Doc Rivers and the heartbreak of being an NBA head coach
Amid firings and another fork in the road of his career, the 76ers coach sees the job becoming a harder uphill climb
BOSTON — The Boston Celtics will advance to the Eastern Conference finals; the Philadelphia 76ers are going home.
For Boston’s first-year coach Joe Mazzulla, the Celtics’ 112-88 blowout victory means the continuation of what has been an up-and-down postseason journey through the rough waters of being an NBA coach.
For Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers, the loss led to yet another fork in the road.
There was talk throughout the season — talk that escalated after Philadelphia’s Game 6 home loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals — that Rivers would be coaching for his job on Sunday. Rivers was fired by the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday after three seasons and a 154-82 (.653) record.
The NBA is in yet another brutal cycle of firings. Earlier this month, the Milwaukee Bucks fired Mike Budenholzer just two seasons after he led them to the NBA title. On Sunday, the Phoenix Suns announced that coach Monty Williams, who led the team to the NBA Finals two seasons ago, had been fired, and now Rivers.
Though at age 61 and with a résumé any coach would love to have, you get the sense that Rivers is far less affected by such speculation now than he may have been even a few years ago.
When asked after Sunday’s loss if he expected to be the 76ers’ coach next season, Rivers said what you’d expect him to say:
“Yes,” he said. “I think I have two years left.”
The reality is that being a coach — never an easy job — has become an infinitely harder uphill climb.
“The job is way harder, it just is,” Rivers told me in between Games 5 and 6 of the series. “There’s more media, more criticism. None of us are safe.”
Patience may be a virtue, but not in the NBA.
“We live in a time, unfortunately, when nobody is willing to wait, they want it now,” Rivers said. “Every time you lose now: ‘Who should you fire? Who should get the blame?’ How about taking steps and growing? No one wants that anymore.”
I spent a couple of days with Rivers during the 76ers-Celtics series. I wanted to look at the coaching profession through the prism of 61-year-old Black man who successfully has navigated a savage profession that hasn’t always been kind to African Americans.
Rivers has had multiple lives as a coach — a rarity for a coach in any sport, but especially rare for African American head coaches who in the past have found it difficult to get a second chance. Rivers had a second (Boston), third (LA Clippers) and fourth (Philadelphia) chance. And it’s likely that if Philadelphia decides to make a change, Rivers will get a fifth chance. His journey should be a guide for all young coaches and especially a first-year coach like Mazzulla, 34, and Darvin Ham, the Lakers 49-year-old first-year coach.
Regardless of how well things seem to be going, fortunes can and will change. A core part of Rivers’ philosophy is that heartbreak is an integral part of the head coaching experience and how a coach deals with heartbreak will determine not only success, but longevity in the profession.
“To be a good coach you have to open your heart up to that winning knowing that if you don’t win, it can be broken,” he told me recently. “Every season offers the possibility of fulfillment, but most likely [it] will end in heartbreak.
“It’s like going to a bar and falling in love every year. That’s what it is. You fall in love and get your heart broken, fall in love, get your heart broken. My guess is that at some point, if I wake up and I’m not falling in love with the season, it’s probably time to go.”
I spoke with Rivers last week after Game 5 when Philadelphia shellacked the Celtics in Boston to take a 3-2 lead in the series. On the drive from Boston to Philadelphia, I listened to Boston sports radio and Mazzulla was eviscerated without mercy.
He was criticized for a timeout he didn’t call in Game 4. He was criticized for not having his team ready to play in Game 5. He was criticized for being tactically inept. A former player turned analyst said the Celtics had tuned out Mazzulla, and insisted he was in over his head.
There was even an outrageous on-air debate that the Celtics would have been better keeping Ime Udoka, the former coach who was suspended and ultimately left because he violated team policy over a consensual affair with a female employee.
As I related the criticism of Mazzulla to Rivers, he nodded. Been there, heard that.
“I’ve gone through that; we’re all going to go through it as a coach,” he said.
Rivers reflected on his time in Boston before the championship season when he and team president Danny Ainge were building a roster.
“In Boston, I’m a made man, we built a team and won a title,” he said. “But there were times early on when me and Danny were rebuilding, they wanted to fire me and Danny. You can’t get in our business without understanding that even if it’s not your fault it’s going to be your fault.”
Whether Rivers is fired or not, his insights on the profession should be part of a seminar for aspiring coaches.
Rivers began his career at age 39, three years after retiring as a player. Now he is the dean of Black NBA coaches. He regularly connects with young coaches. He has not had much contact yet with Mazzulla but said he couldn’t imagine what it’s been like to be in his shoes: one day you’re an assistant, the next day you’re the head coach of a veteran Celtics team.
Last week, Mazzulla was excoriated; in the wake of Sunday’s victory, he will be celebrated. Then the cycle starts all over again against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Mazzulla’s problem is that the Celtics reached the NBA Finals last season. He must guide the team that far to be considered a success.
