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This Father's Day is especially poignant for Celtics' Rivers


LOS ANGELES -- Ten seconds became 20 and 20 turned into 30, and still Glenn (Doc) Rivers was stuck, trapped, the emotion catching in his throat, the tears welling up just out of sight in corners of his eyes. Thirty seconds was headed toward 40, and the question still hung unanswered in the air.

"Obviously you and your dad shared a very special relationship throughout your life,'' someone had asked in the days between Games 4 and 5 of the 2008 NBA Finals. "Have you been able to take a moment or two in this run, especially on a Father's Day weekend, to think about [that]?''

The room -- actually one half of a roller-hockey rink turned into a makeshift interview room, outside the health club where the Lakers maintain their practice facility -- was rapidly getting dusty, as they say. Media folks in the audience were feeling the lumps in their throats now. Someone threw Rivers, teetering up there all alone, a lifeline ("We can come back to that, if you want''). It didn't immediately help ...

If this had been the opening scene of a movie or a TV drama, the flashback sequence would begin here. Maybe a montage, a film cutter's masterstroke, showing Rivers at various points in his life but with room in the frame, always, for another man. For Grady Rivers, the dad the Celtics' coach was blessed to have, the dad Doc Rivers keeps striving to be.

Grady Rivers died back in November at age 76, one game into this long and memorable Celtics season. On Sunday at Staples Center -- Father's Day -- his son Glenn will be one victory away from his first championship in 22 years as an NBA player or coach. If the Lakers win to send the best-of-seven series back to Boston, Game 6 will be played Tuesday, on what would have been the elder Rivers' 77th birthday.

No wonder Rivers' tears levee was about to break.

* * *

Thanks to its extended postseason schedule, the NBA annually lays a claim to Father's Day, crowding in with baseball, golf, funny Hallmark cards, neckties, sports books and nifty new power tools. It's a natural, given the tradition of dads and sons shooting hoops in the driveway or at the playground, second or third on guys' wistful nostalgia lists to "having a catch," as Ray Kinsella put it in Field of Dreams, and maybe tossing a football as the crisp autumn leaves fall. The day a kid beats the old man in a game of one-on-one gets seared into both of their memories as deeply as any birthday, graduation or first set of wheels.

The NBA gives Father's Day a twist or two, due to circumstances largely beyond its control. A few years ago, the Indianapolis Star found that eight of the 12 U.S.-born players on the All-NBA first, second or third teams came from single-parent homes, generally headed by their mothers. In 1995, according to a story in the Toronto Star, only seven of 30 All-Star-caliber players had been raised with their fathers present. Demographics were cited by both papers, noting that about 80 percent of NBA players were black and -- given statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2004 -- that black children were nearly three times as likely as white to grow up without fathers.

"Unfortunately a lot of our players are fatherless,'' Rivers told the Boston Globe recently. "It sometimes hinders coaching because they don't trust a male figure in their life. It's just that deep at times. It just takes us a little bit to get through that.''

Around the bend on the circle of life, there was the sad inspiration for a controversial Sports Illustrated story in May 1998. Titled, "Where's Daddy?'' it reported a disturbing number of out-of-wedlock children fathered -- biologically, at least -- by pro athletes, particularly NBA players. For a while after that, you could hardly mention Father's Day without someone cracking a Shawn Kemp joke.

So that adds a layer or two of poignancy to some of the Father's Day threads running through this year's Finals. From actual birth fathers to a wide array of father figures, there are angles and tidbits from both halves of the court.

There is, for instance, Celtics forward Leon Powe, who didn't see his father from age 2 until he was 17 and living in a foster home; in between, Powe helped his mother, Connie, raise five siblings in and around Oakland, Calif. -- until she died while he was in high school. Powe eventually caught a break, and a father figure, when probation counselor Bernard Ward became the player's legal guardian.

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Boston's Paul Pierce never knew his father, navigating the streets and gangs in and around Inglewood, Calif., with only his mom, Loren, and a couple of older brothers to steer him. They got help from a man named Scott Collins, an Inglewood detective who oversaw a youth basketball league.

For the Lakers, forward Lamar Odom found a father figure in his high school coach, Jerry DeGregorio. Guard Jordan Farmar is the son of a minor-league baseball player, Damon Farmar, but credits his Jewish stepdad, Yehuda Kolani, for raising him to be disciplined and mentally strong. Forward Luke Walton's dad, Bill, is the big guy over there beaming and limping, thrilled at his son's championship opportunity and thrilled just to be back, himself, from a grueling ordeal of back pain and rehab.

Then there was this: To make Father's Day really special, the folks at StubHub, an online ticket broker, on Saturday evening had someone offering a pair of courtside seats near the Lakers' bench for a price of $54,055. Each.

That sure could make the old man feel like a million bucks. Or $891,890, if he ends up paying.

No one asked Phil Jackson about his dad -- Charles Jackson died in 1978, a lumberjack-turned-Pentecostal minister who raised Jackson and his three siblings in Montana and North Dakota in a heavily religious household. But years ago, early in his Lakers' tenure, he recalled a wooden doll with an outsized head and tiny feet that stood on his father's desk.

"It was a little guy with a great big head and little teeny shoes,'' Jackson told the Los Angeles Daily News back in 2000. "And the guy is saying, 'The bigger your head gets, the easier your shoes are to fill.' ... My father's demeanor was that way -- he was a leader but he always put himself in the group rather than in front of the group.''

* * *

Grady Rivers used to plant himself front and center at his son Glenn's Proviso East High School basketball games in Maywood, Ill., just west of Chicago. Back in their Little League days, when Grady would coach, he had to pull his squad car close and turn up the radio loud so he could hear any urgent dispatcher calls. But by those high school days, the patrolman had moved up the chain of command and, as lieutenant, made out the precinct schedule to fit the games.

There was no controlling the schedule, though, this season and postseason. Grady had been a touchstone, a source of motivation, for his son during the Celtics' struggles in 2006-07, all those tough-minded lessons from cop/dad keeping him on task through 18 consecutive defeats and 58 overall.

This year, he would have seen Glenn's tenacity and hard work pay off, earning his boy the chance to join Jackson, Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich as the NBA's only active coaches with championship rings. Except that Grady Rivers got the ultimate dispatcher's call.

The sweet, awkward silence that had descended on the big, otherwise boisterous room Friday was pushing toward a minute when somebody else offered the Celtics coach another way out. It was a question about Red Auerbach's hoary tradition of lighting up victory cigars, and whether Rivers planned to tote a stogie in his jacket pocket now just in case.

At which point, everyone laughed. And exhaled. Still, there was unfinished business here.

"To go back to my dad, he's just very important in my life,'' Rivers said. "It's still very difficult for me to talk about because I haven't had a lot of time, really, to reflect on it. You know, it happened during the season unexpectedly. It's very difficult. But I do think about it. I think about it a lot.''

Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005. His new book, The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: Minnesota Twins, can be ordered here.