Doc Rivers: What I’ve learned in 20 seasons as an NBA head coach
The Clippers coach opens up about his legacy, diversity in the NBA, and more
I never thought I would coach more games than I played. Like ever. Not by a long shot.
I told someone that I am so old that I didn’t even know that I have coached 20 seasons. It’s awesome. I didn’t know I was going to ever coach. And to coach 20 straight years, I love it today as much as I loved it my first year. I love it more.
I’m still learning. We’re all still learning. It’s amazing how the game has changed. How the kids have changed. You really have to accept that. They’re different than what they were 20 years ago. Twenty years ago, the title of ‘coach’ came with respect. Now with some, it still does. But with some, you have to earn it. It’s funny, I was at a coaching clinic and a guy said, ‘Well, that’s not good.’ I said, ‘No, that is good.’ Listen, you have to earn it either way. They just gave you respect before, but you could lose it. Now, you have to get it. So it’s not that big of a difference. It’s just a different way of thinking about it.
Me, Doc Rivers as a player, means nothing to a player when I am talking to them. They want to know if you know what you’re talking about. To me, that is the most important part of it.
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing my first year.
There was a group of coaches — and Lenny Wilkens led the pack when I first started coaching — who really reached out to me and wanted me to do well. And Wayne Embry also wanted me to do well. They believed in me.
When I retired from playing, I had an assistant-coaching job offer and was doing TV. And Wayne told me, ‘Go do TV. Take three years and get back into coaching and you are going to be a hell of a coach.’ He wanted me to have the separation. He thought the separation would be great because while doing TV I can go watch other [NBA teams’] systems.
People don’t know that during the 1998-99 NBA lockout year, I went down and coached with the Continental Basketball Association. I sat on the bench with Mark Hughes and Brendan O’Connor in Grand Rapids. I was just an assistant coach. I was driving a pickup truck they gave me where the window didn’t open. I was staying at a Days Inn in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I did that for like two or three weeks, and then the lockout ended. Then I went back and started doing TV.
Truth be told, I never thought I was going to coach. I thought I was going to only do TV. Every time I would do a Miami game, Pat Riley would say, ‘When are you going to jump into the fray? You know you’re going to coach. Just jump.’ I didn’t see myself that way, but others did.
When I got the coach job with the Orlando Magic, I never coached, but I knew what I wanted to do. I knew more how I wanted to be more than what I was doing. And then you learn. I was at a high school game and I saw a play that I ran in the Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland and scored. The lesson there is you never stop learning and you have to stay open-minded.
The things that I know now that I didn’t know when I first started are mostly how to deal with people more than X’s and O’s. Every single player is singular. That’s what you learn. You can’t group anyone. They all have their own way about them, and it’s our job to try to figure out each guy.
The chemistry between this [current] group of guys is what I love about this team.
I knew it was going to be a tough decision to leave my head coach job with Boston [in 2013] to go to the Clippers. But I just really felt strongly that my voice had been heard for nine years in the same place.
I don’t look back after making a decision, because you can’t get it back. From a coaching standpoint, you can’t be in a better situation from there, from the fan base to the owner situation and to [president] Danny [Ainge].
And I tell you, in my first year [in Los Angeles], I was like, ‘Oh, boy, this is going to be a lot harder than I thought.’ And that was mainly because the [Donald Sterling] ownership piece was tough. And this team wasn’t a very close team either, so you knew you had to get your hands dirty and work. And that’s fine too.
I came here to the Clippers because I looked at this organization and this team and was like, ‘This would be the last act.’ If you can turn this around …
And I actually think we’ve had a measure of consistent winning, but we still have another step to take here. When I came here, no free agent would say they wanted to play for the Clippers. My goal was to change that. Now, every free agent says they want to play in L.A. — and they don’t mean the other team, they mean both. So, to me, that is a real measure of success on how stable the franchise has become. The next step is getting them to sign, and then winning.
[Clippers owner] Steve Ballmer and I talk a ton. This is what every head coach has to have, a relationship with his owner, for us to be successful. I really, really believe that.
I thought it was the right thing by losing my title as the president of the Clippers last year. What people don’t get is that I hired [current Clippers president] Lawrence [Frank] the year before to do [that job]. I didn’t know I was going to lose my title, but I knew that I wasn’t going to do that job anymore. That’s why I hired Lawrence. So nothing changed as far as pay and everything else. For me, it just was too much. I enjoy coaching. I thought I had wanted to do both. I really did. But working with Lawrence, we are on the same page. And that’s how Danny and I were too. But I am more involved here as a coach, and that’s what I want to be. But there are so many other things that need to be done with the coaching part and the GM [general manager] part that it is impossible for you to do, and so it has been pretty nice to focus on coaching.
You learn in this job that there are going to be some highs. I had those. And there are going to be some lows. Some of the lows come when you’re good. If you look at the Clippers, all we’ve done is won, but we’ve had a lot of lows. You put yourself in a situation where you have a chance to win. And if you don’t win, then what comes with that is all the heat. I’d rather have that heat any day than have no chance. We respect that process and how hard it is to win. People think you can just win. Winning is hard. Everybody who has ever won can tell you that.
There are very few that can say they have won anything. As a coach winning an NBA title [in 2008 with the Boston Celtics], I am one of them that can. And I respect that. But what it’s done is make me hungrier with drive to get back there again.
