The irony of this Doc Rivers news is that of all the pieces the Boston Celtics could have shipped out as part of a larger rebuilding effort, the coach was the one that didn’t need to go anywhere.
Kevin Garnett? Sure, ship him out — or let him retire, if that’s what he prefers. Gotta get younger.
Paul Pierce? Yeah, deal him too. Or just buy him out for $5 million and save a boatload of cash.
Rajon Rondo? Maybe not ideal, but if you’re looking to start over from scratch, the All-Star point guard’s not untouchable, either.
All the Celtics’ stars were up for discussion. The “Blow it up!” bandwagon has been moving at full speed this June, and when that vehicle gets going, every possibility is raised. Seemingly every fan, from the most casual observer to the steadiest diehard, wants to deal every asset, even if they haven’t fully thought it through. The instinct is “move ’em.” Not doing right by the player? Not getting equal value? Not working with a clear plan for what it means long-term? No worries. Just trade now, think later.
That’s the attitude of a Celtics fan after a series of deep playoff runs punctuated with a pathetic first-round exit. So yeah, everyone wanted everyone gone — with the one exception of Doc Rivers. Doc, we all figured, would be the constant.
The coach signed a five-year contract extension for a cool $35 million in May 2011. We all did the math and figured out that Pierce would be 38 and KG would be 40 by the spring of 2016, so we assumed that the five-year commitment meant Rivers was OK with sticking through this team through a rebuild. Eventually, Pierce and Garnett would be gone, and the coach would become the one enduring face of the franchise. After all, Rivers was slated to complete his 12th year as the Celtics’ head coach, more than Tommy Heinsohn or K.C. Jones or Bill Fitch. Another five-year contract would put him at 17, ahead of Red Auerbach as the longest-tenured head coach in the history of Boston pro sports (depending, of course, on what the man currently at the helm in Foxboro does).
We were ready to accept Rivers as a longtime Celtics icon. It seemed like a healthy marriage. He got along well with Danny Ainge, he knew how to work with the media and the fans in Boston, and he loved his foundation players like sons. Perhaps more important than all that basketball stuff, we later found him to be (arguably) the most beautiful orator in Boston about how the city was to cope with the Marathon bombings of two months ago. Put it all together, and yes, keeping Doc in Boston for the long haul felt right.
Which is why it’s so shocking that we’re here now.
The inclination is to spew all the venom in the world at the treasonous coach. I get that. Doc is a front-runner, a back-stabber, and a bunch of other compound words I’m not allowed to use on this family-oriented site. Sure.
He’s also a man who poured his heart and soul into this job for nine years, and I think we owe him more than a modicum of gratitude.
The thing about Doc is that he’s human, and he treats others as such, too. For all the talk out there today about how the NBA is a league of divas, how everyone in those locker rooms is arrogant and self-absorbed and inaccessible (and some of that talk is true, no doubt), Doc was never like that. He smiled. He laughed. He leveled with you. He opened up and spoke his mind, whether his opinions were positive or not. He treated everyone from the biggest star on the court to the biggest loser in the media scrum with respect.
We owe him that respect right back.
One of the hardest parts of being someone like Doc or Bill Belichick or John Farrell is dealing with the media. You get badgered with a lot of questions. Occasionally they’re smart and insightful. More often, they’re vapid, or irrelevant, or prying into personal matters inappropriately. Doc managed to field them all with grace.
On a basic human level, Doc gets it. We’re all just people doing our jobs. Whether you’re a head coach, or a power forward, or a blogger, or a popcorn vendor, you have a role to play, and everyone should be treated with dignity as they get their work done. Doc did that. It’s to his benefit that he’s already played a great many positions in this league — point guard, head coach, TV talking head, and most recently, player’s father. When you’ve seen the NBA from as many angles as Doc has, you’re able to handle your job like a true professional.
Doc always did his best to see things from others’ perspectives. That being the case, I’m going to try to extend him that same courtesy. What’s this situation like for Doc?
Yes, he signed a five-year deal and quit after year two. That looks bad. But let’s think about why.
First of all, it probably took a couple of years for it to dawn on him just how difficult the rebuilding process would be. Seeing Pierce get old and Garnett get older, watching Ray Allen win a ring in another uniform, sitting helplessly by as two of his best remaining young talents (Rondo and Jared Sullinger) hobbled off with injuries … yeah, that has to be hard on a man, even one as stoic as Rivers. All the while, his stock was continuously rising — in the hierarchy of great NBA coaches, we’d basically reached the point where Gregg Popovich was No. 1 and Rivers was 1A. Was he going to let that elite status wither away, underappreciated on a middling (or worse) team?
Second of all, it’s probably mighty hard to ignore the temptation when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin come calling. A decade ago, Doc never thought he’d be in this position. He’d been fired in Orlando after a 1-10 start. He was lucky just to collect a paycheck as a TV commentator. He got a job with a bad Celtics team, one that wasn’t likely to last more than few years — next time they went 24-58 or whatever, surely he’d be shown the door.
He’d gone from the bottom of the NBA coaching ladder to the point where his phone was blowing up with texts from two of the game’s most glamorous stars. One of them (Paul) wanted Rivers so desperately that he made it a pivotal talking point in negotiations over his own max extension in L.A. Rivers used to be a nobody, and he’d suddenly discovered the power to captivate the entire basketball world — in the middle of one of the best Finals ever, no less. You don’t think that would make you stop and do a double take?
Look, I get that America hates flip-floppers. It cost John Kerry the White House, for chrissakes. People nowadays want you to have an opinion and stick to it. In Rivers’ case, he wasn’t able to stick it out with the Celtics.
But given all the circumstances, and given the nine years of good will he built up during his time here, I think Rivers deserves some forgiveness. Not a “free pass” altogether, to be sure, but a little bit of understanding is fair.
We’ve seen a lot of traitors pass through this town in the last decade or so. Johnny Damon, Adam Vinatieri and the aforementioned Mr. Allen all come to mind. Rivers isn’t quite at that level. Yeah, he left, and yeah, it sucks. But at the same time, we owe him some credit. The man won 416 games and a championship here, and that earns him an ovation on his way out the door.
Doc stuck with the Celtics for nine years through the best of times (2008, when they showered him with Gatorade) and the worst of times (2006 and ’07, when they hit rock bottom and the whole city demanded his firing). Rivers remained unflinchingly strong through everything he endured, good and bad.
We can be strong too.
So long, Doc. We’ll miss you, but we’ll find a way to carry on.