The following is the third in a series of “Lob City Memories” that will highlight some of the standout people, moments and games from the six-plus years of Lob City in Los Angeles. Over the next couple of months, we will look back at things a little more obscure than a Spurs series victory, Chris Paul buzzer beater over Tony Allen, Blake Griffin alley-oop off Jamal Crawford’s between-the-legs pass, or DeAndre Jordan humiliation of Brandon Knight. Part 3 of Lob City Memories looks back at the night Doc Rivers returned to Boston for the first time with the Clippers and how there weren’t emotions enough left for his reunion with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce a night later.
Doc Rivers is not usually one to entirely mask his emotions. When he’s upset, he slams his fist on the podium or raises his voice or contorts his body in that spinning motion with his arms flailing upwards. When Rivers is elated, he shows it, too. I was a foot away from him parading down the sideline high-fiving fans hard enough to hear the slap while Darren Collison wrapped up the Warriors series with a pair of free throws. His fist pump could have concussed a passerby.
However, as the Clippers approached their trip to Boston in December 2013, Rivers was purposefully coy. He, at times, tried to play it off as “another game.” He made it sound like any attention he received that night would be undeserved. He admitted the weirdness of conducting shootaround after the team arrived on a bus rather than by personal vehicle, but he was playing it cool. The spectacle was yet to come.
Rivers coached in Boston for nine years. He won a title five years before coming back for the first time as the Clippers head coach. Kevin Garnett may have been the heart. Paul Pierce may have been the soul. And recent Hall of Fame inductee Ray Allen may have had the most important time of his life in Boston. But Rivers still, perhaps, owned the throne. Win a title in Boston and you are revered forever. At least until you join the Yankees.
So, the typically emotionally invested Rivers was obviously trying to keep his current team focused and avoid recalling his triumphs in the Garden. Prior to the game, as the team arrived, Rivers made his way through the bowels of the arena as though he were still the king. He cheerfully greeted everyone. He spoke to Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green and Jackie MacMullan and waived to VIPs as they headed courtside. When the pregame media scrum broke it was larger than any other Clippers scrum that regular season or playoffs outside of the insanity that overwhelmed the University of San Francisco the day after the Donald Sterling tape went public.
Still, Rivers never seemed phased. He was jovial and threw every local reporter he knew plenty of playful shade. After that he addressed his team. They took the court for pregame warmups. Rivers was nowhere visible. He was waiting until the last possible moment to come out of the tunnel. When he did the arena ignited in giddiness the way you would expect a teenager of the 90s to react if Backstreet Boys and N’Sync entered at the same time. Holding hands.
Rivers was already overwhelmed, he would say later. He was “useless” during early in-game situations. He just didn’t show it entirely until a perfect tribute video was played between the first and second quarter. That’s when the tears first welled in his eyes. He waved to the crowd, again, as they were in full-throat. The mask was removed momentarily, but it wouldn’t come off entirely until the Clippers had won and Rivers was seated at a makeshift podium in the media dining area after the game. Words eluded him. It was emotional for everyone in the room.
I published a 2,000-plus word summary of the Rivers homecoming at approximately 5 a.m. from a hotel in SoHo less than five hours after we left Massachusetts. It remains one of my favorites from 14 years as a professional journalist.
And, yes, the above sentence summarizes most every beat writer or team reporter experience on the night of a back-to-back. However, this back-to-back was one for the ages. In perhaps one of the all-time scheduling oversights, Rivers returned to Boston on a Wednesday and was forced to play a reunion game against Garnett and Pierce (and Jason Terry) the following night on TNT. I was alone in the hotel elevator with Rivers after we arrived, again, around 3 a.m. in New York. He looked at me and said, “I’m exhausted. How are you?” He could have passed out leaning on his luggage.
It’s no wonder the Clippers lost to the Nets on Thursday. It was memorable watching Rivers interact with his former title-winning players, but the night before was such an incredible, unforgettable experience that the night in New York might as well have never happened. The serenades of “Brooooook-lyn” were still drowned by 20,000 Celtics fans in unison chanting “Thank, you, Doc.”