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Those Who Love The Game – Glenn "Doc" Rivers on Life in the NBA and Elsewhere: Book Review

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I first learned about Those Who Love The Game – Glenn “Doc” Rivers on Life in the NBA and Elsewhere, in this article by Bill Reynolds. Rivers worked with Bruce Brooks and I like how they went about it. As a reader it is easy differentiate Rivers’ words from Brooks’. In doing so they created a nice balance and avoided a lot of the pitfalls of ghost written fluff pieces. More importantly now seemed like as good a time as any to take a closer look at Rivers. For the record I doubted Rivers’ ability to coach a champion. In the wake of being proven wrong I’m more than happy to admit it. At the same time it has been interesting to watch the reactions of others. On the one hand Rivers has received a ridiculous amount of back handed compliments. Yet others have gone incredibly far to stress his tremendous coaching ability. Like a lot of things in life the reality probably lies somewhere in between the two approaches. Either way Boston won a championship and Rivers deserves credit.

A few more things before getting this party started. One warning. I read the book at some point during the NBA Finals and typed this shortly after the Celtics won. As a result I made a lot of connections to the 2008 Celtics. It is what it is. Regardless, if you take one thing away from this know that Rivers was incredibly candid throughout the book. His views on fans, other players, (Dominque Wilkins in particular comes to mind), and numerous other topics drew me in.

For previous book reviews, go here. Otherwise click "Continue reading this post" and enjoy.

In a tradition inspired by Jack McCallum's work I've broken this review into themes:

1. The Media
2. Family Life
3. Race
4. Rivers on his Peers
5. Coaching/GM
6. Types of Players
7. The 92/93 Knicks
8. Stats
9. Learning to Win
10. Improving as a Player

1. The Media

The book opened with Rivers discussing his concern over the attention John Starks received for dunking over Horace Grant and Michael Jordan in the Eastern Conference Finals. For the record I disagree with his contention that Starks dunked on Jordan. Back in 1993 Jordan arrived late and was “there” in the loosest sense of the word. It was no Scottie Pippen on Patrick Ewing, which in hindsight was outrageous because of the dunk itself and the subsequent taunting of Ewing and Spike Lee. But back to Starks. I was intrigued by Rivers’ argument that one play can be detrimental to a player. When reporters (print and television), fans and seemingly everyone a player encounters praises a ridiculous play it can impact the way that player approaches the game. The Starks anecdote segued into Rivers’ opinions on media:

"I pretty much like the writers and media people. I understand their predicament – their job is to find something new to write about in each game, when in fact all eight-two games are basically the same. And they have to do it tomorrow! It’s a hard job. But some them can be like kids – they won’t listen, because they know everything. It can be pretty funny.” – Doc Rivers (Brooks 7).

Rivers elaborated on that final point, arguing that the real NBA is entirely different from the “media packaged version of the NBA game” (Brooks 8). So sometimes a player will dunk on a team because he can and it’s the highest percentage shot available. But a journalist may then report that it was a statement dunk, even if the player is adamant it was not. Rivers went on to say that it is dangerous when a player is influenced by the “media packaged version of the NBA game” (Brooks 8). Overall I found Rivers' take interesting for three reasons:

- This book came out in 1993 when fans followed the game by watching it live, reading newspapers/magazines, catching highlight shows, and listening to sports talk radio. Fast forward 15 years and throw in the explosion of 24-hour television, the NBA package, Internet (blogs, Facebook type sites, YouTube, and everything else), and cell phone cameras and the climate is altogether different. Not only are sports fans around the world following the NBA more they are starting to have their own opinion and possibly feeding into the  “media packaged version of the NBA game” (Brooks 8). Rivers detailed how reporters often ignore what the players say in hopes of making a story. Well people such as myself make a story without ever talking to a player or coach. And if you think Rivers is not aware of the new ways sports are covered – think again.

