CHICAGO – The City of Chicago is alive in Doc Rivers: the wind, the weather, the pride and toughness.
As the Clippers get set to face the Bulls Friday at United Center, Rivers returns home for the first and only time this season. It’s something he’s done dozens of times as a coach and before as a player. Now in the Western Conference he gets to go back at least one time fewer each year, but coming home only heightens what is already inside him.
“I think everything that I am is because of Chicago,” Rivers said. “My dad, mom. It’s where I grew up. It was the only city I knew.”
He grew up in Maywood, a village in Proviso Township, 10 miles from downtown and less than that to Michael Jordan’s statue in front of United Center. But Rivers was a Chicago fixture a decade before the city’s most famous player. He was a regular at fabled Chicago Stadium, watching Bulls teams of the late 70s led by Artis Gilmore and Reggie Theus. He used to receive shoes from Theus in the player’s tunnel after games, when Rivers was a high schools star at Proviso East, a perennial high school basketball powerhouse.
For Rivers, Chicago made him the basketball player, and person, that he grew up to be.
“The first time I ever got on a plane in my life was a visit to the University of Michigan, and that was my senior year [of high school],” Rivers said. “So, I had never literally left Chicago, and that’s all I knew. The only players that I knew were in Chicago, and so, the style of play [that] I play is due to that. The way I play… I couldn’t shoot; like most Chicago guards. ‘It’s too windy’ was our excuse. But we’re all physical, tough-minded guards. I thought that city and probably my dad being a police officer probably had a lot to do with that.”
His father, Grady, who passed away in 2007, was a Chicago police lieutenant. His work schedule revolved around seeing the junior Rivers play basketball at East, often sitting courtside for games in uniform. Part of his toughness certainly came from Grady, but it also came from the way of life in the permafrost winters and nights outside where the wind whips off Lake Michigan just hard enough and just frigid enough to snatch the breath from your lungs.
“it’s not just tough [like] fighting, it’s just tough minded,” Rivers said. “It’s the toughness that they play with. You play outside a lot. And I actually think I hope it never leaves; if you lose, you sit in that city.”
Rivers said he’s long had respect for players from his home city, even those less heralded than young superstars like Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose. He brought up Pistons guard Will Bynum and Bobcats guard Jannero Pargo and told a story about Rockets starter Pat Beverley, another Chicago guard, he interacted with earlier this season.
“I didn’t know Patrick Beverly was from Chicago, and I said something during the game,” Rivers said. “If you remember in Houston, he was toasting us in the first half. I made a snide comment to Chris, like, ‘Come on, man’ and he [Patrick Beverly] turned around and said, ‘I’m from Chicago, and I beat Proviso East.’ In the middle of our game. I was like, ‘What was that?’ So I started laughing, and what made it better, I was walking out after the game after we beat them; I see his mom, I never met his mom. His mom starts out with, ‘You know we’re from Chicago and we beat Proviso East.’ I was like, ‘My gosh, I didn’t know that was such a big deal anymore.’”
When Rivers played for East, it was a big deal. And, for him, coming home is as well. When a reporter about an hour prior to the game told him they happened through his old neighborhood on the way to the arena, Rivers lit up. Even then, Chicago is close to his heart. The only thing that might make his first trip to Chicago from the West better: leaving with a victory.
That winning is everything mentality was something he learned on the pickup courts of Chicago as well. “If you lose, you sit in that city,” Rivers said. “They don’t care who you are; you’re sitting. You are not playing the next game. I think that, you go other places, the best player; they kind of save that spot for him, so if you lose, in Chicago you’re sitting. So, that’s why the games are so competitive.