the NBA's most efficient offense and a top-10 defense, per Basketball-Reference.com.
With other Western Conference powers (i.e. the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder) seemingly crumbling in the first round of the playoffs, the path to the NBA Finals appears as clear as it ever has for the Clips, whose tortured history has yet to feature even one appearance in a conference finals series.
A scandal of a magnitude on the order of Sterling's would normally leave any team, the Clippers included, buried under its own insurmountable pile of rubble. It'd be too much of a burden for the squad in question to realistically contemplate winning even one playoff series, let alone three or four.
Having a roster full of veterans—including Chris Paul, the head of the National Basketball Players Association—certainly helps the Clippers' cause. But even Paul would readily admit that Rivers has been most responsible for captaining L.A.'s ship through stormy seas.
"We are blessed and fortunate to have a guy like Doc Rivers leading us through this," Paul said, via Yahoo! Sports. "I couldn't imagine having another coach who was there to communicate with us through this and ask us how we feel and not just tell us we're going to do this and we're going to do that. He actually listened to us throughout this entire thing. It was pretty special."
At this point, the Clippers can only hope the fallout from Sterling's ouster doesn't include Rivers' own departure from the team.
"I haven't thought about it," Rivers told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper. "I haven't thought about leaving, staying. The main thing is, honestly, this should not be about me and what I'm doing and want to do. I want to coach. I love coaching. I've enjoyed these guys. Other than that... I don't have an answer because I had given it zero thought as far as that goes. Obviously Adam's decision, if there was going to be one made, makes mine easier."
It's the second half of Rivers' statement on this topic, though, that truly reveals what a credit he is to the Clippers organization.
"I think we're just going to let this whole thing run its course and then we'll all have better clarity," Rivers added. "I'm not in the position, nor do I want to be in the position, where it sounds like I'm threatening anything. I want my players to be comfortable. Honestly. I think that's the most important thing. Let's just see where it goes with them. That's important for me, their comfort."
Because Doc Rivers isn't just a coach or just an executive or just a guy brought in at the behest of one player or another—not anymore, at least. Now, he's the face of the franchise. It's his job to shield his players from the maelstrom over which they have no control and allow them to focus on what they can control: playing basketball.
Which makes Rivers and the work that he's done and will continue to do (for now) all the more crucial to the Clippers' survival among the NBA's best.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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