ORLANDO, Fla. — Before the start of the 1999-2000 season, Doc Rivers gathered the Orlando Magic players at midcourt during practice. He shared that Sports Illustrated had projected their team to challenge the 1972-73 Sixers, who went 9-73, for the worst record in NBA history.

“When he said that, we were like, ‘Nah,’ ” recalled former power forward Bo Outlaw, a leader on that team. “Our personality was [Rivers’] personality. He was a fighter. A grinder. That’s what we were. We were not accepting what [the media was] saying. …

“We took that personal. We were like, ‘All right, we’re going to show y’all.’ ”

It was one of Rivers’ first motivational acts as a head coach. In the two-plus decades that have followed, Rivers has accumulated a resumé that resulted in him being voted as one of the 15 greatest coaches in NBA history as part of the league’s 75th anniversary celebration. He won a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008, has coached current and future Hall of Famers, and is now guiding a new-look Sixers team with title aspirations. The San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, who last week became the NBA’s all-time leader in coaching victories, is the only active coach with more wins than Rivers’ 1,032 going into Sunday’s game at Orlando.

And it all started in Orlando, where Rivers accelerated a Magic rebuild with their beloved “Heart & Hustle” season, helped usher in the Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill era often defined by what-ifs and “learned so many lessons” he still applies today.

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“It will be the place that, forever in my mind, is what made me a coach,” Rivers told The Inquirer earlier this week. " … And I probably couldn’t have done it in a better town. I was young [38]. They received me. So it was a perfect fit.”

Then-Magic general manager John Gabriel acknowledges he “took [Rivers] out of the broadcast booth, sort of sight unseen.” Rivers, whose playing career ended in 1996, had zero coaching experience at the time. Yet Gabriel, who had previously been an NBA assistant coach, admired Rivers’ style and leadership as a player, and picked up on his deep knowledge when he called games.

Then-Magic coach Chuck Daly and Mike Fratello, Rivers’ coach with the Atlanta Hawks, also had been working behind the scenes to persuade Gabriel that Rivers should be his hire when Daly retired after the 1998-99 season. Daly invited Rivers to training camp before his final season and told him, “You’re going to be the next coach here” — even as Rivers “resisted” moving into that realm.

“I sensed a guy that was intuitive,” Gabriel told The Inquirer, “with enough insights into the game to know that it’s not an easy ride, whether you’ve got a great team or whether you’ve got a bad team. … He seemed like his shoulders were broad enough to be able to take that on.”

Rivers knew he had walked into a full rebuild. To set up for a star-studded 2000 free-agent class, the Magic had traded away Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson, and Horace Grant. The remaining roster included five undrafted players, a slew of second-round picks, and zero All-Stars. Yet Rivers “threw a wrench” in Garbriel’s master plan by becoming the NBA’s Coach of the Year in that first season after posting a 41-41 record and coming within one game of making the playoffs.

Early on, Rivers abided by a philosophy he learned as a player under Pat Riley: culture before play.

Leaning into the Heart & Hustle intangibles was a requirement for a team that made up for its lack of talent with a rugged mentality. It was anchored by Outlaw; Darrell Armstrong, the NBA’s reigning sixth man of the year and most improved player; and Ben Wallace, who was on the verge of blossoming into a dominant rebounder and shot blocker. Rivers also identified Chucky Atkins, who before then had never stuck with an NBA organization, to be the backup point guard. The team built camaraderie through intense practice sessions.

“We didn’t have any superstars, so why [would we] not listen to the coach?” Outlaw told The Inquirer. “We were not in that position [to do it any other way]. We were all playing for each other.”

Rivers had three former or future NBA head coaches on that first Orlando staff — Dave Wohl, Johnny Davis, and Eric Musselman — which taught Rivers to regularly hire assistants he did not previously know in order to integrate new ideas. At that point in his career, though, Rivers was also bold enough to take chances, including when he scrapped the Magic’s ineffective offensive system after about five games.

“[My assistants] were like, ‘You cannot do that,’ ” Rivers recalled. “I did it anyway, and it changed our whole season. I was not scared to do it, maybe because I was young.”