- Reporters can be a coach or player’s best friend or biggest enemy. We don’t like to think like that because ideally reporters are neutral and lack an agenda. But they’re also human. At some point Rivers learned how to interact with the media. I’m not saying he is disingenuous. But there’s a reason I claimed Rivers could be the greatest salesman of all time at some point during the 2007 season. He learned what any successful coach must learn – don’t ignore members of the media or go out of the way to anger them either. Just watch one of Rivers’ press conferences some time. He’s as smooth as can be.

- Is every game really the same? Wouldn't that mean that, barring injury, the outcome of any one game does not matter? I agree with Rivers to a degree. For example Washington beat Boston three  out of four times this season. Does that make the Wizards better than the Celtics? I’d argue no. And had San Antonio advanced to the NBA Finals Boston’s regular season sweep would not have counted for much. However, I’d argue that the Celtics turned a corner in the “media packaged version of the NBA game” (Brooks 8) as well as the real NBA with the Texas Triangle sweep and the beat downs they put on the Suns and Hornets to avenge previous losses. Similarly it was important for Boston to beat the Raptors and Bobcats on the road with buzzer beaters. Yet in the end what do I know?

2. Family Life

The book was written around Rivers’ 10th season in the league. In NBA terms he was an old man (32). On top of that he was happily married with two young children. Rivers went into detail about how a family grounded him. He described the lives of many NBA players as follows:

“you’ve got young men who are larger than everybody else and richer than everybody else and more pampered than everybody else, whose biggest crisis – shooting a jump shot, reduced playing time – is completely contained by a game that has no real meaning relative to the challenges in the world. When there is a chance for interactions with such challenges, somebody else usually steps in to take care of the contact. If you mess up, somebody usually cleans up. You can get away with a lot. – Doc Rivers (Brooks 19).

Rivers maintained that family helped keep him in reality, which Brooks outlined as “responsibilities, illusion-free choices, flattery-free critiques of one’s actions.”

I found the chapter on family relevant for two reasons:

- Rivers explained that he was a rebel as a youngster. In fact he did not take school all that seriously until 8th grade, something he regretted at the time of the book’s release. He acted out a lot and hung with a bad crowd some. Yet from age 6 Rivers was transfixed by watching his uncle (future NBA player Jim Brewer) play basketball. Those games became an important part of Rivers’ life. And at one point in the second grade his behavior was bad enough that his parents threatened to make him miss a game. Attempting to call their bluff young Rivers did not change his ways. As a result he missed a game, which devastated him. His parents did the right thing and refused to give into his hysterical pleas to attend. Later Rivers would recall that as a turning point. They could have let him go, but what would that have done? It speaks to a bigger issue in life. At times the easy decision in the short term can be disastrous in the long term. That’s something anyone working for a NBA team knows all to well. Given the nature of the league (star based, only so many players) elite players will at times act in detrimental ways. Does the team simply cover it up or take a stand? I’d bet that a lot of times teams cover it up because it seems like the right, easy choice in the short term.

- Rivers’ father died in the fall of 2007 and yet after missing one game for the funeral he went right back to work. In hindsight his ability to do so with a great deal of success was impressive. As a side note after reading Rivers’ explanation of his father the following quote made perfect sense:

"My first thought was, 'What would my dad say?' And honestly, I started laughing because I thought he would probably say, if you knew my dad: 'It's about time. What have you been waiting for?'" -  Doc Rivers

