Doc Rivers took one route to the Celtics’ practice facility in Waltham in his nine years as the team’s coach. He went the same way countless times, exiting 95 at exit 27A and taking the curvy streets to practice. In Los Angeles? Rivers figures he already has taken at least 20 ways to the Clippers’ facility because of the legendary traffic.
Rivers has changed coasts, changed cultures, and changed responsibilities, leaving the Celtics’ rebuilding plan for an opportunity to take the usually downtrodden Clippers to new heights. It’s been six months since Celtics fans went through Rivers’s departure from Boston, and there is still confusion regarding how badly Rivers wanted out, or whether president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, gazing at Brad Stevens and the opportunity for a new start, nudged Rivers west.
The fact that Rivers’s departure was so sudden and unceremonious may prompt some boos Wednesday night as he returns to TD Garden to face the Celtics for the first time since taking the Clippers job. But Rivers said his relationships with the Boston brass have all been smoothed over and his return will be an emotional one.
“Danny and I have had some great talks about it,” Rivers said. “I think Danny and I are pretty much on the same page but I don’t want to get into that whole thing. Listen, I had nine unbelievable years and that’s what I keep saying to everyone. Danny is a good friend. We didn’t get along 100 percent all the time but we have always ended up friends and we’re very good. I’m thankful that I had Danny in my life and there’s no doubt about that. I wouldn’t be here without Danny Ainge, there’s no doubt.”
Ainge and Rivers essentially needed each other and leaned on each other to resurrect the Celtics. Ainge gave Rivers another coaching opportunity after Rivers was fired following a 1-10 start in Orlando in 2003. And Rivers’s relationship with the players, his selling the franchise to free agents, and his managing of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo were good enough to win a championship and reach Game 7 of another Finals. The Celtics’ reputation and mystique rose exponentially under the duo.
While the exit may have been surprising to some, Rivers is hoping for a ceremonious welcome back from the Garden faithful.
“I’m looking forward to coming back and seeing people,” he said. “I’m more concerned about my emotion because I am an emotional guy. Listen, I get to walk in an arena where there was a banner hanging up that I was a part of. It’s going to stare at me. The fans, they were unbelievably supportive to me and that’s going to be extremely emotional for me, and as a coach, I’m concerned by that. It does concern me, in a very positive way.”
Rivers has admitted he was unsure whether he wanted to be the front man in a major rebuilding project, especially when he was so emotionally attached to the departed Pierce and Garnett, who were traded to the Brooklyn Nets three days after Rivers left for the Clippers. But he said the Celtics brand, the tradition, and his accomplishments in Boston made his nine-year run special and career defining.
“The one thing I’ve learned since leaving is how emotionally attached I was to Boston, and the city, and the team,” he said. “I played in Atlanta for eight years, and it’s always special going back there, but I think maybe when you win a title with a group and a city, it’s like you’ve had some kind of blood transfusion, like it’s a part of you when you talk to guys.”
A memory that stands out to Rivers is a conversation with Ainge during the interview process when Ainge urged him to join the organization and said, “Let’s build this thing together, we can get this back. I’m telling you we can.”
The end was sudden. Rivers took longer than expected to determine whether he wanted to return for a 10th season after the Celtics were eliminated by the New York Knicks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Ainge confirmed to reporters three weeks after the season that Rivers would return, but Rivers avoided giving conformation himself.
And that turned into a two-week long situation in which the Clippers and Celtics negotiated allowing Rivers to get out of his contract to coach Los Angeles. The sides finally agreed on a 2015 first-round pick as compensation and Ainge hired Stevens 10 days later.
Rivers was ripped by some on talk radio for apparently bailing when the Big Three Era was set to conclude and rebuilding would begin. Perhaps some fans may harbor hard feelings and greet Rivers with jeers.
“I don’t think [my perception] should have ever been negative anyway,” he said. “I never did anything to hurt anybody. In life, you do have to make tough decisions, and mine was brutal — coming back, retiring, or sitting out for a couple of years to recharge. When you get a chance not to just coach but run a whole organization, you gotta take that if you wanna stay in it, and when that presented itself, it was very hard to walk away from.”
Pierce believes Rivers should be cheered.
“Aww man, I think he’s going to get a standing ovation,” he said. “I mean, Doc, for what he’s been able to bring to the organization over the last nine years, to bring a championship, to almost bring another one, he should receive a standing ovation. Ray got one. The former players who were on that championship team got one, Doc deserves an ovation for [being] able to change the culture and the things he’s done for the Boston organization.”
Rivers and Ainge always collaborated on roster moves in Boston but Ainge held the final say. As senior vice president of basketball operations for the Clippers, Rivers has an increased voice in how the roster is constructed and has made some personnel changes within the organization.
“At the end of the day, I get to build a team and that’s invigorating to me,” said Rivers, who was integral in the recent signing of ex-Spur Stephen Jackson to a nonguaranteed deal. “I get to say the yeas or nays a lot and that’s been fun for me.”
The breaking up of the Celtics family has taken its toll on the relationships between the players. Allen revealed last month he had not talked with Garnett or Pierce since signing with the Miami Heat in July of 2012, a move that marked the beginning of the end of the Big Three Era and angered many in the Celtics organization.
Allen then pointed out that Garnett, because he waived his no-trade clause to facilitate the trade to the Nets, and Rivers, because he elected to take the Clippers job, bolted Boston for the same reason he did — for a more fruitful situation.
The fact that Pierce and Garnett viewed Allen’s departure as a betrayal exemplifies to Rivers how close that group was during the winning years.
“Listen, that will never change, there are certain places you go and organizations you join, and once you’re in, you’re in and you’re never not,” Rivers said. “That’s for life. I have that for the rest of my life. I get it all the time. I meet more Boston fans and we talk. I was very lucky and fortunate to have a nine-year experience that I had.
“It won’t even be about the applause but it will be about seeing people that I know. The ushers who I said hi to every day. That will be neat to see all of them. I know them by name. It will be just really nice. I know the decision was made [to leave Boston] and now I am on with another part of my life. The one part that I left will never leave me. That will always be part of my life.”