BOSTON – After a day and a half of restraint, Doc Rivers’ emotions finally got the best of him Wednesday night.
Fittingly, his postgame news conference would be staged at a postgame dais with a backdrop of Clippers logos and a Celtics microphone flag in front of it. Rivers surveyed the converted media dining room as he walked in. He smiled; his eyes heavy.
It was a night where memories must have felt like a flash flood. And before the first question, referring to a two-minute video tribute to his nine years with the Celtics in between the first and second quarters, Rivers was already choking back tears.
“I’m still emotional,” he said, the one-time NBA champion head coach pausing to compose himself. “I thought the fans were…”
Rivers never finished his initial thought. He was overcome; his usually powerful voice beginning to tremble.
He received three standing ovations Wednesday night in his first and only return this season to the city he spent nine years and made two trips to the NBA Finals. Before the game he was unsure of what the reaction from a sold out TD Garden would be. Seconds after walking out of the team tunnel as a visitor for the first time, he knew the night would be special.
“It was just a really nice day,” Rivers said, following a nearly 10-second pause during his opening statement. “This is… it’s just such a classy place here. So, it was really nice when I walked out and, you know I’m not used to walking out on that side, and all those guys, the people, they lined up and I was basically useless for the first eighteen minutes of the game, I thought. It was just nice.”
When the first quarter concluded, the Celtics arena operations staff played a video tribute backed by the Dierks Bentley song “Home.”
“From the mountains high, To the wave crashed coast. There’s a way to find, Better days I know,” Bentley sang as images of Rivers flashed on the screen, including his Gatorade shower in the waning moments of Game 6 of the NBA Finals and the introductory press conference for Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce.
“It’s been a long hard ride, Got a ways to go. But this is still the place, That we all call home.”
The video concluded with the message: “Thank you, Doc.”
Rivers waved to the crowd during their booming ovation. Clippers and Celtics players alike joined in the applause. It capped off a series of emotional steps leading into the Clippers’ 96-88 victory: the day before when Rivers was interviewed by local news stations; the Clippers’ morning shootaround when he set foot in the then-empty arena for the first time in red, white and blue; and the pregame media scrum, which was seven people deep in a crescent moon shape around him.
As Rivers made his way through the evening, he hugged Jeff Green, who he coached for two-plus, and Hall of Fame columnist Jackie McMullen, who covered Rivers for the duration of his time in Boston. He kidded with security guards, spoke to Rajon Rondo at length after the game, and saw dozens of familiar faces as he made his way from the Clippers’ team bus and paced the narrow hallway outside of the unfamiliar visitor’s locker room.
For Green, seeing Rivers again meant the chance to play against someone who served as one of the most positive influences of his career and helped him through a potentially career-threatening heart ailment.
“He allowed me to become the player that I am now,” said Green, who in addition to playing for Rivers played with Rivers’ son, Jeremiah, at Georgetown. “He gave me confidence to just go out there and play my game and not hold back. And that was one thing I needed in transition to playing this position, the 3 and some 2, was to have confidence in it, and he gave that to me.”
Before the game, Rivers was asked if he thought he would receive a standing ovation when introduced, he said he wasn’t sure, but hoped so. In typical Rivers candor he also said he would try to avoid giving the fans a reason to applaud after the game, which would likely indicate the Celtics defeated his Clippers.
Not allowing that to happen was an important part of Wednesday night for Rivers’ current players.
“We all talked about it,” Jamal Crawford said. “We wanted to win it for him. Tonight’s a special night with Antawn [Jamison] getting 20,000 points and Doc coming back here to win.”
Blake Griffin added: “Whether somebody admits it or not, some games mean more, coming back home, whether it’s your hometown or a place you used to play. It was important for us.”
It was in many was the perfect return for Rivers, a chance to see old friends, visit old haunts and do what he does best. Win. It is why the Celtics paid homage to him and why the Clippers so desperately wanted to bring him aboard this summer.
“We all know how much Doc put into this organization and that he’s one of the top coaches ever in this game,” Darren Collison said. “He’s enthusiastic. He’s definitely a player’s coach. Any time you have a player’s coach, who is all for the players. The players tend to give back and this is one way we can give back to him.”
Rivers recognized the way his players responded.
“I told my coaches I needed halftime far more than the players,” he said. “And I think they sensed that, I will say that. You could see at halftime C.P. (Chris Paul) he was like, ‘We got it. We got it.’ He kept saying that. So, I think they sensed that a little bit for me, and that was nice.”
After addressing the media, Rivers walked out of a double-door and made a right turn towards the arena floor. Presumably, Rivers wanted to say a few final goodbyes and gaze one last time at the arena he called home just six months ago.