This was not Bill Parcells coming back to Foxborough with the New York Jets.
It was not Johnny Damon stepping into the Fenway batter’s box wearing a Yankees jersey.
It was not Ray Allen coming back to throw daggers at the Celtics while wearing the same uniform as LeBron James.
Doc Rivers returned to the Garden as head coach of the Clippers for the first time Wednesday night. The Clippers beat the Celtics, 96-88. And it was a love-fest. Doc-apalooza.
Boos? It was hard to hear any anger during the resounding ovation Rivers received from the crowd when he first appeared on the parquet floor about two minutes before the conclusion of warm-ups. You would have thought Larry Bird just walked on the court.
It was the same when Doc was formally introduced as “head coach of the Clippers” after the unveiling of Los Angeles’s starting lineup.
Then came the kicker: At the end of the first quarter, the big board overhead featured a beautiful video montage of Rivers’s Celtics tenure while Dierks Bentley’s “Home” blared from the speaker system. We saw Doc back in the day on the Celtics’ bench. We saw Doc with kids at Children’s Hospital. We saw Doc getting doused with orange Gatorade as the Celtics finished off their Game 6 demolition of the Lakers in 2008. Rivers was moved to tears.
Wow. What a reception. Back in May, Terry Francona would have been happy just to have hot water in the visiting manager’s shower at Fenway.
“I’m still emotional,’’ Rivers said after the game. “It was just a really nice day. It’s just such a classy place here. When I walked out — and I’m not used to walking out from that side — I was basically useless for the first 18 minutes of the game.
“It didn’t surprise me. It’s an amazing fan base and I want everything to go well for them . . . This is such a neat place. People don’t get Boston. They don’t understand. It is a special, different place. They cheer for their teams . . . The best decision I ever made was when I decided to come here.’’
Celtics fans — at least the ones who attend games — love Doc. People who cover the Celtics love Doc. Most of the Celtics players love Doc. Celtics owners Wyc Grousbeck, Steve Pagliuca, and Bob Epstein may not be too happy with the way things ended, but they showered Doc with love Wednesday.
And Doc returned the love.
“For nine years, this was my family,’’ Rivers said. “My family never moved here. This was my family . . . I’ve always been an emotional guy. I just hope I can coach the game tonight and get through it. You don’t invest nine years in an organization and town . . . I fell in love with more than the team.’’
Rivers acknowledged that things got sloppy at the end. There was a lot of polite phrasing around it, but the bottom line is that Rivers broke his word and went for a better deal. He was under contract, but he did not want to stick around for the rebuilding of the Celtics. Despite this ending, despite their feelings of betrayal, the Celtics chose to take the classy route for Rivers’s return.
“Doc deserves it,’’ Grousbeck said at halftime. “He is a champion to the core. No hard feelings. I am wearing this [championship] ring because of a number of people, and Doc’s one of them.’’
Beloved by fans and media, Rivers was able to skate out of town without getting slammed. There was no public disgrace. Nobody called him on it. Timing was his friend. While Doc was trying to get out of town, the Bruins were skating into the Stanley Cup Final and the long arm of the law was reaching for Aaron Hernandez. Doc’s exit was submerged by the avalanche of headlines celebrating the Bruins’ magical run and Hernandez’s arrest on murder charges.
Does Rivers wish he’d handled his departure differently. Any regrets?
“Obviously, I didn’t like the way it played out,’’ he said. “I had no voice. I couldn’t play a part in it. I didn’t have a decision in whether I was going to coach or not. Once the Clippers and Celtics were talking, I could not say a word . . . You can portray it any way you want, at the end of the day I felt after nine years, it was time for me to go. It’s just time. There didn’t have to be anything bad about that.’’
He acknowledged, “The whole rebuilding thing would have been very difficult to go through again,’’ and added, “As a coach, you sometimes get to feeling like your voice has been heard. That was my feeling.’’
Rivers is impressed with the Brad Stevens Celtics.
“I’m not surprised they’re playing hard,’’ Rivers said. “They’re a competitive group of guys.’’
He said he’s still watching his former players who are now in New Jersey, but added, “I don’t really care about the Nets. I care about KG [Kevin Garnett] and Paul [Pierce]. I don’t want them to do poorly. I want it to end well for them.’’
Rivers got all teary-eyed at the end of his pregame news conference. Doc was Dick Vermeil. Squared.
“Coming back here, I get to walk under a banner I helped get,” he said, choking up. “This day and a half has been a lot of fun and it’s been emotional.’’
It was never like that with the Tuna. Or Grady Little. Or Dave Lewis. Or M.L. Carr, Bill Fitch, and John McNamara.
Doc is beloved. And he loves you back.