Doc Rivers is coming back to Boston.
The current head coach of the Clippers, who signed 2019 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in the most impressive offseason in the NBA, will return to the city in which he won his lone NBA title as he prepares to win another. Rivers will make the journey back for the annual Hoop Dreams charity event he spearheads with anti-poverty agency Action for Boston Community Development, known around the city as ABCD.
“The work ABCD does really tugs at your heart,” said Rivers, who left the Celtics for a promotion with the Clippers following the 2013 season. “Once I get involved, I’ve always wanted to stay involved.”
Rivers has helped oversee the charity basketball tournament since its inception in 2011, and he is cautiously optimistic that this year’s affair will raise over $100,000. All of the money from Hoops Dreams will go directly into programs to serve at-risk youth throughout the city of Boston.
“The youth-based activities are just so important,” said Rivers, who drew connection to his childhood in Chicago. “I was lucky, I had two loving parents, but there are at-risk kids in every city and every town. Some of these kids don’t have parents. I was awake—my father was ‘the father’ of half my friends, too. The kids all hung out at my house, and my dad was the father figure for all of these kids that didn’t have a father.
“My dad made a difference by being there, and I’m trying to raise awareness and raise funds for these kids. That’s what drew me to ABCD, and I’m amazed by the number of under-advantaged people they can reach and touch. Even when I left Boston, I felt strongly this was something I needed to be a part of.”
The Celtics have ties to a number of other charities, but the connection to ABCD started as a direct link through Rivers. It didn’t take long for the Celtics and their venue, the TD Garden, to also see ABCD’s value—Garden president Amy Latimer allows use of the Celtics’ parquet floor for the event. This year, due to the Garden being unavailable, it will take place at the team’s training facility at the Auerbach Center in Boston on Sept. 3, and will also include Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
“This organization has clearly meant a lot to Doc, and I know that he has some relationships within the organization that are very important to him,” said Stevens, who like Rivers, is also hungry to quiet his naysayers this upcoming basketball season. “It says a lot about him that he comes back every year. I look forward to seeing him every year at this event.”
The life of a basketball player is nomadic, and Rivers certainly fits that mold. Following his collegiate career at Marquette, Rivers played for the Hawks, Clippers, Knicks, and Spurs in a career that spanned 13 years. He has coached in Orlando, Boston, and now LA, making intimate connections at every stop—particularly in Boston, where he coached the Celtics to an NBA title in 2008.
“Boston and ABCD are part of my life,” said Rivers. “I’ve lived in so many places and one of the lessons I’ve learned from living in different communities and different cultures is that the people who affect your life are part of your family. In Orlando, I worked with a group called Shepherd’s Hope, and they’re also part of my family. ABCD touches so many people, and they’ve been doing it for so long. [ABCD president] John Drew does a wonderful job. Family stays with you forever, these relationships don’t just go away if you move.
“And Boston is different. Most cities are so vast and so big that people don’t get to know each other. But Boston is like your mother and your father, and everyone there are the kids engrossed in that community. You’re forever a part of that community, and I’m grateful that I still fit. Boston will always be part of my family.”
After a summer that brought both Leonard and Paul George to the Clippers, Rivers is experiencing his most successful off-season since 2007, when his Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, James Posey, and Eddie House through trades and free agency.
Fans of the Lakers need no reminder, but the ensuing season saw the Celtics raise their record 17th banner after barnstorming the East and then outclassing LA in a one-sided six-game series. Rivers believes that his 2008 Celtics would still be the favorite to win a championship in 2020, even against his current Clippers squad, if that team were somehow transported into the upcoming season.
“I think so, and it’s because of the mental toughness of that group,” said Rivers. “That was a very skilled, very deep team, and the depth made them so special.
“When you think of the Celtics, you think of ‘The Big Three’ [Paul Pierce, Garnett, and Allen], but that doesn’t include [Rajon] Rondo or Perk [Kendrick Perkins], who were both phenomenal players, or Eddie House, Tony Allen, James Posey, PJ Brown, Big Baby [Glen Davis], and Leon Powe. That was a deep basketball team. Teams aren’t as deep now.
“But I also believe that every team that’s won an NBA title can compete. Each team may be different, but there is a certain quality about championship teams that separate them from everyone else. Our 2008 group is another example of that.”
Rivers’s Celtics added only one championship banner to the Garden rafters, coming up short in the 2009 quest for a repeat after a February injury to Garnett soured a scorching 27-2 start to the season.
The Celtics then lost a memorable seven-games series in the NBA Finals against the Lakers in 2010. Had the Celtics re-signed James Posey after the 2008 title, Rivers believes that NBA history would be rewritten in the Celtics’ favor.
“That was a decision, obviously, that we learned from,” said Rivers. “Look what Golden State did—they kept their team together. Most teams don’t do that, but watching Golden State keep as many of the key parts together was a lesson for all of us. They had such great continuity, and they never took chemistry for granted.
“When you have great chemistry, you better protect it and try to keep it for as long as you can. You take a player like Posey away and it changes the chemistry of your team.”
Rivers agreed that there is no 2020 basketball equivalent to Kevin Garnett.
“Kevin Garnett is the greatest superstar team-builder that I’ve seen in the history of the game,” said Rivers. “He always considered the team before any action that he took on or off the floor, and for that to also be your superstar player is unusual. Kevin Garnett, like Tom Brady, is a culture-builder. When you have a guy like that, you’re going to win. Kevin is one of the greatest of all-time, but he’d be the last one to tell you.
“He was in the right mental place to win in Boston, as were Paul and Ray. They’d already done so many other things in their careers, but the one thing that stood out was something they couldn’t buy, something they couldn’t do alone. In order to do this, they had to come together as a group. Kevin really understood that, and he was willing to sacrifice anything for that, including his numbers and his fame.”
Rivers still recalls the reaction from his players following his father’s death early in the 2007-08 season. Led by Garnett, the Celtics rallied around their coach, dedicating a win over Toronto to the memory of Grady Rivers while Doc flew back to Chicago to be with his family.
“I thought, by that point, we’d already bought in as a group, and that was another confirmation that the care we had for one another was real,” said Rivers. “Every time you get that confirmation in any way or form, it brings your team closer together, and that was one of those moments.”
The chance to return to Boston is meaningful for Rivers, and not only for a chance to reminisce over fond memories. He also has the opportunity to reconnect with his Celtics and ABCD family, including longtime ABCD advocate Bob Elias, who is the Director of Government and Industrial Relations, a title that cannot possibly capture the impact he has made over the past five decades.
“Bob Elias is an angel,” said Rivers. “He does all this work, yet somehow remains unseen. I know ABCD is safe because he’s always watching over them. He’s sweating behind the scenes, making the calls, doing the work. He’s relentless. Yet when it’s time for his homerun trot, he calls in for a pinch runner. He’s truly amazing.”
On the precipice of the most important coaching job of his career, Rivers is going back in time to return to Boston, where he claimed his one NBA title. Along the way, he will reconnect with his most powerful work outside of basketball, which is raising awareness for those in need.
“I can’t wait to see the people,” said Rivers. “I’ll see Bob Elias, [The Boston Globe’s] Bob Ryan, and so many other friends. The same volunteers come every year, so it’s like seeing your family. And it’s a nice reminder that the season is about to start. We always do this in September. After ABCD’s Hoop Dreams, I feel great because it’s time for the season to start.”