It’s been perhaps the most tumultuous week of Doc Rivers’s coaching career, more so than any as the Celtics suffered their 18 consecutive losses in 2006-07, more so than any time when he was on the hot seat with the Orlando Magic.
Rivers’s tenure in Los Angeles was supposed to be all about basketball, winning basketball. That’s why he left the Celtics and their rebuilding project to come to the sunny skies of Los Angeles and their spanking new practice facility. It was an organization seeking to completely revive its downtrodden image led by a mercurial and notoriously cheap owner who finally decided to open his pockets.
Although as he does not want to admit it, Rivers felt betrayed by the racist comments of owner Donald Sterling, who on Tuesday was banned for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million. The league is moving forward to foster the sale of the club, but Sterling is expected to fight it.
Although Rivers knew Sterling didn’t like to pay high prices for coaches, especially those who had been fired or released from their contracts, he didn’t know the owner held racist sentiments, especially since Rivers was the fourth full-time African-American coach since Sterling purchased the former Buffalo Braves in 1981. When he negotiated a potential buyout to his liking, Rivers took over total control of the organization. He orchestrated press conferences. He assigned responsibilities to team employees. He was in full charge of roster decisions, such as the signing of Stephen Jackson, Glen Davis, and Hedo Turkoglu.
Rivers held the freedom he desired and never truly had in Boston. His bizarre owner allowed him that. Rivers felt revived and refreshed because he was now running his own organization, one with a bright future and situated closer to two of his four children, who reside in Southern California.
The Clippers’ job had been working out until April 26, when the Sterling tapes were revealed and Rivers felt not only sympathy for his players, many of whom were exposed to overt racism for the first time, but astonishment and anger because he was apparently buoyed by Sterling to make one of the more difficult decisions of his life.
“Listen, whenever you hear something like that, it catches you off guard,” Rivers said. “No matter if your eyes are open or not. We’ve all heard the rumors, more about the [contract] dealings than the racism, if you want to be honest. You know how long it took me to figure out what I wanted to do — one was because of that ‘stuff’ but on the other end, being here up until this point, I’ve been allowed to do whatever I needed to do to help the team win. They’ve been very supportive. They’ve allowed me to work.
“So you kind of felt like, ‘Wow this is good. Things have really changed as an organization.’ And it still has. Things have changed here in a good way. But those comments happened and that’s what brought our focus back on that, so it caught us all off guard for sure.
Rivers decided to speak for the team, shielding his players from the media onslaught to concentrate on their Western Conference first-round playoff series with Golden State. Rivers became the voice of reason for the organization, attempting damage control while not allowing Sterling any space for remorse. He refused to speak with the owner.
“I’m really not trying to be the face of this franchise,” he said. “I want to do what’s best for this franchise and try to get this franchise to become a winning franchise but I think the players should always be the face of it, in my opinion. If my voice is part of the franchise, that’s fine but I don’t want it to be my face. We have so many distractions here going on as a group and my focus is completely on trying to figure out a way of eliminating the distractions.
“It just felt like it kept coming. My policy is I try not to read anything or see anything, if there’s a story about me, our team, or anybody on TV, I tend to turn. I try to remain clutter-free. Well, in this case, that was virtually impossible. There was no getting away from it. We needed to deal with it and handle it.”
There are a couple of factors that stirred emotion in Rivers. In 1997, following his playing career, arsonists burned down his house in what was believed to be a racially motivated act. None of his family members were home. Rivers has also expressed disappointment at how disconnected many current players are about the racial journeys of their forefathers.
When Sterling’s statements became public, Rivers, like he did in 1997, had to explain the perils and damage of racism to those who were perhaps unaware.
“Whenever something in the racism area comes up, when it’s close to anybody with us family-wise, it always goes back to that with [my kids],” he said. “They were kids when that happened. They’re very emotional about this stuff. The subject is personal for them.”
As for his players, Rivers understands this is new territory.
