Clippers coach has been 'Doc on Demand' during pandemic

Andrew Greif
LA Times
Doc Rivers began coaching in the NBA when he was 38, so he relates to a coach like the Rams' Sean McVay. <span class="copyright">(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)</span>
Doc Rivers began coaching in the NBA when he was 38, so he relates to a coach like the Rams' Sean McVay. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Clippers coach Doc Rivers needed no persuading.

As soon as Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy floated the idea of joining a virtual team meeting as a guest speaker, the lifelong fan of the team since he was an elementary schooler in the Wrigley Field stands watching Gale Sayers was all in.

“Talking to the Bears, the whole team, are you kidding me?” Rivers said. “I was jacked up about that.”

Nagy thought his team would be too. But he wasn’t prepared for the response to Rivers’ May 21 appearance. Rivers spoke to 125 players and coaches for 30 minutes, took questions for 45 more and easily have gone another hour. As the meeting ended, a flood of notifications were still lighting up Nagy’s phone — text messages from players and coaches hoping to submit more questions.

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk to groups and Doc, to me, not to take anything away from anybody else, but that was one of the most powerful hour-and-15-minute discussions that I had selfishly for myself and we had as a team,” Nagy said. “Man, there was so much good stuff in there. A lot of the stuff I don’t even want to tell because I don’t want other people to know.”

Bad news for the Bears on that front: In recent weeks, Rivers’ stories from 13 years as an NBA player and 21 as a coach have been heard by hundreds across the NFL during virtual meetings with the Rams and Indianapolis Colts. At a time when live sports are few and far between, there is more time than ever to talk about them and Rivers has become an in-demand guest speaker by filling some of that void with his expertise.

In late April, he stressed the importance of each Ram accepting and dominating their role while mixing in stories about the drive that fueled Michael Jordan and Kevin Garnett.

“You’re sitting there looking at all the guys and how locked in they were, for a full hour,” coach Sean McVay said afterward. “I don’t think I can keep our guys’ attention for a full hour.”

Last week, after an invitation from Indianapolis coach Frank Reich was relayed through quarterback Philip Rivers, a friend of the Clippers coach, Doc dropped into the Colts’ meeting to stress urgency. If you are a true contender, he implored the Colts, “you better go for it now.”

“Even in a Zoom setting,” Philip Rivers said in an email, “his presence and ability to engage was felt and was awesome.”

Doc Rivers told the Bears about the time he scored 54 points in a high school game, only to have his father push him to play even harder. How in 2007 he arranged a Duck Boat tour of Boston for Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Garnett soon after the Celtics’ superstar trio was formed — an outing he used to have the trio envision traveling the same route the following summer during a championship parade.

Bears players wanted to know about Kawhi Leonard’s leadership style. He’s quiet, Rivers told them, but became more vocal as the season went on.

“He’s got such a great ability in my mind of demonstrating the care for the players but being able to be candid with them,” McVay said.

The rave reviews surprise no one who knows Rivers.

Brendan Suhr watched the same thing happen in 1983 when, as an assistant coach on Atlanta’s staff, he marveled at how the team’s second-round pick from Marquette “came in and filled up the room” as a rookie. Little has apparently changed. At a recent coaching clinic organized by Suhr, Rivers discussed what he’d learned from coaching his son, Austin, with the Clippers. It left Suhr in tears.

Rivers repeated the same story to the Bears and Nagy, a father of four basketball-obsessed sons, couldn’t get enough.

“He's just a very good teacher, and the best teachers make concepts relevant, compelling and applicable,” said Jon Gordon, an author of motivational books including, “The Energy Bus,” a Rivers favorite that sparked their friendship. “If you can help [players] get better, they'll listen to you. If you can't, it might feel like a waste of their time. Bring something that makes them better. That's what Doc does.”

Rivers understands the appeal of his credentials — his 938 career coaching victories are 12th all-time in the NBA — and isn’t ignorant of his reputation as one of the NBA’s best quotes. That doesn’t mean the self-described introvert feels comfortable with the notion that he has become a sideline sage. Instead, he said his success owes largely to two decades of doing exactly what the Rams, Colts and Bears did with him — seeking out others he admires in hopes of gleaning a valuable insight.

“I get information,” he said, “every time I give information.”

When he broke into coaching in 1999 with Orlando, both his playbook and his big-picture philosophies owed largely to basketball coaches such as Pat Riley, Chuck Daly, Larry Brown, Mike Fratello and Bob Hill. Last season, he called Boston coach Brad Stevens multiple times for advice. He’s close with Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, and envies how former Georgetown coach John Thompson can turn a complex idea into an easily taught concept.

But the former political science and history major’s influences also include speeches by John F. Kennedy, Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King Jr. The inspiration to use the South African philosophy of “ubuntu” as Boston’s mantra during its championship season in 2008 came from listening to Stephanie Russell, a vice president for mission and ministry at Marquette, during a lunch break of the university’s board of trustees.

“Once you start coaching then life is your canvas,” Rivers said. “If you ever came to my house, I have a notepad by my bed. I have a notepad by the couch. I have a notepad on the kitchen countertop. I have a notepad in the movie room. I have a notepad in the bathroom, with my red and black pen and my blue paper. I just do because you never know when a thought's going to come to you.

“It's just a job that you can never know enough. There's always a different way.”

He found such different ways while coaching in Boston by cultivating relationships with his peers. At Abe & Louie’s, a Back Bay steakhouse, Rivers would swap notes with Red Sox manager Terry Francona. He’d chat up Bruins coach Claude Julien in his TD Garden office between Celtics-Bruins doubleheaders. He’d watch Patriots training camp as a guest of Bill Belichick.

Learning how football teams with huge rosters and 11 players on the field stay in sync particularly fascinates him. Watching up close as Tom Brady released throws before his receivers broke their routes was a lesson in timing and trust. Soon after Nagy took the Bears job in 2018, Rivers was in touch.

“I just feel like he's trying to find out different ways that other people do it,” Nagy said. “And that's what's so neat about somebody like him. He doesn't have to do that, but he wants to because he wants to keep winning.”

Since moving to Los Angeles in 2013, Rivers hasn't replicated the wide range of coaching relationships he shared with his Boston peers because there are too many teams, Rivers said. But as someone who became an NBA head coach at 38, he’s become particularly fond of, and close with, McVay, the 34-year-old entering his fourth season leading the Rams.

“I'm telling you, he's a gift,” Rivers said. “His ability to say the right thing at the right time, for someone as young as him, to see the big picture, to be selfless, is absolutely amazing. Very few young coaches are as secure as him. Meaning, they lose in the Super Bowl and he took it on himself. ‘Guys, that was my fault, I have to do better.’

“I love him. I love listening to him. he's one of those guys — there's a lot of coaches, but he's one for me — you're walking by the TV and you see him talk and you stop and turn the sound up. Because he's going to say something that you can use later.”

The Colts, Bears and Rams might say the same thing about their guest speaker.

Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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