LOS ANGELES – The longer Doc Rivers sat in the posh hotel restaurant awaiting the arrival of owner Donald Sterling, the more determined he became to never work for the Los Angeles Clippers. Thirty minutes passed, and no Sterling. Forty-five minutes, and nothing. To hell with this, Rivers seethed.
"I'm out," Rivers remembers telling himself. "I must not be too important to them."
He climbed out of his chair, marched through the lobby, out the doors and instructed a taxi driver to whisk him away. Back at the table, Clippers management wondered to themselves: Will he ever come back?
Twenty-two years ago, the Atlanta Hawks had traded him to the Clippers and a proposed sit-down with management couldn't have gone worse – if it had gone at all.
"I didn't want to play for them," Rivers told Yahoo Sports. "Their reputation was so bad."
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Over lunch in a Century City restaurant last week, Rivers considered the irony of it all and laughed. For weeks after the trade in 1991, Rivers refused to speak with Clippers president Andy Roeser. He played a season and moved on to the New York Knicks. All these years later, Roeser had come recruiting Rivers again. This time, everything had changed. The franchise's commitment had transformed, and the Clippers were offering Rivers the power, pay, personnel and locale to chase championships.
"The risk is all mine," Rivers, 51, said. "To go to an organization that hasn't won but [two] playoff series in their entire history, in a town where the other team is the best franchise in sports history – that's risk.
"But the opportunity – for me – gives me life. If we get this right, it will be the story of stories to tell. At this point in my life, the gamble is worth it."
From the late summer sunlight to the talent marching into training camp, the Clippers have reinvigorated Rivers. And yet through all the deft work undertaken to upgrade the Clippers' roster this summer, Rivers found himself talking far too much about his departure in Boston, too little about his arrival in Los Angeles.
Those nine seasons with the Celtics were the best of his basketball life, and they're forever embedded within him now. Rivers wished he could've been spared the criticism on his way out, but that was inevitable and he's come to understand that better now.
"It dragged out to a point where there were bound to be hurt feelings," Rivers said. "The truth was this: I really didn't want to go through a rebuild. I've been through three – when I first got to Orlando, and then when Grant Hill went down again. And I had been through one in Boston. It's easy to say, 'Just do it,' but for a coach, it's brutal. Showing up, getting your ass kicked, it's brutal.""It takes a lot out of you. At the end of the year, when we lost, I had full intentions of doing it. The more I kept thinking about it, I knew it wasn't in me again. At least not there again.
"But when the deal first fell apart, I told [Celtics president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge], 'I'll coach again here, I'll come back.' And then, a day later, I told him: I don't know if I can. That's how wishy-washy I was. But when I said that, Danny said, "OK, let me get back to work and get this thing done.'"
The Clippers sent the Celtics a first-round draft pick, and afforded Rivers the VP of basketball operations title and $7 million a year. They let him spend on players, his coaching staff and a front office staff to support him and his GM, Gary Sacks.
"Opportunities like this," Rivers said, "are rare in our league."
Perhaps this will change with time, but he still cannot walk into the Staples Center without thinking about the Celtics' Game 7 loss to the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals. The Celtics lost center Kendrick Perkins in Game 6, and lost the interior to the Lakers in the final minutes of the series. After the final buzzer, Rivers walked out of public's sight, into the tunnel and the lingering image of the coach remains that man doubled over, like someone had kicked him in the stomach.
Two weeks ago, Rivers had dinner with his old assistant coach, Tom Thibodeau, and they talked for an hour about that series, that game, that lost opportunity for a second title.
"We never mentioned the championship that we did win together," Rivers said. "Not once. That locker room scene was the saddest moment of my basketball life."
Those Celtics remain the standard for winning and superstar sacrifice, and they'll be the measure for these Clippers. For Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, they'll be held to the difficult standards of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Paul is a superstar in his prime, but he and Griffin are still trying to perfect a partnership and become a united front.
If Rivers was sure that he was getting his Big Three in Boston at the perfect moments of their careers, he's far from certain where it is that he inherits these Clippers.
"I got them at the right time in Boston," Rivers said. "They were ready to win. They had all their individual success. They had urgency – urgency to win. They knew to fulfill their legacies they had to put a ring on their fingers.
"Here, I don't know yet. The thing a player has to ask himself: Do you want to choose winning over standing out? Dwyane Wade made that choice, and I don't think he gets enough credit. LeBron [James] is clearly the best player in the league, but Wade was an All-Star, had a ring, an MVP in the Finals, and he chose winning over standing out.
"It's a choice every player on every championship team has to do."
In the end, Rivers chose winning too. He chose the sun over the snow, chose tradition of ineptitude over a tradition of success, chose the rare chance to mold and shape a franchise the way that he sees fit. He played one season for the Clippers and couldn't wait to get out of there. Now, he's come back and everything's changed. Now, Rivers has a chance to deliver staying power to a franchise that the old GM, Neil Olshey, had turned from a running joke into a contender.
Outside the restaurant, two businessmen tell Rivers that they're Lakers fans, but they admire the Clippers for hiring him away. "You're what they needed," one says, and Rivers smiled and thanked them and soon squinted his eyes toward a glistening Southern California sun.
"How can you not love this?" he said, holding his arms out wide. "How can you not?"
Twenty-two years later, and his world has turned upside down: The Clippers are committed, and so is Rivers to them. He could be the one to bring it all together here, could be the forever coach of a forever championship story.
There's still a second title left in the Staples Center, and Rivers gets a chance to chase it again. Winning would be the story of stories to tell here, Doc Rivers says, and it starts with him walking back into the gym here.
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