3. Race

This was arguably the most interesting chapter in the whole book and clearly a topic Rivers is passionate about. In fact it’s worth a read whether you agree with his views or not. One of his major points was that black athletes get passed along throughout school because of their talent. As a result their grammar is not particularly strong and they get portrayed as stupid. Rivers pointed to Moses Malone as a prime example. He later talked about pursuing tutoring in the summer to get caught up on education he should have picked up in the 5th grade.* While I definitely agree with the idea that an athlete can make it through college reading at a grammar school level, I would assume that hot shot white athletes would get similar treatment. That’s debatable. Yet even if black and white athletes both get passed along I was intrigued by Rivers’ opinion of Bill Walton. Essentially Rivers used him to point to the discrepancy between the labels athletes get. White players can be creative, free spirits that march to the beat of a different drummer while black players are strange, dangerous, and have an attitude problem. Rivers went on to list some of Walton’s indiscretions. Personally I’ve always gotten a kick out of Walton to a degree (he’s a small doses guy). Yet I’ve wondered about some of the things he pulled. For example Walton speaks glowingly of his Celtics career. Yet I encourage you to look at some of the moves he made following the 86’ season.

* To be fair Rivers admitted that there were teachers that tried to help him when he was younger but he was not interested.

4. Rivers on his Peers

Patrick Ewing: Rivers initially viewed the long time Knick as unhappy, mean and a poor leader. After joining the Knicks Rivers came to see Ewing as a nice, smart, and thoughtful leader. Interestingly Rivers talks about Ewing – great shooter, tremendous defensive presence, hardest worker at all times – the same way a lot of people talk about Kevin Garnett. That’s a strong contrast to Ewing’s legacy nowadays, which is not as positive.

Chris Mullin: King of Tempo, allowed him to score on bigger, faster, stronger players.

“Chris Mullin has more gears – more well-paced speeds, than anybody. And he is a master at using them. A defender has a terrible time adjusting.” (Brooks 44).

 Michael Jordan – Clearly Rivers respected MJ. But he never went any further than that, offering a warning instead –

“He zeroes in on any opening. If he catches you admiring him – you are dead.” – Doc Rivers (Brooks 58).

Along those lines Rivers tells an epic Jon Koncak/MJ/high five story. I won’t ruin it but in Rivers’ words it involves “the single greatest expression of contempt” (Brooks 58).

Rivers also talked about Moses Malone, Dr. J, Johnny Davis, Dennis Johnson, Eddie Johnson, Sly Williams, Gus Williams, Kevin Johnson, Dominique Wilkins (of course) Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale, and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Some interesting stuff to say the least. But I had to include my favorite exchange from the whole book, which happened during a Knicks/Hornets playoff game. It went down as Alonzo Mourning protested a foul call on one of his teammates:

“Zo I think he fouled him.” – Doc Rivers
“Who the bleep are you? Bleep you.” – Alonzo Mourning

I used the bleeps because they were in the book. And I still enjoyed it. A lot. Ironically there's an outside chance that Rivers could coach Zo in 2009. As a side note I'm not sure the NBA is ready for KG and Zo, even this late in his career, playing on the same team.

5. Coaching/GM

At different points throughout the book Rivers made it clear that he wanted to win a ring as a player, coach, and GM. Right now he’s 1 for 3. Not bad. Along those lines I found his take on the coach/GM role fascinating:

“All I can say is: When I am a coach, and later a GM, if I am lucky enough to get it right, I will recognize that I’ve got a team, and I’ll do everything possible not to mess it up. Sometimes that’s a coach’s best move: to make no move. Sometimes the best trading decision for a GM is not to make any trades.” – Doc Rivers (Brooks 52).

Upon reading that I couldn’t help think about P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell. I’d say the Celtics were 50% successful with those late season acquisitions. Do the Celtics win it all without Brown? That’s an interesting question, and a difficult one for a staunch Leon Powe supporter such as myself. Meanwhile, it’s clear that Cassell does not have much left in the tank and he definitely appeared to be detrimental at times to what the C’s did – defend and share the ball. Meanwhile, it’s hard to argue that the C’s were not getting it done prior to those additions. For what it's worth I admire how Rivers’ said, “when I am a coach and later a GM” and not if.

6. Types of Players

Rivers puts NBA players into 3 categories:

1. Guys who like the benefits, work hard, are professionals, try to win, but don’t live and die by the game of basketball.

