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Doc Rivers: ‘Coming here was worth it’

The Clippers’ season came to a disappointing end, but the coach made a lasting impact in the NBA bubble

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – As the LA Clippers head out of the NBA bubble stunned and disappointed after being eliminated by the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of their second-round series, there will be a lot of questions to answer during a long offseason. But once the dust settles and reflection begins, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers can be proud of the social injustice impact he made in the bubble.

“When he talks, people listen, and that’s kind of cool to see,” Houston Rockets guard Austin Rivers said of his father. “When he stood up at the players’ meeting and started saying stuff, you could see that mutual respect there.

“That’s kind of cool to see to just be like, ‘Yeah, that’s my dad.’ ”

Teams arrived at Walt Disney World in early July for the NBA’s restart following the pandemic. For the 22 participating teams, and the referees, there was an emphasis on using their platform in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis in May.

From the beginning of the NBA restart, Rivers was one of the most vocal coaches. The NBA’s 15th-winningest coach of all time believes one way players and coaches can be heard is by doing their job. And by Rivers’ definition, that means using media sessions to spread his message.

He often wore a hat that read: “Vote.” He addressed racial injustice and police brutality during interviews. And he challenged President Donald Trump and his supporters after Jacob Blake, who is Black, was shot seven times in the back by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in front of his three young sons.

“All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” said an emotional Rivers after a win against the Dallas Mavericks on Aug. 25. “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.”

Rivers said he went to the Clippers’ meal room after the game to collect his thoughts on the emotional night before going to sleep. He woke up the next morning to close to 100 text messages from friends, family and colleagues responding to his words. His comments had made the rounds inside and outside of the sports world.

“I was just hoping people heard me,” Rivers said. “That was my thought. And then, in the morning, I realized a lot of people heard it. Obviously, I got calls that night from some family, Austin and Spencer, and all my kids. So, I knew it delivered. My daughter was like, ‘That was great.’ So, I knew it touched them. And my brother, who never calls, called. That was cool.

“The only thing that I felt bad about, not bad, I did not want the attention. I was not doing it for that. I wanted people to understand what we go through, and I tried to articulate it because I do not think people do. We keep getting painted as these, what they are doing, they are painting us dangerous. And every time there is a police shooting, all of a sudden you hear about the guy’s past. I do not care what you do in the past, you still do not deserve to die now. It is always something that I have been involved in, and I thought I needed to be heard.”

Hours later, the NBA season was paused temporarily. The Milwaukee Bucks decided to protest playing in a playoff game against the Orlando Magic on Aug. 26 following the Blake shooting in their home state. All three NBA games were canceled that day. Players, who were using their voices on social issues, were uncertain if they were being heard while playing basketball.

That night, the National Basketball Players Association hosted a meeting for the players in the bubble to talk things out and discuss the fate of the season. Rivers joined Rockets assistant John Lucas and Clippers assistant Armond Hill as the coaches who spoke up. Rivers spoke about voting, focusing on “tangible items” to help the world and knowing what could be lost if the players didn’t continue playing.

“I was really pulling for the players,” Rivers said. “This thing really drove me. I got very involved because I can see these young people looking just to do something, that is pride. I just wanted them to do it right, and they did. So, that is why I cared. I care about racism and all that, but I really cared about them. I was like, ‘Man, these are young men, and they do not know how powerful they are.’ And, they are starting to see it in front of our eyes. And, I am thinking, this is beautiful.

“My message was to get organized, No. 1. You cannot do everything. That was my biggest thing, was tangible items. You cannot get everybody to do everything. And then, get involved was a big one, too, because I got on them a little bit about: ‘You cannot do this, and then 20% of you vote. You all got to get involved.’ But, you can see they all were willing. They all wanted to. They just needed the direction.”

NBA players and coaches left impressed by what Rivers had to say and how much he cared about the players and the league. Shortly after, the NBA teams decided they would return to action.

“It was good because Doc spoke to his years of experiences of being a Black man in this country and seeing things a lot longer than the people in that room,” said former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan, who decided to leave the franchise after the season. “He could really identify with the players and what is going on in our country. He had a lot of great things to say. His message was powerful. He was giving the guys a perspective of somebody older than the players that has been through a lot in his own life in terms of justice, equality and things of that nature.”

Said Clippers forward Paul George: “We just wanted to be on the same page. In our meeting, Doc was Doc. Doc was deep. Doc was positive with his words. He definitely had an impact in that meeting.”

Rivers, who has 13 years of experience as an NBA player and 21 years as a head coach with one championship, was instrumental in the bubble.

The Clippers’ championship dreams with George and Kawhi Leonard turned into unexpected nightmares after losing three straight games to the Nuggets. But when the history of the NBA bubble is written, Rivers’ imprint behind the scenes will be remembered with respect and appreciation.

“Coming here was worth it,” Rivers told The Undefeated after the game. “The league did an amazing job. Our players have done a phenomenal job. … I’ll go home and feel awful about losing. But as far as the social change … we’re gonna keep that going.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.