BOSTON — Austin Rivers had been struggling. He was a 20-year-old rookie who had not made a shot in five games. Over the past three weeks he had missed 23 of his 26 attempts at the basket. “I’m just going to lose myself in the game,” he promised, as if speaking to himself. But he wasn’t speaking to himself. He was speaking to a room filled with reporters one hour before the game he would play against his father.
His father, Doc, has been coach of the Boston Celtics since 2004. For the sake of familiarity, Austin and his mother and siblings had remained in Orlando, and he had grown up visiting Boston to see his father during school vacations. As a teenager he would shoot at the Celtics’ facility among their future Hall of Famers. He grew up wanting to play among them. Of course he grew up wanting to be like his father.
“I just got to keep working hard so one day I can be like him,” he recalled saying to himself several years ago.
His father was an All-Star point guard who played 13 seasons in the NBA. On Wednesday night, he was a 51-year-old coach with a championship ring and the responsibility of trying to beat the New Orleans Hornets. Rivers understood that the Celtics were paying his father to exploit the weaknesses of his son.
“I just have to go out there and play my best and help my team win, whereas he has to go out there and try to game plan against me, and then he wants to be happy for me at the same time,” said Rivers. “I’m sure he doesn’t really like all this, so I know he’s waiting for this night to be over with; whereas for me, I’m waiting for it to get started.”
GALLERY: Fathers coaching against sons
There is something in every parent who wants to see his child do well, or help them up when they fall, or make life easier for them to succeed. But too much of that does no good at all. They have to learn for themselves. They need to go 3 for 26 on their way to earning confidence and strength. In the peculiar case of Rivers, his father was charged with making his life more difficult than ever.
“I didn’t enjoy it, honestly,” Doc would say later. “I know it’s neat for everyone else, but as a father, I don’t know if I enjoyed that.”
When Rivers approached the scorer’s table seven minutes and 41 seconds into the first quarter Wednesday, it was only the fourth instance in the history of the NBA that a coach and an opposing player had met in a game as father and son, and so only three other head coaches had experienced the pride that his father must have felt as he tried to pretend that he wasn’t paying unusual attention to No. 25 in the teal visitors uniform. Rivers was welcomed into the game by the applause of fans, who appreciated his father. Most of the 18,624 people in the building recognized that his father had spent the past nine seasons away from his family in order to fulfill the honor of restoring the league’s most storied team. Rivers understood that he was the beneficiary of his father’s good will.
“When they won versus L.A. I saw the emotion on my Dad’s face,” Austin recalled of the Celtics’ victory over the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. “That was probably one of the happiest times I’ve ever felt for someone else. I was so proud and so happy just because I’ve seen my father go through seasons where he’s only won (24) games, and I’ve seen people come to the stands saying, ‘Fire Doc.’ You want to talk about a tough time? You think I’m having a tough time, my father’s gone through stuff 100 times worse. And look where he’s at now. To have someone in my corner who has been through all that — I know if he can do it, I’ve got to work hard and I can do it too.”
The same kinds of pressures that could make a head coach miserable were now weighing on his son. Rivers, a 6-4 shooting guard trying to shift over to the position his father used to play, was averaging 6.2 points per game and shooting 32.8 percent this season. Anyone could see Wednesday how hard he was trying. He was showing way too much respect for the Celtics’ defense as he beat his defender and airballed a couple of scooping layups high off the glass instead of simply driving in hard to demand the foul. But there were other plays that he finished with an awkward hook or difficult two-handed runners that displayed the talent that had earned him the No. 10 pick in last year’s draft. His father understood the pressure Austin was trying to beat.
“I think it’s harder than it was when we played,” Doc said of the demands on NBA players today. “We just played basketball and we didn’t have any other responsibilities — besides carrying luggage and traveling commercial. I just think there’s more pressure, there’s more stuff. I don’t think half the world knew my name. I just got to go play basketball. Now it’s just more stuff and I think it’s much harder — the maturity and the patience and all of that stuff, you’re tested far more now, not only on the floor but off the floor, with articles written about you in a good way and in a bad way. It’s way too much. But it is what it is.”
His father had spent these nine seasons in Boston seeking to recreate the ideals of family in the Celtics’ locker room. The concept of ubuntu that drove his players to win the championship five seasons ago was nothing more than a desire for meaningful relationships. It was displayed in his father’s bonding with Kevin Garnett, in his encouragement of Paul Pierce, in his constructive criticism of Rajon Rondo. On Wednesday it was framed by the audience of his wife and three other children gathered around the most famous court in basketball for this night of poignant confrontation. “He told me before and after the game he loved me,” Austin said. “And before the game he told me to be competitive out there.”
In the midst of the worst slump of his life, Austin listened to his father. At the end of the third quarter Rivers was isolated by Pierce, a mentor who was chatty as he dribbled the ball back and forth. “He told me, `This is your welcome to the league moment,”’ said Rivers, who watched Pierce drive past him for a layup with 2.2 seconds remaining. But then Rivers used that time to push an outlet pass back at Pierce, earning a pair of free throws before the buzzer.
The game had turned in the first quarter when Rivers came off the bench. He had helped transform an early 10-point deficit into an eventual 38-32 lead for New Orleans. The Hornets were a young team with no hope of making the playoffs and their best player unavailable — Eric Gordon (knee) was ruled out as a precaution after having played the night before in Philadelphia — and they were beating an experienced team that had won its previous six games while aiming to contend for another championship.
Austin Rivers finished the Hornets’ 90-78 victory with 8 points and one assist in 23 promising minutes. “I finally went out there and played well,” he said. Whenever he smiled, he looked especially like his father.
There have been thousands of NBA nights for Doc Rivers, who in turn hopes there will be thousands more for his son. This night will stand on its own. The memory will last because it was bigger than either one of them, and they needed each other to make it important.
They were in separate rooms when each was asked what he would remember most about this game.
“That we won,” said Austin.
“That we lost,” said his father.