BOSTON -- He was throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park, posing with Red Auerbach, even visiting a local hospital. As the fans standing around and above him applauded memory after memory, Doc Rivers broke his team's huddle and looked up to see his recent past. The video montage ended with him talking about 'Celtic Pride' amid the championship celebration of 2008 just after Paul Pierce had drenched him in slow-motion with a bucket of orange Gatorade.
THANK YOU DOC!
So read the message on the video screens, and as Rivers battled through a smile and waved to his old fans and friends, it took all of his strength not to cry.
The messiness of Rivers' departure to Los Angeles last summer had created some concern for how he would be received on his homecoming. He left Boston last summer because he could not bear to put himself through an extended rebuild. It was time for him to go, and for Boston, the silver lining turned out to be extraordinary. Within days, the Celtics had acquired one draft pick from the Clippers for Rivers and another three from Brooklyn for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry.
Then came the arrival of Brad Stevens, the rookie coach from Butler University who has made a strong first impression. The warmth of the fans' greeting for Rivers had a lot to do with the success of his teams in Boston, but it also had something to do with the fact that they believe in Stevens already. If they'd felt pessimism for their new coach, then some of them might have been booing Rivers for the mess he left behind; as it was, the fans had no cause to be bitter, as the Celtics have moved on so quickly and promisingly with Stevens.
"Coaches called me and told me not to take that job, do you remember that?" Rivers was saying as he walked down the long locker-room hallway before the game. "Coaches were like, 'You're crazy to take that job. They're not winning, they're not a great organization' -- you heard all this stuff. And then when I leave, it's a great organization, we've had a championship run. It was a magical nine years. It really was."
Even now, his voice was cracking under the weight of what he had here. "Last night I walk into Scampo," he said of the local Italian restaurant, "and there were like 25 guys waiting for me."
Rivers had lived downtown in Boston while his wife and school-age children remained in Orlando, and in their stead, he spoke of Celtics vice president Jeff Twiss and other staffers as if they were family. "I told my team today, 'I'm usually very composed,'" he went on. "I said, 'I'm going to need you tonight because I'm go to (expletive) up.' They started laughing. But it's the truth."
So it was. When he walked onto the court minutes before the anthem, a standing ovation formed spontaneously to welcome him back. "All those guys, the people, they lined up and I was basically useless for the first 18 minutes of the game,'' he said. "I told my coaches I needed halftime far more than the players, and I think they sensed that. You could see at halftime C.P. (Chris Paul) was like, 'We got it. We got it.'"
They had it -- meaning a win -- in no small part because they were able to pair two point guards -- Paul and Darren Collison -- in the backcourt, while Stevens' only option was Jordan Crawford. It speaks to Stevens' early grasp of the NBA game that he has transformed Crawford into the reigning Eastern Conference player of the week. The Clippers' staff had studied their opponents' video coming into this game and lauded the Atlantic-leading Celtics (10-14) for playing hard and running Stevens' sets -- no small achievement for any NBA coach, regardless of experience, and never mind the absence of the kind of talent that had defined the six previous years in Boston.
In the hour before the game, two of Rivers' former players, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, approached him in the hallway. He asked them about their previous reunion Tuesday night in Brooklyn against Garnett and Pierce. "Who talked more s--- last night," he asked, "Kevin or y'all?"
"Actually, we did," Green said.
Rivers is an emotional extrovert, and Stevens' approach to his new job has been more introverted. But the new coach is just as earnest and sincere as his predecessor, and no less likeable. Stevens is pursuing the same ends by different means.
Rivers was 38 when he coached his first NBA game with the Orlando Magic in 1999. Fourteen years later, he was being replaced by the 37-year-old Stevens. "But he had already been coaching in college," said Rivers, laughing. "He's a veteran."
They ran their teams Wednesday from opposite ends of the coaching spectrum. While Stevens guided the Celtics with his arms crossed in self-possession, Rivers drove the Clippers emotionally. "The best decision I ever made was 10 years ago when I decided to come [to Boston]," said Rivers. "That was the best decision I ever made."
Stevens is the next generation. He made the same kind of decision last summer, at a time in his life when it made perfect sense for him to take on the type of long-term rebuilding project that Rivers took on a decade ago. During breaks in the game, Green and his Celtics teammates would say nice things to Rivers; and then the ball went back into play and they chased it hard on behalf of Stevens. It was the best of both worlds.