2. Guys who were pushed towards basketball, usually because of height, and came to love the special treatment it gave them. However, many of these guys may in fact hate the game of basketball.

3. Guys who love it, need to play.

“You could tie them up in the parking lot and chain them to a car, and by halfway through the first quarter they’d come out on the floor dragging the car behind them, ‘Hey I’m open!’” – Doc Rives (Brooks 55).

If you’re like me you’re assigning a whole list of player to each of those categories right now. I won’t go to in depth with that but Cassell has to fall in category #3. Maybe that’s part of the reason he continued to get burn even after Celtics fans had completely lost confidence in them. That and the fact that Celtics fans don't coach the team, which is a very good thing.

7. The 92/93 Knicks

Eric Anderson, Greg Anthony, Rolando Blackman, Tony Campbell, Hubert Davis, Patrick Ewing, Bo Kimble, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, Doc Rivers, Charles Smith, John Starks, Herb Williams. Of course Pat Riley was the coach. That’s a loaded squad. Of course they ran into the Charles Smith missed layups game and MJ’s crew.

8. Stats

Rivers described individual stats as worthless and vowed to ban stat sheets from his locker room as a coach. To make his point he went into great detail about Maurice Cheeks and his ability to contribute in ways that never made the box score. (Obviously I thought of James Posey when I read that.) And I agree with much of what Rivers said. Stats don’t matter for role players like Posey or Cheeks. But they matter for Paul Pierce. As important as defense and the little things are, teams need guys who can create their own shot, piling up stats in the process.

9. Learning to Win

Rivers was obviously not pleased with how the ’93 season ended. Yet he talked about how much it taught the Knicks and knew they would come back stronger. As a side note the Knicks went to the finals in ‘94 in a MJless league. Were the Knicks better? Probably. But they didn’t go through MJ or Hakeem for that matter. But back to team growth, which Rivers explained as follows:

“Pat Riley has a saying: Humiliation before honor. We’ve paid some dues, and we’ll pay some more.” – Doc Rivers (152).

That speaks to the idea that a team must grow together, get knocked out of the playoffs, and eventually make it to the top of the mountain. The fact that the 2008 Celtics were thrown together, ripped through the regular season, and won it all defies that and annoyed a fair amount of people. I could care less. And perhaps Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce paid their dues in Milwaukee/Seattle, Minnesota, and Boston respectively, prior to 2008. Just another reason the 2008 Celtics were unique.

10. Improving as a Player

If you asked Rivers in the early 90s how to improve your vertical he would have told you to jump as high as you could and touch a spot on the wall. Then jump over and over again until you touched a higher spot on the wall. He wasn’t a big plyometrics guy back then. Shooting? Bend your legs and follow through. If you practice a shot enough, even one with bad form, you’ll get good at it. I don’t entirely agree. I recently watched the Better Basketball shooting DVD and I'm working on my shot. It's nice to fall back on technique when things go awry. I'm only slightly better but I can be my own coach and understand what I do wrong when a shot is errant. Of course I'm a big believer in the shot doctor. I'd be remiss if I did not point out that Rivers went more in depth than "bend your knees and follow through". For example he adhered to the following practice strategy to improve his shot: find 5 or 6 spots on the floor that are good spots (we all have them) and hit 5 in a row from each spot. That ties into a quote I enjoyed, although not as much as the aforementioned Zo quote:

“The difference between a guy who is going to be good and a guy who says he wants to be good is that, while they both start out with the intention of hitting five, only one of them does so.” – Doc Rivers (Brooks 179).

Of course that reminds me a lot of the 2008 Celtics. A lot of teams talk about defense and winning championships. However, Boston put the work in all season, played as a team, and moved light years beyond clichéd rhetoric. The same is true for Rivers. He had goals stretching back to at least the early 90s, if not earlier, worked hard, and achieved some. Give the man credit.

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