Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers would probably need hours to explain everything that he’s learned from Miami President Pat Riley over the last three decades.
Or he could sum it up in three words.
“Gosh, everything really,” Rivers said.
Some elements of this Philadelphia-Miami Eastern Conference semi-final series – the Heat lead 2-0 going into Game 3 on Friday night – go back further than this season, or this past summer, or any time recently. They go back to 1992, when Riley was coaching the New York Knicks and they swung a trade for Rivers to come run their offence.
Rivers, who had already been in the league for nine seasons, most of those with Atlanta, including an All-Star year in 1987-88, immediately became a Riley disciple. And even though they’ve been on different sides of battles for years – this is the fourth time Rivers has faced the Heat in the playoffs since Riley arrived, with Miami winning two of the three previous series – there is a clear respect that remains, born from the time they spent together long ago.
“I’ve been around some pretty good guys,” said Rivers, whose former coaches also include names like Mike Fratello, Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich. “But Riley, clearly, had the biggest impact. It’s not even close. I mean, I had no thoughts of coaching until I played for Pat Riley and the way he did it, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool.’ ”
Riley was the last coach to ever use Rivers as a starting point guard in the NBA. They were together for parts of three seasons in New York; perhaps ironically, their last game together was a loss to Miami in December, 1994. Rivers got traded to San Antonio, Riley wound up leaving the Knicks for the Heat less than a year later.
Both have been champions since, Rivers with the Celtics in 2008, Riley with the Heat in 2006, 2012 and 2013. And here they are again.
“Doc always played the game like he was a coach on the floor,” Riley said this week. “That’s how he played at Atlanta, that’s what I saw in him, and I just believed that he had the qualities to get into the coaching profession.”
For Riley, that wasn’t an idea.
He made it a requirement.
When Rivers retired from playing, he began working as a basketball broadcaster. Riley didn’t exactly approve of that development – and let Rivers know that when his former player was working a playoff series that Riley was coaching.
“I didn’t like his commentating or his criticism of me, his ex-coach,” Riley said.
Turns out, there was also a bigger reason for Riley pushing Rivers from the broadcast spot back to the bench. He continued believing that Rivers had the background, knowledge and temperament needed to be a winner on the sideline.
“When I did TV for three years, every day he would call me or challenge me,” Rivers said. “He would belittle me, literally. … I used to think he was wrong. He ended up being right.”
There’s no arguing that point. Riley was right. Rivers was destined to coach. He’s ninth in all-time wins, fourth all-time in playoff wins, has gotten to the NBA Finals twice, won the title once and is a past Coach of the Year.
And when Riley heard Rivers thanking him earlier this week for planting those seeds, he was appreciative.
“He’s turned out to be one of the all-time great coaches,” Riley said. “I was proud to have coached him. And I’m proud of what he’s saying here.”