It was gray and blustery last Friday in rural Indiana, and at the intersection of County Road 1 and County Road 30, not far from Goshen, Notre Dame basketball star David Rivers stood silent, looking, trying to remember and trying to forget. The only sound was the wind across the remains of the long-ago harvested corn. Rivers kicked the toe of his basketball shoe at some loose gravel. He said nothing. The silence was deafening.
Finally Rivers spoke. "I thought I was going to die," he said. And his eyes shifted to the roadside ditch, four feet off the pavement, where just 103 days earlier he lay bleeding to death after a horrendous auto accident, a seemingly brutal end to a life that began with little hope of success in a Jersey City housing project. Yet 21 years later Rivers had become one of America's finest college basketball players—his coach, Digger Phelps, saw him as a combination of Spud Webb and Isiah Thomas, two little guys making it big in the NBA—at one of America's finest universities. And it was all ending, in a ditch alongside a lonely road.
But it didn't end. That Rivers, a 6-foot, 180-pound junior, was returning last week to the scene of that awful morning, Aug. 24, for the first time, finally brought the story of this outstanding young athlete full circle. Indiana coach Bob Knight said the other day of Rivers, "Here's a kid who is what's right with college athletics."
Last week, just 15 weeks after the van in which he was riding veered off the road, then rolled, pitching him through the windshield and slashing his abdomen 15 inches, leaving the blood flowing freely, David Rivers was back as starting point guard for Notre Dame.
December 15, 1986
Although the Irish lost narrowly last week to Indiana, then beat Cornell and BYU, the story was not in wins and losses but in Rivers. He was rusty, sure, but he was back—thanks both to innovative and exhaustive rehabilitation and to his own enormous fighting spirit. He was weaving his magic again with his lights-out passing and his verve, and his delight in playing hoops for all 94 feet.
Did we say playing hoops? Good heavens, he was dominating the hoops. He may still be only 80% of his old self, but never mind. Bob Knight hates using a zone even more than he hates sportswriters, yet he used a 2-3 in the Hoosiers' 67-62 win over the Irish in an attempt to subdue Rivers. Although Rivers scored only nine points he was always a factor, zone or no. Afterward someone joked with Phelps: "Hey, since Knight had to use a zone to beat you, does that mean you won?"
In the 60-56 win on Thursday over Cornell, Notre Dame was sluggish, but Rivers put it all together. A perfect example: With 14:58 left in the first half, the righthanded Rivers came down the court with the ball—he always has the ball—and rifled a pass lefthanded across the court that went over, under and through the outstretched hands of various defenders, then at the last moment made a quick 90-degree turn into the hands of the Irish's Sean Connor. Or so it all seemed. Connor scored easily.
Big Red coach Mike Dement mused afterward that "you have to play off of Rivers because if you don't, he'll go right past you. But then what happens is, he pulls up and shoots over you." And that ignores what he might do passing. Indeed, as a freshman Rivers led the Irish in assists (4.2 per game) and in scoring (15.8), a rare combination, then did the same as a sophomore, upping his assists to 4.9 per game and his scoring average to 16.7. Says Rivers of his own talents, "You can have plays and strategy, but the bottom line is reaction."
"He knows what the nine other people are doing on the court like no one I've ever seen," says Phelps. "The game of basketball belongs to him."
In Saturday's 62-46 win over BYU Rivers played 40 minutes, scored 22 points, had 8 assists and 6 rebounds. "Rivers is back," Phelps said. "That's the Rivers we know. He took control of the game when it counted."
The same might be said of Rivers's life before the ghastly accident—he took control when it counted. A child of the ghetto, Rivers separated himself from his friends who were doing everything that could be done with drugs, from overdosing on them to selling them. He gave up friends who had given up on school. "If you dream it, believe it and have faith in it, it's possible," Rivers says.
He was one of 14 children born to Mamie and Willie Joseph Rivers. Willie works two jobs, as a chandelier hanger and an exterminator; Mamie is a hotel maid. David admits it's hard on him to see his mother pushing a cleaning cart in a hotel. NBA dollars will put an end to this in two years, he promises.