Instead, the Magic shifted to a more free-flowing style that put a lot of responsibility on the guards. On the other end of the floor, they deployed a defensive scheme with aggressive traps and rotations, and Armstrong picking up full-court.

Outlaw described Rivers’ overall approach with players as a blend of expectations and freedom, which resulted in trust both ways. If Rivers saw somebody working on a skill in practice, he would encourage the players to try it in a game. He was open to discussing and implementing player suggestions. And he was not opposed to using unorthodox lineups, such as playing the offensively limited Outlaw and Wallace at the same time because of their defensive impact and synergy with each other.

“Like, come on,” Outlaw said. “I guarantee you he’d look at that right now and say, ‘I don’t know how I did that.’ ”

That coach-player rapport was valuable during times of adversity. Armstrong instantly recalled when the Magic traded Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Chris Gatling on the same night Hardaway returned to Orlando with the Suns for the first time. After a crushing four-point loss, the Magic then blasted the Knicks on the road by 21 with only nine players available, getting a 22-point effort from Atkins while Rivers “pumped gas into him” with a heavy dose of isolation plays.

“That’s the type of coach Doc was,” Armstrong told The Inquirer. “He had us believing. He put us in situations to be successful, and that’s all you can ask for from your head coach.”

Later, the Magic used a seven-game winning streak in late March and early April to surge into the playoff race. In the regular season’s second-to-last game, an Atkins three-pointer that rimmed out with six seconds left against Milwaukee dashed those postseason hopes. Outlaw still believes his team’s all-out style would have been dangerous in the postseason, that the Magic “thought we would have won that [first-round] playoff series” even as a lower seed.

Yet that feel-good season still “made Orlando a destination” for free agents, Rivers said.

The Magic went after Tim Duncan before he re-signed (and went on to finish his entire Hall of Fame career) with the Spurs. But they landed Hill in a sign-and-trade that sent Atkins and Wallace to the Detroit Pistons, and signed McGrady. They also drafted sharpshooter Mike Miller, forming a perimeter trio that all stood 6-foot-8 and “would have been hell,” Rivers said.

Though McGrady morphed into a three-time All-Star and 2002-03 NBA scoring leader under Rivers, Hill’s serious ankle injury prevented that duo from fully taking off. The Magic made the playoffs the next three seasons but never advanced past the first round.

“Unfortunately, it just didn’t happen,” said Rivers, pausing between thoughts. “And in the long run, that’s probably what cost my job there.”

Armstrong still recalls Rivers having his finger on the pulse of his team. Like on a 2002 snowy day in Salt Lake City, Armstrong remembered, when Rivers ditched a practice for a team outing of bowling and pizza “and the next day we go out there and kick Karl Malone’s and John Stockton’s [butt].”

But after the Magic surrendered a 3-1 series lead on the top-seeded Detroit Pistons in the 2003 playoffs, Rivers “heard the winds of change” percolating and “had already accepted” he was likely to be fired. It happened after starting the following season 1-10, yet Rivers felt reassured he was still on the right path when he was offered two coaching jobs that same day, he said.

Rivers instead took the season off to return to the broadcast booth “just to get away and see the league again,” before the Celtics hired him in 2004. Since then, he has guided the championship-winning Boston team headlined by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, then the “Lob City” and Kawhi Leonard/Paul George Los Angeles Clippers, and now the Sixers anchored by Joel Embiid and James Harden.

Nearly 20 years later, Gabriel acknowledges, “You can’t help but think to yourself, ‘What if things would have turned out a little differently?’ ” with Rivers, “because there’s something to be said in this league about loyalty and longevity.” The general manager also feels immense pride for being the first to hire Rivers, and that Orlando is where the career of one of the NBA’s 15 greatest coaches began.

“Our staff did the 57 transactions in 15 months to get a chance to coach Duncan, Hill, and McGrady,” Gabriel said. “It didn’t all work out, but [Rivers] might have been the biggest acquisition. …

“There’s a sense of, ‘That’s my coach!’ when I see him, because he did cut his teeth here in Central Florida.”