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For Doc Rivers, game takes a back seat to life

Celtics coach Doc Rivers played for Rick Majerus, seen in this 2007 photo, and remained close to him.

Jeff Roberson/AP/file

Celtics coach Doc Rivers played for Rick Majerus, seen in this 2007 photo, and remained close to him.

Sunday was a welcome off day for Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who had few words for reporters Saturday night after receiving news of the death of his former coach and close friend Rick Majerus. It wasn’t lost on Rivers that he was in Milwaukee, where his retired number and photo hang from the rafters of the Bradley Center after three successful seasons at Marquette University.

Rivers has a special bond to Milwaukee, and it was also where he became close to Majerus, who was an assistant to head coach Hank Raymonds at Marquette.

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Rivers knew before tipoff Saturday night against the Bucks that Majerus was near death and he appeared emotional at tipoff when stories began surfacing that Majerus had died. In Milwaukee, obviously, this story carried special meaning. Majerus was beloved for his years at Marquette and there isn’t a time here when Rivers isn’t asked about the state of Marquette basketball during a pregame interview.

The coaching fraternity is very close in basketball. Men and women switch jobs so frequently and take so many steps toward success that relationships sometimes last a lifetime. Rivers, who is popular with players, is proud of his place among coaches.

He realizes he is not easy to play for or coach with. But there is a deep sense of pride that he, like Gregg Popovich, Larry Brown, and even Don Nelson, is developing a coaching tree with friend Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and former assistant Lawrence Frank in Detroit.

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On the night before Wednesday’s nightmarish Celtics loss to Brooklyn, 24 hours before Rajon Rondo carried out his best Sugar Ray Leonard impression, and before Rivers called his team soft, he had dinner with Nets coach Avery Johnson, whom he played with in San Antonio.

He often jokes about dinners with opposing coaches, especially Thibodeau and how he is still waiting for the Bulls coach to pick up his first tab at one of their favorite steakhouses. It’s all in fun. Rivers is a mentor to many young coaches and others have mentored Rivers, including Majerus, who was 13 years older.

Rivers was called “Doc” by Majerus because Rivers once donned a Julius Erving T-shirt and the moniker has defined Rivers since — to the point that many of his young players likely don’t know his real name is Glenn.

So when he was asked about Majerus after the 91-88 loss to the Bucks, Rivers had little to say in criticism of his team and nearly broke down. When asked whether it was difficult to coach Saturday night, when he knew his friend was dying, he had no words.

It was excruciating to coach, especially in the same arena where Marquette’s history is stored, where Al McGuire’s large photo hangs over the court. Rivers cherishes his Marquette days, and jokes with younger players that he played where Dwyane Wade did, a place he considers a second home.

After the game, Rivers reflected on his years in Milwaukee, being named “Doc” by a portly, kind, and jovial man who maintained his sense of humor through a series of health issues.

Rivers has lost coaching peers and even former teammates. There is a reason the basketball fraternity is so close, because there is the stark reality that while the game will last, we don’t. And regardless of how prepared Rivers was for the death of Majerus, who left his job at St. Louis University in August because of heart issues, it doesn’t make the ending any easier.

And in front of the camera and reporters who know Rivers well, in the place he called home for three college seasons, he broke down. For one night the game took a back seat to life. Rivers had not one word of disdain for his players despite their blowing a 17-point lead.

Basketball will be important tomorrow. The relationships that form because of basketball are more meaningful and significant. Memories of Majerus brought Doc Rivers back to memories of when he was just Glenn, and he couldn’t overcome his emotions, not this time.

Regular Celtics business was temporarily pushed aside, as it should have been.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.
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