Don't Walk Away From Greatness, Doc
You can't retire.
So he won't retire.
"Actually, I think in a heartbeat, he would leave," said Kevin Willis, somebody who should know.
Not only were Willis and Rivers teammates during the 1980s on those wonderful Atlanta Hawks teams that featured Dominique Wilkins as the Human Highlight Film and Spud Webb as a little miracle, Willis and Rivers have remained close through the years. They exchanged messages before the start of the NBA Finals. "I just wished him the best of luck," said Willis, who apparently was Rivers' version of a 7-foot-high horseshoe combined with a four-leaf clover in sneakers.
Then again, luck has nothing to do with the Boston Celtics holding a 3-2 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers during this best-of-seven NBA Finals. If the Celtics win on Tuesday night in Game 6 at Staples Center, it's over. That's because Rivers has done enough as a strategist and a motivator for the Celtics to get the attention of the real Dr. Phil of psychology -- the Lakers' Jackson as opposed to Oprah's buddy.
Said Phil Jackson to the media, "I'll tell you what (Rivers has) done well: He's done well with matchups; he's done well in attacking some of our weaker guys out there on the floor in situations that's given them an advantage. He's used his bench exceptionally well."
Yep, yep and yep.
He's also kept the explosive personalities of future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett (and the lovable Rasheed Wallace, for that matter) from blowing up the rest of his locker room.
He's helped Rajon Rondo evolve from a decent college player at Kentucky into a dynamic pro with the Celtics.
He's stayed calm when the world was panicking around him earlier in the season when his Big Three was operating like the Old Three during what looked like an early spring vacation for the Celtics.
He's even imitated the real Phil by stealing and massaging a page from Jackson's playbook on how to manipulate officials in the playoffs out of the corner of your mouth.
Added Jackson, with more truth, "I'll give him a gold star."
That's why this makes no sense: Despite Jackson's compliments (a rarity when he directs them at opponents without an ulterior motive), and despite Rivers having another year left on his Boston contract, and despite general manager Danny Ainge wanting Rivers to sign a long-term deal, Rivers hasn't committed to coach anybody beyond this season.
He said he wishes to decide his future this summer. He suggested he may leave a coaching career that has sprinted past goodness after his four-plus years with the Orlando Magic and his five-plus seasons in Boston to become the latest Mr. Mom.
While staying home in the Orlando area, Rivers could travel to games of his youngest son, Austin, who will rank this fall as one of the nation's most prominent seniors in high school basketball. Then there is Rivers' older son, Jeremiah, who will enter his senior year at Indiana University as a basketball player for the Hoosiers. And Rivers' daughter, Callie, is a senior within driving distance at the University of Florida, where she is a star volleyball player.
It's just that Rivers joins the real Phil, Gregg Popovich, Jerry Sloan and Larry Brown as the game's best.
Would he really bolt?
"Basketball has a ceiling to it, whereas you can have success as a player and as a coach -- which Doc has done -- but after a while, something else starts to become a higher priority in your life," said Willis, 47, who lives the words that he preaches. His NBA career lasted more than two decades, and it included eight teams and the distinction of being the oldest person (45) ever to play more than one game in an NBA season.
Now Willis is happily retired. He runs a popular clothing business for big and tall men (particularly athletes) in the exclusive Buckhead district of Atlanta. It is called Willis & Walker, and Willis founded the place in 1998 when he was active as a player.
By then, Rivers' 14-year career was over as an NBA point guard, but what remained then is what still remains for Willis, and that is the memory of Rivers as the ultimate leader.
"Coach (Mike) Fratello would sort of let him run the show, and guys listened to Doc, because he was vocal in that he would yell, but he did so in a respectful manner," Willis said. "It was more so in the sense that I'm trying to get you focused and pumped up. It was always constructive, and he did it very well. He was a great general."
That said, Willis never saw Rivers as a coach. "No, never," Willis said, adding of Rivers, "I could see him doing a bunch of other things, maybe something out there in corporate America. A business venture. Ownership. Maybe a general manager or a vice president of basketball operations. Something like that for sure."
Instead, between stints as a splendid color analyst for NBA games on national television, Rivers joined the Magic in 1999. He was the league's Coach of the Year the next season, but he was fired by impatient management after a slow start in 2003.
That was Orlando's loss.
The Celtics grabbed Rivers in 2004. Then, after they acquired the Big Three three seasons later following a few bumpy times, Rivers had a world championship and total respect as a big-time NBA coach -- at least from Willis, and that is saying much.
Willis' coaches through the years included Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich, Rudy Tomjanovich and Fratello.
"Regardless of whether somebody is a superstar or not, Doc has gotten all of his players to play for one another, and to have that one goal, which is to win it all, and he's gotten them to believe that," Willis said. "Those are the things that a Gregg Popovich does, and you can see that Doc has learned from a guy like that. There is no favoritism.
"Everybody is treated equally. If one person gets yelled at, the whole team gets yelled at. That breeds success, because just like Popovich and some of the other great coaches, players start to look at Doc and say, 'He's fair. He's honest. He's forthright.'
"As a coach, you start getting more and more respect."
Which is my point: Rivers has that respect, and it grows every time he keeps the Lakers morphing into Kobe and a bunch of other guys.
Mr. Mom can wait, Doc.
Stay Mr. Coach.