“They haven’t [dealt with this] — they’ve seen movies, heard from their parents,” he said. “This is not anything anybody wants to go through and this is never good for anyone. They’ll grow from this. They will. We live in a make-believe life in sports. Let’s just be honest. It’s so unreal. Right now, this is real life and they have to deal with it and some may be dealing with real-life situations for the first time. They’ll grow from it and they’ll be better people because of it.”
NBA felt helpless in Sterling’s cases
While NBA commissioner AdamSilver has been lauded for his strong action against Sterling, there has also been backlash because Sterling has had a history of racial discrimination in his dealings with his many properties, and he also was sued by all-time NBA great Elgin Baylor for age discrimination in 2011.
Baylor was forced to resign as Clippers general manager following 22 years on the job in 2008. He won the NBA Executive of the Year award in 2006 but many of his decisions as GM were highly criticized and kept the team in the doldrums.
The NBA felt helpless to levy penalties against Sterling for his businesses outside of the league because they were not related to the Clippers. Fining Sterling for cases settled or won would have set a poor precedent with NBA owners and remember, the NBA commissioner is employed by the league’s owners.
“He’s never been suspended or fined by the league because while there have been well-documented rumors and cases filed, he was sued and the plaintiff lost the lawsuit,” Silver said during his press conference. “That was Elgin Baylor. There was a case brought by the Department of Justice in which ultimately Donald Sterling settled and there was no finding of guilt, and those are the only cases that have been brought to our attention. When those two litigations were brought, they were followed closely by the league office.”
Sterling has shown the ability to sue anybody. Former coach Mike Dunleavy had to go to court to receive money he was owed after he was fired. And the unpopular owner also sued a 66-year-old Bill Fitch in 2001 for breach of contract. And Rivers acknowledged the reason he took so long to negotiate his three-year, $21-million deal was because he was warned Sterling does not like to pay fired or departed coaches. So there were days of legal haggling.
Silver, as the deputy commissioner, said he did not know Sterling but his reputation among fellow owners was as a wild card. When Rivers made it clear he was available to the Clippers for the right price, Sterling deliberated about spending so much money on a head coach. For a billionaire, Sterling can be quite thrifty.
His statements were stunning.
“When I first heard it, I was shocked. I was hoping somehow that it was fraudulent or that it had been doctored, that possibly it wasn’t indeed Donald Sterling,” Silver said. “I’ve known Donald for over 20 years, so I suspected it was his voice, and we set about immediately investigating, and that was my reaction, to sort of bear down and say let’s get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.
“I have not been that close to him over the years, but there’s nothing I’ve ever seen in his behavior that would evidence these kinds of views. I’ve certainly, again, because there have been a lot of public filings about his activities — I’ve been aware of those accusations, but there’s nothing I’ve ever seen firsthand that would indicate that he held the views that were expressed on these audio recordings.”
The incident was an embarrassment for a league that prides itself on its racial diversity. Previous commissioner David Stern fostered the 1990s revolution of international players and opened NBA offices in Europe, India, and Africa. Sterling’s statements recalled a time in the 1940s and 1950s, when professional sports owners refused to employ African-American players.
The National Basketball Players Association, led by president Chris Paul, privately and publicly pressed Silver to take a strong stand against Sterling. The repercussions of a weaker penalty might have been substantial.
“This has all happened in three days, and so I’m hopeful that there will be no long-term damage to the league and to the Clippers’ organization,” Silver said. “But as I said earlier, I’m outraged, so I certainly understand other people’s outrage, and it will take some time — this will take some time, and appropriate healing will be necessary. I can understand precisely why, whether they be people affiliated with the NBA or the Clippers for a long time, or those corporate partners. I can understand how upset they are, and I’ll do my best to bring them back into the NBA family.”
