LONDON – Thirty years ago, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers watched his final shot bounce awry, and the Soviets responded with a frantic, frenzied celebration in the heart of a throbbing Central American arena. Soon, the young American guard stood sobbing in the middle of it all. Between the United States' Moscow Olympics boycott in 1980 and a Los Angeles basketball gold medal in '84, Rivers staggered off the floor at the 1982 world championships, devastated over the defeat.
"We had to stand in line for our medals, and I wanted to throw the thing in the garbage," Rivers said Tuesday morning over breakfast on the city's Canary Wharf.
"Silver [expletive] medal."
After the public-address announcer in Cali, Colombia, summoned Rivers to accept his MVP trophy, 10, perhaps 20, seconds passed, and United States coach Bob Weltlich implored him: "Doc, you have to go get that trophy. YOU HAVE TO GET IT!"
Hours later, Rivers tried to leave the trophy in the hotel lobby as the Americans departed for the airport, only to have some coaches or staff scoop it up and run the award back to him. "Bobby Knight [the '84 Olympic coach] was on the trip," Rivers says, "and I remember him telling me right afterward: 'You're on the Olympic team. Just stay in school, and you're on the team.' "
Rivers has no regrets about leaving Marquette for the NBA draft in the spring of 1983, missing his chance to play with Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Wayman Tisdale in the summer of '84. If Rivers had naively trusted the word of an NBA executive who promised he'd select him in the first round, only to drop into the second, the choice never haunted him. After 13 seasons as an excellent NBA guard, Rivers has used his 13 years since to develop into one of the NBA's elite coaches. He's blended his abilities as a leader and a tactician to create a model owners everywhere keep trying to emulate in hiring.
He's come to London to work in the studio for NBC Sports on Olympic basketball, but his trip's been an excuse to grab a notebook and visit Spain and Brazil and Argentina practices. He has a resumé with USA Basketball, including one job as a gold-medal assistant in the Goodwill Games. USA Basketball will be searching for a national team coach in 2016, and however the structure of Olympic basketball changes, Rivers is an ideal candidate.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich deserves the foremost consideration, but that will never happen with Jerry Colangelo running USA Basketball and Mike Krzyzewski staying on in some kind of emeritus role. It's a shame, because Popovich has a peerless NBA and international coaching resumé. If a mutual distaste with Colangelo won't allow Popovich the opportunity, Rivers deserves close examination.
He's the best coach for the traditional Olympic format of NBA stars, or the proposed under-23 change that could include his son, Austin Rivers. His son, the 10th overall pick of the New Orleans Hornets last month, is part of a late-teen generation of players the Celtics coach has watched grow and develop with Austin. "To represent your country is the absolute best honor," Rivers said, "and if you ever get the opportunity, it would be hard to turn down."
Rivers still gets misty-eyed telling the stories of his national team memories as a player and coach, but does wonder how easily pro coaches who push deep into the NBA playoffs could prepare for a July training camp and Olympic Games. "In some ways, it's easier for Mike [Krzyzewski]," Rivers said. "He has a 30-game schedule."
With Krzyzewski staying a part of the Olympic program, it will be fascinating to see whether he gives his blessing to the hiring of a college coach in 2016. What's more, with the NBA wanting to further control how its players are used, the commissioner's office also will have a say.
Of course, it won't be long until the coaches angling for the job insist that an Olympic gold medal is the most important championship in the world. Rivers will say out loud what most will only say privately out of fear of the public reverberations. The gold medal is a wonderful accomplishment and owns great value, but an Olympic title will never compare with his championship season with the Celtics in 2008 or anything else he ever wins in the NBA.
"I'm as patriotic as anybody, but I would rather win the NBA championship than a gold medal," Rivers said. "But winning a gold medal – and trying to win a gold medal – is a completely different feeling, and there's no feeling like it. But when you're in the NBA it's a yearly process. Think about me: I was 0-13 in my playing career, got close a couple times. It becomes a desperate pursuit to win it. After a few more years as a coach, after nearly 20 years in the league, I finally win. There's no pursuit like that.
"When you try to win the Olympics, you make a team and it's a much shorter pursuit over several weeks. It's still great, but I would guarantee you that Coach K would take the NCAA championships first. The players who say 'I'd take the gold medal' have never won an NBA championship.
"Ask Kobe if he would trade."
So Rivers does his NBC studio work in London, watches the global game, and maybe a call comes about 2016; maybe it doesn't. His Celtics have regenerated themselves for another run at the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, and Rivers spends his summer in part the way most good coaches do: watching tape of his own team, reading, studying, visiting. Now he's going through the playoff series that he wasn't able to watch in the spring. He just finished the Spurs-Thunder Western Conference Final on the flight across the Atlantic.
"You have to earn your respect as a coach, and you have to earn it every year," Rivers said. "I hear some people say now, 'Because you won it, you're a made man.' That's [expletive]. Every year, you have a different team. That group comes back and they want more playing time. One of those guys coming back is in a contract year. It's a completely new team, even if it's the same team, because they have different motives.
"You've got to earn it every year."
For a few fleeting moments on Tuesday morning, though, Rivers did reflect back 30 years and still cursed himself for the final moments of that gold-medal loss to the Soviets. The Soviets were older, far more experienced, but he just remembers the U.S. was down a point and had a chance to beat them in the '82 worlds.
[ Photos: Team USA Basketball's roster for London Olympics ]
Rivers passed to Jon Sundvold – "who was wide open, and I didn't expect him to give it back to me," Rivers said. Still, the ball found its way back to Rivers, and he remembers launching something that felt all convoluted and wrong. "It was an unprepared shot, I wasn't ready to take it," he said. Yes, it bounced off the rim, bounced away, and those FIBA officials gave Doc Rivers something he never wanted in the NBA Finals in 2010, nor the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012: a silver medal.
He never did throw it into the garbage, though.
"I think it's at my mother's house," Rivers said.
Thirty years later, the tears were gone, and he was laughing now. Still hurts, though. From player to coach, Team USA to the Boston Celtics, that part never changes.
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