“Nobody’s been in that position,” Rivers said. “He took the toughest job to take, maybe in the history of the job.”
Rivers took rebuilding jobs. His first head coaching job was with Orlando.
“We traded 21 players [in Orlando]. I took the Boston Celtics job, it was a complete rebuild,” Rivers said.
“Who takes a job where the year before they were in the Finals?” he said, referring to Mazzulla, who wasn’t going to say no. You can’t say no. “If they go on to win, then it was good. If they don’t, so what? Joe’s doing a hell of a job and that’s all that matters, and it doesn’t matter if other people don’t think so.”
As a Black coach, Rivers is an anomaly on two fronts.
He got his first coaching job without any NBA coaching experience. Unlike most head coaches, including Mazzulla, Rivers was not part of the typical assistant coaching grind. He was what he called “a reluctant coach.”
In 1998, Rivers accepted an invitation from Chuck Daly, at the time the Orlando Magic’s coach, to spend a summer with Daly at a coaching clinic. Largely on the recommendation of Daly, who thought Rivers was a natural, the Magic hired Rivers as coach in 1999 when Daly retired.
Rivers won NBA Coach of the Year after his first season. The Magic were picked to finish last, but Rivers nearly led them to the playoffs. They did reach the playoffs in his next three seasons as coach, but Rivers was fired 11 games into the 2003 season, three seasons after being named Coach of the Year.
“I thought I did a good job in Orlando,” he said. “It was shocking to me.’’
The catalyst for his firing came the previous season when the Magic blew a 3-1 lead to the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs.
“I got crushed for that,” Rivers told me during our conversation. But he learned two valuable lessons. The first was to self-correct and improve.
“You also learn to believe in what you do well — that’s the biggest thing in our job,” he said. “You’ve got to trust it, even if it’s not working. You got to stick with it and trust it, even through criticism.”
Rivers learned another lesson after being fired, this one from his mentor, Wayne Embry, the NBA’s first African American general manager and team president.
Rivers had a choice to become a TV analyst or take an assistant coaching job with the San Antonio Spurs. Embry told Rivers not to take the assistant’s job.
“He told me to go into TV. Not be an assistant coach. That was the single best advice I ever got. His whole thinking was that you’re going to be labeled a Black assistant. Go into TV, show every owner who watches the game how smart you are.”
The second anomaly is that Rivers has not stayed unemployed for long.
The Celtics hired Rivers in 2004 and he remained the coach until 2013. In 2013, the LA Clippers, desperate to make themselves relevant, made a trade with the Celtics to hire Rivers as the team’s coach. Under Rivers, the Clippers won a record 57 games in 2013-14. But after audiotapes of owner Donald Sterling making racially insensitive comments were released, Rivers said he would not return to coaching the Clippers if Sterling remained the owner.
Sterling was suspended and subsequently forced to sell the team. Rivers gained new stature. On the court, Rivers watched his Clippers team blow two 3-1 series leads, one against Houston in 2015, another against the Denver Nuggets in 2020, making him the only coach in NBA history with three teams that failed to advance from a best-of-seven series after taking 3-1 leads.
Rivers stepped down in September 2020. The 76ers, eager to pull their franchise out of the ashes, hired him a month later. He did, in fact, pull the franchise out of the ashes.
In this respect, Rivers has been a victim of his own success. He specializes in galvanizing dysfunctional teams, getting them to share a common vision. They overachieve.
“You can overachieve with a team and then at the end your team’s not good enough,” he said. “Then all of a sudden you’ve underachieved.”
There are other lessons young coaches like Mazzulla and Ham will learn when they enroll in the Doc Rivers Coaching Charm School.
- On being liked: “I used to really get bothered if someone didn’t like me. Everybody’s not going to like you. After all these years you learn that everybody’s not going to like you but you can’t play everybody. It’s not a democracy.”
- On blame: “The one guy to blame is always us [coaches]. And the longer we’re in it, you’re going to have more wins, but you’re also going to have more losses.”
- On knowledge: “You can have all the knowledge in the world but applied knowledge is different and it takes time. You don’t grow down, you grow up.”
Perhaps the essence of why Rivers never stays unemployed for long is that he has a knack for having his team embrace a shared vision.
“The thing you learn about winning, no matter how talented your team is, is your team must be fully invested in winning — no jealousy, no infighting,” Rivers said. “When you win, you are having a blood transfusion with everybody else on that team. The teams that lose never have that transfusion.
“Get connected to the transfusion. If you can do that, you got a chance.”
But on a night when his team was blown out of the playoffs by the Celtics and their first-year coach, Rivers was forced to face the reality of another bitter ending and yet another heartbreak.
As Rivers walked toward the 76ers locker room, I asked him if this is feeling a veteran coach ever gets used to.
“People don’t get it; you’re completely committed to winning — you fall in love. You think you have a chance and then you get blindsided, and then your heart is broken,” he said. “Tonight, I’ll sit somewhere and cry, probably.”