On the basketball court, too small to really do much else, Rivers found that passing made the other guys very happy. Shooting free throws was another skill he developed to counteract the height problem. And dribbling, behind his back and between his legs, added another dimension. Soon he was being picked early in playground games.
Along the way one of his brothers was stabbed to death, another killed after being run over by a truck. Hard times. There was not an abundance of food, but the family got by. Yet, Rivers remembers, "Through all the trying times I had so much fun." Says Bob Hurley, his coach at St. Anthony's High in Jersey City, "David had fewer conveniences than most people are used to, but he had more love than most people are used to."
Hurley talked to him about big dreams and long-term goals. And about academics. Rivers listened. "Watch his eyes," says Phelps. "They add 10,000 words to whatever he says." Schoolwork is tough for Rivers at Notre Dame, one of the few institutions that expect the scholar-athlete to be literally that. "I'm not making it with ease," says Rivers, "but I am making it." With C's, barely. And with a lot of tutoring and nurturing and encouragement. But not with gifts.
Academic counselor Mike De Cicco is keeping his fingers crossed for Rivers. "He is a born optimist," says De Cicco. "He's always sure the game can be won at the end. He doesn't understand it doesn't work like that in biology. But athletes are such optimists. They always think their next paper will be publishable."
Phelps is proud of the fact that 57 of his 57 players who completed four years of eligibility at Notre Dame have graduated. There is no reason to think David Rivers will break the streak. Recently, though, when he was late in turning in an English paper his professor was not amused. Rivers's average is currently hovering just below 2.0, the minimum required for a player to be eligible. A semester's failing grade in English could be disastrous.
But then, Rivers believes the game can always be won at the end, and that on the court he can drag his teammates to victory. Phelps says, "All he did last year was get four kids drafted." While those players—Ken Barlow, Tim Kempton. Joe Price and Jimmy Dolan (only Kempton is still on an NBA roster)—certainly had some talent, it is true Rivers enjoyed buffing them up. Says Rivers, "I try to make other players better by my performance." It is just another day in the office for Rivers to drive one direction, look the other and pass in a third. It makes for alert teammates. And happy ones.
How close it came to ending that August morning. Rivers and Barlow were in a van heading back toward the home of Dean Gongwer, a local caterer who employs and puts up a number of Irish players each summer. Barlow was at the wheel. A car pulled out of County Road 30. Barlow hit the brakes, skidded on the pea gravel and ran off the right side of the road. The van lurched out of the weeds, became airborne, spun and crashed. Barlow suffered only a minor gash on his leg. Tests confirmed that neither player had drugs or alcohol in his system. Rivers is insulted that people even considered the possibility. Such are the times.
In a panic, Barlow searched for Rivers. When he found him he said, "You O.K.?"
"No," said Rivers.
"Are you sure you're all right?"
"No, I am not all right."
"David, don't die."
"Don't let me die."
Barlow, now playing in Italy, didn't. He went immediately to a nearby home to phone for an ambulance. Rivers was taken to Elkhart General Hospital, where he lay on an operating table for three hours. Says Dr. Kirby Gross, Rivers's surgeon, "It was a significant laceration." But fortunately—and miraculously—the colon, small intestine and kidneys were spared. When Rivers recalls his thoughts while lying in the ditch, they sound odd. "I was very disappointed," he says. "It was a trifle alarming."
By Sept. 21 Rivers was riding a bike for 15 minutes a day; by the end of that week he had doubled his time. By the next week he was jogging in three-foot-deep water and swimming in the pool at the Athletic and Convocation Center. By Oct. 5 he had begun jogging outside. "For the first time in his life," says basketball trainer Skip Meyer, "David was having to work in order to get to play basketball."
And while he was working out he was working at school. When a visitor called on him the other evening, there Rivers sat in Howard Hall, kept company by his three zebra fish and the music of George Winston's piano coming from a tape deck. Rivers was reading Full Value: Cases in Christian Business Ethics. He insists—yea promises—he will graduate. And, says Rivers, "I want to play in the Olympics. David Rivers, running point guard, USA. What could be greater than that?"