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As son of a police officer, Doc Rivers says: 'My dad would’ve been out there marching'

Clippers coach speaking out about police brutality and social injustices in wake of George Floyd's death

ORLANDO — There was a time when Doc Rivers was not skeptical of police, not suspicious of their motives, not especially worried about being pulled over because he had the wrong skin tone at the wrong time.

That was quite a while ago, decades actually, when his muscle fibers didn’t instinctively twitch when he came in close contact with the shield. Truthfully — and this may seem astonishing given the cauldron climate that exists today and historically between police and people of color — Rivers expected and received unconditional love whenever a cop followed him home and walked inside and said:

“Hey, son.”

Grady Rivers was his boy’s idol, for how he ran a disciplined household and taught him basketball and wore the blue uniform. The father did all of that proudly, and that resonated within Doc, and the honor and character of the man never left the son, even now, and therefore never will.

Grady Rivers rose to lieutenant while serving 30 years on the force in Maywood, a largely working class Black township just west of Chicago. The father understood his role, and his level of influence, and the power he held that would never be abused.

“My dad knew the difference between right and wrong,” said Doc Rivers. “He was a very principled guy and I was lucky because I grew up with that. But if you did something wrong, you did it wrong and he was going to tell you that. I was the son of a cop but he said, ‘If you do something wrong, you will be in jail. That’s a guarantee and there will be no favors.’ He made that clear. He told me that all the time.”

Fast-forward to today: Rivers is coaching the LA Clippers and so many years later there’s another piece of fatherly advice that pounds away in his chest, in his soul. That seed was dormant then, yet rages now.

“I knew as a kid when I was going to Melrose Park and I was walking, there was a very good chance the police would pull over, stop me,” he said. “My dad would tell me: ‘Be respectful, show your hands — both of them — and talk.’ Then he said, ‘Don’t tell them your dad is a police officer, because they wouldn’t care. They don’t care. They don’t look at that, they look at you.’

“And so, he also gave me ‘The Talk.’ He told me about those other cops.”

Those cops were not just in Melrose Park, the next town over, which was largely white. But lately, in Minneapolis. And New York City. And Atlanta. And New Orleans. And, hell, Rivers has lost track, after the multiple incidents of beatings and brutality cases and deaths of unarmed Black men in the custody of those other cops.

And so, how’s the son of a cop supposed to feel, given all that? What amount of rage and frustration has smeared mustard stains over the Norman Rockwell-painted nostalgia of his youth? And why, do you suppose, is Rivers pushing and elbowing his way to the front of the line in the NBA’s unified efforts to demand justice here in the scorching Summer of 2020?

He, the son of a cop?

No, he the human being and Black man and voice for change and reform, even before the death of George Floyd and especially afterward.

“When that happened to him, I was furious,” said Rivers. “This is a humanity issue. No man should kneel on another man’s neck. You don’t treat another human that way, I don’t care what they’ve done. But some of those cops, they don’t see us as humans. And this is why there’s a divide between the Black community and police. There’s no trust.”

It wasn’t that way in a town of 24,000 people back in the 1970s and especially inside the modest, split-level house at 1413 S. 16th Avenue. Grady Rivers was about law and order within his home and outside the door. That said, his son recalled another, very important side to Officer Rivers: In an oath to protect and serve, the father took that last part very seriously.

“My dad lived in the community,” said Rivers. “If we’re walking down the street, it was, ‘Hey Sergeant Rivers, hey Mr. Rivers.’ Everywhere. My dad coached the football team, basketball team and Little League baseball team. My house was full of people everyday. He was more than a cop. He was a community leader.”

Grady Rivers was among the adults who nourished the town’s athletic potential that would bear delicious fruit. Although Maywood is small, it has produced a disproportionate amount of professional athletes, especially in hoops. Among the present and former NBA players are Jevon Carter, Shannon Brown, Michael Finley, Dee Brown and Sterling Brown. The Rivers’ home became a haven for athletic-minded kids because Grady Rivers built a basketball court with lights. Kids would appear early in the morning, before Doc awakened, and often stayed well into the night, after Doc fell asleep.

