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Rivers' success began with a father's lesson

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Hank Raymonds can count on the call every week, the old Marquette coach still grateful that Glenn Rivers takes the time to reach him in Milwaukee. Through the years, Raymonds has had a rule on reaching out to his ballplayers: Call them when times are tough.

"They don't need help when things are going well," Raymonds said.

Raymonds recruited Glenn Rivers out of Chicago, the son of a police sergeant. Grady Rivers didn't need his son's character molded in college. He had done the job himself.

"Teach him to play defense," the father said.

Grady Rivers had been his son's first coach, a man who kept his squad car close to the ball field so that he could hear a distress call when tossing batting practice in Maywood, Ill. He grew up in difficult racial times just outside Chicago, and his father walked the line between a proud cop and realistic black man. When the police inevitably pulled you over, don't come with an attitude. And don't ever make a foolish move.

Don't ever give them a reason, Grady warned Glenn.

"His dad made him toe the line," Raymonds said by phone recently. "There was a young man who never wondered about right and wrong, who had always done the right thing for as long as I've known him."

Raymonds has been a father figure, but Glenn Rivers never needed a substitute for Grady Alexander Rivers. Only now, perhaps Rivers finds some solace in that sage old wisdom of his father's generation. When Boston desperately wanted to run him out of town a year ago, his father was one of those voices delivering him balance and perspective. Raymonds thinks about that when Rivers calls, but he understands: As much as Doc Rivers loves his old coach, there had been just one bigger-than-life figure in his life: His old man.

As the Celtics reach the cusp of an NBA championship with Game 5 on Sunday, the irony is too painful to miss: On Father's Day, with Grady's funeral just seven raw months ago, Glenn Rivers has a chance to be a champion. When I asked Rivers about his father on Friday, he was quickly overcome with teary eyes and a quivering lip. For a half minute, he tried nobly to gather himself on the interview podium.

What Doc Rivers wouldn't give for one more Father's Day, for a championship celebration with the man responsible for instilling the resolve and resiliency in him through a life with its share of persecution and pain. As much as anyone, Grady never let his son carry the bitterness with him, never let that sunny disposition of Doc's become sullied with cynicism.

"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 to reflect on it. It happened during the season unexpectedly. It's very, very difficult. But I do think about it.

"I think about it a lot."

He thinks about it all with Grady Rivers. He thinks about a father who was always there when so many of young son's teammates and friends were without one. He thinks about a father who was there when his son and future daughter-in-law, Kris, had their tires slashed and epithets were scribbled on sidewalks to protest a young black man dating a white woman on campus. He thinks about a father there when his son, wife and children had their home burned to the ground in San Antonio in an arson that they still believe was racially motivated. He thinks about a father who was on the telephone throughout a 24-victory season a year ago, when Grady was always there to tell him that winning and losing was never the measure of the man.

Rivers has had his finest hour with these Celtics, a franchise that stood with him through a disastrous season when people were calling loudly for his firing. From ownership to GM Danny Ainge, the Celtics wanted Rivers to succeed badly in Boston. He is the nice guy everyone wants to see finish first. There probably isn't a more popular, more likable figure in the league.

"My partners and I believe we should stay with Doc because he had not been given a team that was good enough to succeed on the court," Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck said. "What he had been given was a collection of young players that he had been asked to 'coach up' into valuable emerging NBA players. And that's exactly what he did.

"But he's unquestionably a leader, someone who has the players' respect. When he talks, they listen."

Rivers cuts a commanding presence, a good offensive mind and motivator, who is secure enough to turn his defense over to an assistant coach, Tom Thibodeau. Together, they turned the Celtics into the NBA's best, turned Kevin Garnett into the league's Defensive Player of the Year, and guided this team within one victory away from a championship. For the validation that has come for Rivers this year, several league sources believe he has contemplated the idea of leaving coaching when the season's over.

For reasons people should've understood after that family trauma in San Antonio, he's never pushed his wife, Kris, and kids to uproot from a good life in Orlando and live with him full-time in Boston. He has been willing to withstand the criticism of using off days to travel back to Florida to see his wife and kids, or perhaps visit a Big East arena to watch his son, Jeremiah, play for Georgetown.

Now, Austin, his 15-year-old, is one of the best high school players in the nation and those who know Rivers well understand that his heart tugs at him, that his commitment to be there the way that his own father had been has created an understandable push and pull within him. Once Rivers gets past the emotion of a long season, perhaps the perspective of stepping back will make it easier to stay on the sideline.

Even so, one Celtics executive even told a peer in a rival front office that he wouldn't be surprised at all if Rivers walked away when the season was over, whether or not the Celtics had won the title. Rivers says he has no intentions of leaving, but when asked about Rivers' future with the Celtics, a cheery Grousbeck turned sullen and closed, insisting that he would not speak about contract matters.

Nevertheless, Hank Raymonds has never heard a word about it and doubts that Rivers could walk away from the team of his life. From Milwaukee, Raymonds watches the Celtics' games and marvels over the way Rivers molded his team into a reflection of his own toughness and tenacity.

"He has a tremendous rapport with his players," Raymonds said. "They really respond to him. I watch the games, and I see it from here. But that's Glenn. That's the gift he's always had with people.

"I know this: His family background prepared him for all of this. Glenn has class, always did."

The old coach sounds like a proud father with the Celtics coach and assuredly he'll get one of those first phone calls should the Celtics win this championship. Still, it's been a long, hard season for Rivers and he's never had time to stop and mourn the loss that made all of this possible for him, all of it worthwhile.

No, the words still don't come easy on Grady Alexander Rivers, but Doc Rivers thinks about him all the time. Maybe Father's Day ends this season, ends this lifelong chase for a championship, and a son can finally go home and take the time to mourn his father's passing.

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