LOS ANGELES -- Doc Rivers has been the Los Angeles Clippers' calming force during troubling times like this.
The Clippers have made the playoffs the past five seasons, but in each of the past three seasons under Rivers, they’ve been leveled with a gut punch during the postseason that took their breath away and dropped them to their knees. It has become an annual tradition this time of year that no one on the team wants to endure, but Rivers is always there to pick them back up.
In Rivers' first season, audiotapes of team owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks led to Sterling's banishment from the NBA. Rivers served as the voice of the team; shielding his players from the national spotlight and questions. Last season, the Clippers squandered a 3-1 series lead in the second round and a 19-point lead in Game 6 with a chance to clinch and to go to their first conference finals. Rivers stood in front of them afterward and gave them a speech about his career and never giving up that left many in tears. And on Tuesday, Rivers was forced to deliver the news that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were ruled out for the rest of the playoffs.
Rivers has always been able to stand in front of his players and say something that magically, albeit momentarily, allowed them to forget about the storm clouds above them and believe in themselves again.
Whatever Rivers and his team were going through, in his mind, always paled in comparison to what his mother, Bettye, was dealing with. Battling dementia at the end of her life, Rivers’ mother didn’t even know her son’s name at times when he would visit her at their home in Maywood, Illinois. But she was always his inspiration, his strength during these kinds of difficult moments.
Rivers' strong front finally broke down before Game 5 of the Clippers’ first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, when he was asked whom he leans on during these times. He initially tried to answer by smiling and simply saying, “Good question; I don’t have an answer.” He then paused and realized if he did answer the question truthfully he might not make it through the response.
“I’m not crying over being discouraged,” Rivers said as he fought back tears. “[The question] made me think about my mom. That would have been the person.”
Bettye passed away last June at 82 years old. The Clippers’ dramatic exit from the playoffs last season one month before her passing actually allowed Rivers to be with her before she died, and he still thinks about her during times like this.
“She was his rock,” Austin Rivers said. “My father’s a very private person. I mean a very private person. His life outside of basketball, he doesn’t really share it with anybody.”
When Doc, in need of a backup point guard, traded for Austin midway through last season, it was easy to point to nepotism, but the truth is Austin and Doc have never really had a true father-and-son relationship. While Doc was coaching the Boston Celtics from 2004 to 2013, Austin was growing up in Winter Park, Florida, going to Duke and getting drafted by New Orleans. The two of them have probably spent more time together over the past year and half than Austin can remember. The closest they ever actually got to having a father-son relationship was when they would visit Bettye together.
“He doesn’t really share his life outside of basketball with me,” Austin said. “He and I don’t know each other like that. We know each other as strictly basketball. A lot of people on the outside don’t understand that because people think we have a relationship like every other father and son. We just don’t. That’s because he’s been gone my whole life, and that’s fine.
"It’s worked out for the both of us. But the one person he could always really be with was his mom. That’s the toughest thing I’ve ever seen him go through; more than the Sterling stuff and even when his dad passed away. His mom was everything to him. I’ve never seen him like that.”
Doc and Austin may never have the prototypical father-son relationship many on the outside would like to think they do, but the Rivers family is now closer than it has been in years. Not only is Austin on the Clippers, but Doc’s daughter, Callie, lives in Los Angeles and is a staple at home games. His youngest son, Spencer, is a guard on the UC Irvine basketball team. After the game Rivers will routinely go back to his office and hug Callie, who waits for him to finish his postgame news conference.
“I think at this time it’s important for the family to have his back,” Austin said. “It’s a stressful time. Obviously we had high hopes and two of our best players go down just like that, but we’re still in this series.”
After the Blazers defeated the Clippers 108-98 on Wednesday to take a 3-2 series lead heading into Game 6 on Friday in Portland, Rivers reminded his players they came back from a similar deficit last year in the first round against the San Antonio Spurs before winning the series at home in Game 7. Obviously, the circumstances are different, but the messenger is the same as it has been during these seemingly hopeless times for the Clippers over the past three seasons.
“He’s a hell of a leader,” Austin said. “A lot of coaches have speeches, but we believe his words because we know he’s been through it and he means it. He controls the room when he talks. He’s the most positive coach I’ve ever played for in my life. We’re going to try to fight as hard as we can for him and each other. We still believe we’re going to win this series.”