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bob ryan

Doc Rivers simply had a change of heart

As Celtics coach, Doc Rivers said, “I really didn’t know how much more I had to give.”

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

As Celtics coach, Doc Rivers said, “I really didn’t know how much more I had to give.”

It was bugging me.

I needed to know when and why.

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In May 2011, Doc Rivers had professed eternal allegiance to the Boston Celtics. Far from moving on to a renewed life in broadcasting, and eventually to a coaching life with another franchise, he told the world how he was firming up a long-term commitment to the Celtics. About the only thing he didn’t do was make a formal request to be buried next to Red Auerbach himself.

Now he looks like a guy who took one girl to the prom but was smitten by a prettier girl once he got there and wound up taking the second one home instead. So much for living happily ever after.

“I know,” he said. “But at that time I felt I had to sign that contract. Paul [Pierce] was here and Kevin [Garnett] was here and I didn’t think I could leave. Believe me, at that time, there was no doubt I’d be coaching the Celtics for a while.”

I wondered if there was an incident that forced him to reconsider staying with the Celtics. Nope, he said.

I wondered if there had been a rupture in his relationship with Danny Ainge. Nope, he said.

“Danny’s been great through all this,” he said. “As recently as last Sunday, I was ready to stay. I told Danny, ‘If you can’t get a deal with the Clippers, I can come back.’ ”

I wondered if there had been a problem with ownership? Nope.

“I talked to Wyc [Grousbeck], Irv [Grousbeck], and Pags [Steve Pagliuca]. They were phenomenal.”

I wondered, as did many, if Life With Rajon had anything to do with anything. Nope.

“In the big picture, my overall relationship with him is very good,” Doc explained. “But I will say you don’t know which Rajon Rondo you’re going to get from day to day.”

He’s talking about off the court, not on.

The whole story was complicated. I would go so far as to say this Celtics-Clippers wrangling over compensation for Rivers was both tedious and boring. It was on-again-off-again, and I still don’t know why commissioner David Stern allowed both parties to be so public about the negotiations before reminding everyone that any package deal over and above a specific compensation for Rivers was not permissible according to the collective bargaining agreement.

The commish put the kibosh on it with obvious glee. But that’s part of David’s charm, I’m here to say.

I think Doc is torn, and to some degree will always be torn. He liked it here. He really did enjoy everything about being head coach of the Boston Celtics. He relished living in Boston. He enjoyed his associations with his local coaching peers. He is the first Celtics coach I know of to have had a friendship with the head coach of the hockey team. That alone stamped Doc Rivers as an interesting person.

We all have hanging curveballs permeating every aspect of our life, and if Doc Rivers had a do-over, he might tone down the extent to which he preached the Celtics gospel two years ago. Of course, if an NBA team is willing to pay a coach $7 million a year, then it’s incumbent on him to say something nice about the organization.

But he would look better now if he had been able to frame it as strictly a business deal and not something generated by the heart. Doc allowed himself to get swept up in the moment.

The rah-rah is fine at first, but reality will set in, and after two more years had passed, Doc had a different view of the job. Two more years had been milked out of Pierce and Garnett, and Rondo had become a major star, and his stature in the outside world had grown enormously, but he knew himself, and something was missing.

“I really didn’t know how much more I had to give,” he said.

He really wasn’t sure he wanted to continue coaching. He reached out to both ABC and sister network ESPN, just in case.

A cynic is going to say that there is nothing complicated going on here at all. Doc looked at the situation and he saw a Celtics team facing an uncertain future with Pierce and Garnett heading out the door and Rondo left as the alleged team leader. Weighing that against an opportunity to coach a Clippers squad that won 56 games in 2012-13 and has assets such as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin means it wasn’t a very hard decision.

Come on. Any coach in the league would rather start the 2013-14 season with the Clippers than the Celtics.

Human nature is human nature. It was one thing to be gung-ho two years ago, but Rivers just didn’t feel the same way about the job as time went on. It was getting harder to sell the message. Obligation had begun to supplant desire. Change for change’s sake wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

And while there was no friction between himself and the team president, he did feel that his voice wasn’t being heard to quite the same extent. Danny’s son Austin is in the picture, you see.

That’s another thing. Doc is also the new LA Clippers vice president of basketball operations, or something like that. He gets to push the shopping cart.

Add it all up and a little bit of life was oozing out of him. But now it’s been restored.

“Chris [Mrs. Doc] could see it watching the press conference,” Doc points out. “She said she could see the energy back.”

You know what? Everybody wins. The Clippers get themselves a very good coach. “And I do think Danny is happy to get out from under the contract,” Doc says.

Yes, and Red continues to sleep triumphantly by himself.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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