Mike Fratello entered his first season as an NBA head coach with the Atlanta Hawks the same year that Doc Rivers came into the league.
The coach and player spent plenty of time together. Both joined the Hawks in the 1983-84 season. Fratello stayed for seven years. Rivers, a second-round pick out of Marquette, played for the Hawks his first eight seasons.
The Hawks made the playoffs in five of the seven seasons they were together.
Not surprisingly, Fratello saw a coaching future in Rivers early on. Hired last week as the 76ers' head coach, Rivers has coached 20 full seasons in the NBA, including the last seven with the Los Angeles Clippers before being fired last Monday.
“There wasn’t any question I thought he could become a coach because of the way he asked questions and the way he went about things,” Fratello said in a phone interview. “He would come to talk to you and you could talk to him and wind up making things clearer on why we did things a certain way. There were early indications.”
Fratello said besides Rivers' desire to talk and learn X’s-and-O’s, there was another reason why he thought Rivers could be head-coaching material.
“He had the ability to lead and be a voice to his teammates,” Fratello said.
As a rookie, Rivers appeared in 81 games, including 47 starts, and averaged 9.3 points and 3.9 assists in 23.9 minutes.
As the years went on, Fratello’s confidence in Rivers grew.
“I trusted him more and more, and you saw his maturity and development as a player,” Fratello said.
Standing 6-foot-4, Rivers was a point guard, the proverbial coach on the floor.
“He was a second-round pick that became an All-Star, and that doesn’t just happen. It’s because of his hard work and the areas he had to get better in, he got better in,” Fratello said. “He studied the game and developed, and then by helping his team win, he received the recognition of being named an All-Star."
Rivers made his lone All-Star appearance in the 1987-88 season, during which he averaged 14.2 points, 9.3 assists, and 1.8 steals in 31.3 minutes.
As a TV analyst for Clippers games this season, Fratello has gotten an up-close look at how Rivers has evolved as a coach.
“He has a great feel and sees things as they are happening,” Fratello said. “Some guys, it takes a while. They have to watch the video the next day when they are with their staff, and say, ‘Oh, yes, we could have done this.' But Doc sees things right away.”
Fratello said that Rivers is strong at making adjustments offensively or defensively, and feels that one of his key strengths is getting a good shot for his team in a tight game.
“Maybe the most important thing he does is end-of-the-game situations, how he handles that,” Fratello said. "With Doc, at the end of the game, you feel comfortable you are going to get a decent look. He can’t make the shots for the players, but he can try to get them open enough so the shot they take is a good one.''
As for how the Sixers will do under Rivers, Fratello says that will be up to the players.
“Are the players willing to accept and understand how much Doc has accomplished in his career, and are they willing to pay the price Doc is going to ask them to pay?” Fratello said. “Don’t talk it, do it.”