Look at Oklahoma City when they had [Kevin] Durant, Russell Westbrook and [James] Harden. People assumed they would be back to the Finals the following year after making it in 2012. They never went back. Look at the Celtics, we won it. We thought we’d be back because we were the best team the next year, and then we go in 2010. I never went back. We’ve had a couple chances. It’s hard. Winning is hard. It takes a lot of luck. But what it takes most is cooperation.
Stress is a part of our job and always is. Early in Boston we were losing games, and there was stress and pressure on my job. Here in L.A. after the Sterling thing, we have a chance to beat Oklahoma City in the playoffs and we just fall apart after being up 3-1. So stress comes with the job. Listen, dealing with players is stressful at times because some of these players need you more. Some don’t. It’s all about relationships. It’s hard.
We have a lot of black players without fathers. And to me that’s a story that needs to be talked about, because it’s difficult for the black coach sometimes. The black male figures in a lot of these guys’ lives have burned them. So, being coached by us, some people think it’s easier when actually it’s harder.
It can be very difficult for them, and you have to really gain their trust. The one thing with players is they will give you their trust, but if you don’t start them no more, you have broken it somehow. And you just have to live with that. That’s not really breaking their trust, that is you doing what is best for the team. That is the tough part for me. Players want to all be great. It’s your job to try to tell them they can be really good. Sometimes, you can make a career.
I respect what I am [as an African-American NBA head coach]. I don’t take it for granted. I really believe I can help others. And I try to do that, especially the young guys coming into the league. If I’ve learned anything, it is about access. There aren’t a lot of black coaches that are coming into the league that haven’t played in the NBA. But they can be good coaches, too, because there are a lot of white coaches that haven’t played that have become head coaches. For black coaches, it can be harder because they may not have the access. Those are the guys I try to focus on to try to open doors, make calls for people. That is what we have to do. But listen, I will do it for a white guy, too, if I think he works.
Ty Lue, honestly, I literally cried when he won a championship as coach of the Cavs in 2016. I literally coached him for 10 games in Orlando. And I told him, ‘Call me literally the day after you’re cut from the NBA, and that won’t be long from now.’ I actually told him that because he was older. Ty called me and we didn’t have a job open in Boston. I walked into Danny’s office and told him we were hiring Ty Lue. He said, ‘Where?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. We are just going to make room for him because he had whatever “It” is.’ You could just see it.
He followed me to Boston, then followed me to the Clippers. Then to go to Cleveland and win a title … for me, that was as cool as it was for me to win a title. I was in Monaco. The night before I was writing plays on a napkin and sending it to Ty. That stuff from a coaching standpoint is really, really cool. Ty is a great coach with or without me.
Diversity amongst NBA head coaches could be better. Not only better in that, but also better in the management side and the analytical side. There is always places where this league can improve. But this is the best league for it, and it’s very open-minded in that way. But we still can do better, have to do better and can do better.
[NBA commissioner] Adam Silver is the right guy. [Deputy commissioner] Mark Tatum is the right guy. We have great leadership. [Ex-NBA commissioner] David [Stern] was great leadership. David messaged me as much as anybody when I got the job. We have a lot of tremendous young owners coming into the game. The league has had its ups and downs, but we’ve always outperformed the other leagues. That is something good. But it can still be better than that.
The advice I would give to aspiring black coaches is shake hands and work your butt off. But you have to work. I tell players all the time that you don’t get a lot just by being a player. You get to get in the door. But once you get in the door, you have to prove you can do the job. Once you get in the door, it’s a win-loss job and a win-loss business.
I have never been a stat watcher in terms of all-time coach wins list. I am assuming I am close to the top 10. I don’t look at that. I do my job. And I can tell you that if I was one win away from being in the top 10 but I felt like it was time to go, I’m leaving. That’s always been me.
[Former Atlanta Hawks head coach] Bob Weiss likes to tell the story of the time I had 37 points against the Celtics, of all teams. I think there was two minutes to go in the fourth quarter and I signaled to him, ‘We’re up by 20. Take me out.’ He says, ‘You have the chance to get your career high.’ And I was like, ‘So what? I want to come out.’ Like to me, if I had 39, I was going to be a better person? To me, you do your best job and wherever you stop doing it, you stop doing it for the right reasons. And I can guarantee you when I finish, whenever that is, it’ll be because someone tells me I’m not good enough anymore or I just say, ‘I don’t want to do it anymore.’ It’s not going to be to chase numbers.
I don’t want to say I have a chance to be a Hall of Fame coach, because then I am pushing for it. That’s the media’s job to say that. I say we all want to be in the Hall in some way or fashion.
I am still coaching because I love it. I just love it.
I am the last coach to beat LeBron [James] in the East. I saw him and said, ‘I’m the last coach to beat you in the East.’ I’m the last coach to beat Golden State in the West. And the Golden State one, that’s cool. But the LeBron one is nuts. You know how long ago that was? It was 2010. …
I want to win again. This is the ultimate challenge here. But I know I can win again, and eventually that’s what I want to get back to. But if I ever felt anytime like I had a stretch where it wasn’t fun for a while, then you do consider, ‘What am I doing?’ But I love what I do. It’s who I am now. I consider myself that.
One of my kids asked, ‘Are you a coach or a player?’ I said, ‘I’m a coach.’ I mean, that’s what I am. And that was a hard thing to accept.