Not coach. Not even leader.
“He’s had to be the shield for the whole organization,” Barnes said late Saturday night after the Clippers survived both extraordinary distraction and the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the playoffs’ first round. “Covering our butts. Covering everyone else’s butts.”
Let’s understand how a group of players and thus an entire organization brand-new to Rivers in his first year in LA came to feel so comfortable crouching down behind him, willingly going fetal position for a stretch of great confusion and trusting him not to make it emasculating to do so.
It worked because Rivers was such an effective shield, truly serving as an extension of the players when this V. Stiviano was introduced into—and that Donald Sterling was clarified in—our minds. Rivers protected by being connected, having asked the players how they felt and actually listening instead of just assuming how he should speak for them and represent them.
So they held on to him even tighter.
“He really had to deal with it the first couple days,” Blake Griffin said. “We weren’t, really. We as a team decided not to speak on it. He was the guy everybody was looking to.”
But how did Rivers connect so deeply? Why did the players trust he really understood this ridiculous situation and the anger bubbling inside men suddenly feeling like losers right when they had been so ready to win?
It wasn’t just that Rivers is African-American like most of them. It was because he didn’t go into it thinking he would be a shield.
There was no propping himself up. In truth, he did the exact opposite. Behind the scenes, he went into it and dropped his guard all the way.
It’s why after the series was won, and all their peeps on the outside or so many in the media set out to rave about how much adversity the Clippers overcame, they weren’t propping themselves up either.
DeAndre Jordan, without mentioning the specifics of what Rivers shared with them behind those scenes, put it this way:
“This is nothing compared to what he went through.”
Rivers’ wife, Kris, is white. He met her while he was in college at Marquette in 1980. Interracial dating might still be an issue socially today, but minds and doors have flown wide open from how closed they were back then.
1980. For a little perspective, Chris Paul was born in 1985, Griffin in 1989. Whatever pain and anger they were fighting through from looking like fools toiling away for a bigoted basketball owner, they couldn’t imagine the feeling of the future mother of Rivers’ four children having her tires slashed on campus or the racial epithet scrawled on the sidewalk in front of her parents' house, as Rivers shared in a 2001 interview with Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel.
Rivers didn’t let that stop him from marching on the path he chose for his life, yet it’s naive to think that fighting takes nothing out of you. It can even take very real things from you, as in the case of the suspicious San Antonio fire that cost Rivers his most cherished mementos from a 13-year NBA playing career and, far more importantly, the baby pictures, family videos and even the family dog.
“My house has been burned to the ground, animals tortured and burned as well. Along with anything we ever loved, and held treasured, because of the color of my dad’s skin. We lost everything and had to start over.”
If you want to know what Doc took away from that kind of hate, consider that it happened before he even embarked upon this second career that led him to be 2000 NBA Coach of the Year in his very first season with the Orlando Magic, 2008 NBA champion with the Boston Celtics and now the NBA’s highest-paid coach with the Clippers.
(He also received—without some lavish donation in exchange—the Sam Lacy Pioneer Award at the 2013 National Association of Black Journalists convention for career contributions and community impact.)
The San Antonio fire was no different than the racism at Marquette in the basic sense. The hate saddened and enraged Rivers, but it did not deter him.
His son Jeremiah certainly got the message—and tried to share it in the wake of the Sterling controversy.
“One man cannot have the power to make me feel hate towards a group, race, or another persons skin color,” Jeremiah tweeted. “Nor would I allow them to have the power over me to not support the players and coaches that have done nothing wrong.”
In a sense, Doc Rivers had more right to be upset with Sterling than anyone. After all the trouble the Clippers went through to bring Rivers in—the extended negotiations, the senior vice president title, the 2015 first-round pick conveyed to the Celtics in a clear display of how much he was wanted, all the power he received to initiate change upon arrival…and this is how Sterling really feels?!
Rivers, 52, felt like a fool. And after soliciting the players’ feelings, Rivers shared that he felt it too—and how he before had felt even worse. The players, it follows, were dealing with their own firsthand afflictions being dredged back up.
Yes, this is about managing Paul’s sore hamstring and his minutes now and helping him guard Stephen Curry with exactly the right trapping defense. This is about emphasizing in an offseason front-office meeting before the acquisition of J.J. Redick: “We need shooting. In a Game 7, shooting shows up.” This is about that one meeting with DeAndre Jordan in which Rivers gave him a list with names such as Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace and Tyson Chandler, and sold an athletic marvel on a blueprint to become an All-Star and NBA champion.
But this is why coaching, especially with these best-of-the-best players who’ve been told their entire lives that they are the best, is so much about personality management. Great coaches embrace the thorny challenges that arise from real people’s problems rather than shying away from them.
At this level, and in this massive Southern California market, for sure, that means dealing with players, reporters and fans all—and credit Rivers for putting skin in that game. Rivers even met with Clippers company employees at Staples Center to coach them up, appreciating how much the past week’s “side attraction,” as he’ll call it when trying to lighten the load, has been to carry around.
Therein lies the crux of great leadership: empowering people to do more and better, because when they do, the leader’s power swells along with the trust—and that cycle of success just goes on and on.
So guess who was holding the game ball in the Clippers’ victorious locker room Saturday night?
Rivers clutched that new memento under his left arm as he told the players they won because they shared the ball so well and fast in that second half—the very manifestation of all that went into building their trust.
“We needed that! The adversity’s good for us!” Rivers exhorted his team.
And the circle tightened.
That togetherness offers a chance to overcome the fatigue from the “side attraction.”
“I just think every time you go through one of these tests, your team gets closer,” Rivers said. “They start believing and trusting more.”
Remember Rivers’ championship team? The not-so-young, thrown-together 2007-08 Celtics persevered through seven games, seven games and six games just to win the Eastern Conference before going six more against the Lakers. Through a season that began with Rivers also sharing personal strife, the death of his father, the African word ubuntu conveyed the unity that served as the team’s platform.
The message this time, African-Americans or not, is in plain English: “We Are One.” The answers to the tests of the postseason are in those vague spaces between each other as much as in the comb-bound booklets Rivers handed out immediately after Game 7 with the Clippers’ and Oklahoma City Thunder’s logos on the front.
Rivers’ public display of celebration as Game 7 was wrapping up? Don’t make too much of that. It was his happiness and release, sure, but that was the politician side of him that is so savvy at this job—sensing a public moment to rally support and going for it. Someday they’ll throw that footage up on the big screen in some hotel ballroom when Rivers is delivering a motivational speech to a group of business executives, and it will definitely help show how it feels to turn a negative into a positive.
That redemption of something bad for something good is an act of magic we all endeavor to pull off in ways big and small every day of our lives. Often, as we should learn from the Clippers, we need the help of those around us to do it.
The issue itself is right or wrong, black and white, whatever cliche you want to put on it. Sharing it, however, is the key—both in the Clippers’ circle and for us in society.
As Rivers just proved, anytime you bare your soul, it might just end up shielded with support.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.