Douglas-Roberts gets new life with Bobcats
The Charlotte Bobcats gave Miami a push before falling to the No. 2 seed in a four-game sweep. Overshadowed by the stirring success of the soon-to-be-Hornets again and the rise of Al Jefferson was the return to the NBA of Chris Douglas-Roberts, who was waived by the Lakers, Mavericks, and Knicks before signing with the Bobcats on Dec. 11.
Douglas-Roberts averaged 6.9 points in 49 games for Charlotte and he has always been known as a talented player who was mercurial and misunderstood. You can be those as a superstar, not so much as a reserve, and he found himself out of the league, fighting for the opportunity for a 10-day contract or toiling in the NBADL.
“I’m an advocate of hard work and I always have been,” he said. “When I was a younger player, I always thought that hard work should trump all. But this is the NBA and there’s a lot that goes on with it, so I just stayed down and feel — and it’s going to be crazy to say — entitled to this right now because I worked so hard. I didn’t cry. I didn’t blame nobody. I didn’t point any fingers. It just feels good to see the hard work actually does trump all.”
Douglas-Roberts was a second-round pick in 2008 by the Nets. He played two seasons in New Jersey before being traded to Milwaukee. He then played a year in Italy before attempting an NBA return and finding the league wasn’t so eager to welcome him back.
“I think I rub people the wrong way,” said Douglas-Roberts. “I’m going to be honest, man. I always have and I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because I’m confident, because I understand, I know what I’m talking about. But even with that, I had to kind of turn that down a little bit and I’m a lot more conservative now, especially off the floor. I don’t really have much to say anymore off the floor. I just try to let the playing do all the talking.”
The journey made Douglas-Roberts, 27, slightly bitter toward the NBA. Those days on the bus with the Texas Legends hoping for an NBA call were tough.
“Of course I reached a point where I was sitting there like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” he said. “I was negative. I let a lot of stuff go and I just got back to the basics and eventually the cream will rise.
“It might be a long time and it might not happen when you want it to, but it’s going to happen. One of the things I live by is if you’re working hard, your time is going to come. You just have to be ready for it. It came to be true.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Douglas-Roberts, part of that marvelous Memphis team that lost an NCAA title because of missed free throws, was heavily criticized for Twitter activity. That was before many athletes had discovered Twitter.
“It hurt me a lot,” he said. “They didn’t embrace that then like they do now. But that’s a part of it. I learned from that. From Twitter I learned, even if it’s true it doesn’t need to be said.”
Former UConn guard Shabazz Napier has signed with noted agent Rob Pelinka, who also represents Kobe Bryant, Celtics forward Gerald Wallace, Rockets guard James Harden, and Pelicans guard Eric Gordon, among others . . . Because of the Donald Sterling controversy, the NBA postponed all awards for the week. The league was prepared to announce Kevin Durant as MVP, Jamal Crawford as Sixth Man of the Year, and Michael Carter-Williams as Rookie of the Year . . . The depth of this year’s draft did not prevent several players on the first-round bubble from entering. The NBA announced that 45 players from US colleges were eligible for the draft, compared with 46 last season. With 75 underclassmen and international players entering the draft as well as eligible seniors, there are going to be several prospects who go undrafted and will have to start their careers as a free agent, overseas, or in the NBADL . . . An intriguing free agent this summer will be former first-round pick James Johnson, who climbed his way back into the NBA after being waived by the Hawks in training camp. He signed with the Grizzlies in December and has made a sizable impact in the postseason. Johnson was maligned while with the Bulls for being out of shape and lacking motivation after entering the draft following his sophomore season at Wake Forest . . . The Celtics welcomed back former Doc Rivers staffer Darren Erman as director of NBA scouting last week after he was fired by the Warriors. NBA sources said Erman, who felt mistreated by the Warriors’ coaching staff, began recording coaching meetings, player meetings, and other non-formal gatherings with his phone. Erman was considered a rising coaching prospect when he left Rivers’s staff to join the Warriors two years ago, and could be a valuable asset with the upcoming draft.Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.