We have to disband the unions. Forget defunding the police, we have to defund the unions. Because those unions are so powerful that the good cops are scared. They’re too scared to tell.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers

Hundreds of years ago, Maywood was a minor stop on the Underground Railroad. Some settled in Chicago, others kept moving to Canada. That, and the Great Migration of the 1920s and ‘30s from the South, saw an influx of Blacks in Maywood, a rare suburb that was largely Black. Slowly, Blacks also became part of the Maywood police force and one in particular saw it as his calling.

There was a spirit of cooperation within the force, as far as Doc Rivers could tell, between his father and his fellow officers. Not only did they police the community, they policed each other; as a lieutenant, Grady Rivers was in charge of a group of officers. That’s an issue that the son believes is missing today and is causing decay and destroying the image of the force.

“We’re supposed to hold other people accountable, right?” he said. “Well, if there’s 10 good police officers and one bad one, and the 10 good ones know he’s doing bad and they don’t turn him in, then there’s 11 bad ones. That’s the way I do my math.

“If those 10 good ones saw a man on the street doing bad, they would arrest him. They would turn him in. But if they see one of their own doing bad, because of the police unions, they’re called a snitch. Yet in real policing on the street, they have snitches to help them do their jobs and investigations. That has to be solved because this isn’t going to get better until it does.”

Don’t get Doc started, because he can’t stop.

“There needs to be a stronger push to give those good cops a vehicle,” Rivers said. “It’s no different than the Catholic priests; there’s a lot of good ones. But there are some bad ones and when the good ones don’t do something about it, they’re all guilty.

“We have to disband the unions. Forget defunding the police, we have to defund the unions. Because those unions are so powerful that the good cops are scared. They’re too scared to tell. What if the bad cop is a lieutenant and you’re a second-year cop? You’re going to turn him in? Well, you better, but you don’t. Until that happens we ain’t changing.”

For Grady Rivers, being a cop in the community he served actually made the job easier and more enjoyable, and this isn’t lost these days on his son. Rivers also believes all cops should be required to live and raise their families in the communities in which they serve.

“One thing I see in policing is, if you’re not going to be part of community, you shouldn’t be a police officer,” said Rivers. “Be in it. If you’re going to try to police people, invest in them. Because when you think about all these pull-overs where they go violent, what if you were a cop and walked to the car and said, ‘Hey Jimmy, what are you doing speeding?’ It’s a whole different thing.

“We care where we live. When you don’t live there, you don’t care as much.”

Not long after Grady Rivers retired, Maywood relaxed that live-where-you-work requirement and Doc believes it contributed to the rapid decline of a neighborhood that was already in the tentacles of drugs and gangs and poverty.

In 2007, an unarmed motorist was shot and killed by a Maywood cop who said the man tried to run him down while fleeing a bust. Maywood settled with the slain man’s family for $500,000.

Three years later another Maywood cop was caught stealing money from suspects during a sting. In 2010, Maywoods deputy police chief allegedly pistol-whipped a teenager while off duty.

He would be very proud what’s going on. My dad would’ve been out there marching. And I know the cops who were just like him want to.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers

Some Maywood residents have complained about being shaken down and robbed by cops; one man sued the town after being allegedly beaten and robbed.

The Better Government Association, a community watchdog group, recently investigated the conduct and patterns of the Maywood police and reached troubling conclusions. Among them: Officers with ties to street gangs and allegations that officers were selling badges and robbing residents, one of whom was an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer.

But Maywood is not under nationwide magnification, not like Portland, Ore., and Seattle and other cities still seeing confrontations between demonstrators and police.

“My dad told his officers that our job is to be peacemakers in the community,” said Rivers. “That’s what it’s supposed to mean. What I see going on now with how the police are relating to the demonstrators is terrible. This gearing up with all the armor and artillery, that’s ridiculous. That’s what you do for the army, not for a community.”

Grady Rivers died in 2007 and the son had a quick one-word response when asked what the father’s reaction would be to the George Floyd incident: “Furious.”

And the protests?

“He would be very proud what’s going on,” said Rivers. “My dad would’ve been out there marching. And I know the cops who were just like him want to.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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