CHICAGO — The thought of being an NBA coach never crossed Doc Rivers’ mind.
Growing up in Maywood, Ill., the 76ers coach always envisioned himself as just an NBA player, which was understandable.
Rivers has it in his genes, with his uncle, Jim Brewer, being an NBA champion and two-time All-Defensive player during a nine-year NBA career. It was also part of his environment, as a McDonald’s All American at famed Proviso East High School, which has produced 11 NBA players.
“Proviso East is just good every year,” Rivers said. “Local kids, and that’s what we do: We play basketball. A great school, and we played basketball.
“So I never didn’t think I wasn’t going to be playing.”
But now, at the age of 60, Rivers is known for being a face of the NBA coaching fraternity. And with just cause.
Rivers achieved a coaching milestone, clinching in 1,000th career victory.
The Sixers’ 114-105 victory over his hometown Chicago Bulls at the United Center gives him 1,000 wins and 706 losses over 23 combined seasons with the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers, and the Sixers. He’s the league’s 10th all-time winningest coach.
“Honestly, I had no idea I was at 999,” he said. “I don’t count. That’s not why I do it. Basically getting this 1,000th win, being shorthanded, being in Chicago means a lot. It also means I’m very lucky when I go back and look at all the coaching staffs I had and all of the players.”
Following the game, the Sixers gave Rivers a celebratory water shower in the locker room. Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey dumped a bucket of water on him.
“Walking in the locker room, they set me up pretty well, I will say that,” Rivers said. “It just that it was very cold and very refreshing. I wish it was beer instead.”
In addition to reaching a coaching milestone, Rivers led the undermanned Sixers to a league-best sixth straight win. At 8-2, the first-place team remains a half-game ahead of the Miami Heat.
But after starting 82 games over three years at Marquette and being taken in the second round (31st overall) by the Atlanta Hawks in 1983, Rivers lived out his dream by playing 13 NBA seasons. Toward the end of his playing career, he thought about broadcasting NBA games — not coaching in them. So he spent three years as an analyst for Turner Sports after retiring as a player.
“And every coach that coached me, killed me for broadcasting,” Rivers said. “Like [his former Atlanta Hawks] Mike Fratello just would say, ‘What are you doing? You know you got to be a coach?’”
He thought Fratello and Pat Riley, his former New York Knicks coach, were crazy for wanting him to coach. But Riley’s defiance led Rivers to think about the profession. As the thought grew in his mind, former NBA player and executive Wayne Embry informed Rivers of the best route to take to become an NBA coach.
But because he thought he wasn’t ready, Rivers turned down the Milwaukee Bucks coaching job in his second season as a broadcaster. After his third season on TV, he was hired as coach of the Orlando Magic on June 7, 1999.
“Now, I will tell you, I love coaching more than playing almost,” Rivers said. “It’s just in my blood. I love it. I enjoy it.”
That’s understandable, considering his success.
Rivers trails only future Hall of Famer Gregg Popovich (1,313 wins) for the most regular-season wins by an active coach.
He was the 2000 NBA coach of the year with the Orlando Magic, and coached the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA title. He’s also coached several Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers in his 23 seasons on the bench.
And Rivers had made an impact with the Sixers since being hired on Oct. 3, 2020.
The Sixers, in his first season, finished as the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed for just the third time in 44 seasons. This season’s squad headed into Saturday night’s matchup with a conference-best 7-2 record despite being undermanned, in part, because of the Ben Simmons saga, injuries, and players in the NBA COVID-19 health and safety protocol.
Rivers’ proudest accomplishment is winning the NBA title. But he’s accomplished so much more.
He inherited an awful Magic team during the 1999-2000 season. The team’s finishing 41-41 that season was a testament to his coaching abilities, leading to his winning coach of the year.
More recently, in 2019, his Los Angeles Clippers traded away several players, including Tobias Harris to the Sixers. Despite that, the team still managed to finish 48-34 and reach the playoffs without an All-Star on the roster.
Critics point to Rivers’ inability to get out of the second round of the postseason since taking over the Clippers to start the 2013-14 season.
Rivers led the Clippers to six postseason appearances in his seven seasons in Los Angeles. They reached and lost in the second round three times. The last two times — 2015 and 2020 — they were a game away from advancing and failed both times, blowing a commanding 3-1 lead both times. Last season, the Sixers were upset by the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Yet Rivers has led a lot of undermanned teams into the playoffs. It’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about much.
“But I would say my biggest accomplishment,” Rivers said, “is the individual relationships I have with the players.”
Building those types of relationships enabled him to navigate through tough times.
His toughest battle was keeping the Clippers together after TMZ released an audiotape containing racially insensitive remarks by then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling during the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
They went on to beat the Golden State Warriors in seven games during that opening-round series. His ability to keep the Clippers intact through that tough time makes it easy to understand how this season’s squad is excelling despite the distraction that comes with Simmons refusing to play.
In addition, Saturday marked the third game that Harris has been sidelined with COVID. Also on the COVID list are reserve guard Isaiah Joe, who missed his second game on Saturday, and Matisse Thybulle, who sat out for contact tracing. Danny Green also missed his third straight game with left hamstring tightness.
Despite that, Rivers had the Sixers locked in during shootaround on Saturday, just like they were locked in while winning their last six games despite being undermanned.
Joel Embiid and reserve center Andre Drummond were the only lottery picks on Saturday’s active game roster. For the most part, the Sixers’ rotation was made up of late second-round picks who were playing a solid brand of team basketball.
“It’s team,” Rivers said. “I just believe and I teach it all the time. If you play together, you can become powerful as a group. And that’s what this group is doing. They’re really tight.”
He realizes they must get players back at some point. Having said that, the Sixers believed they were going to beat the Bulls on Saturday night.
“They believe they’re going to win every night,” Rivers said, “and that’s a good thing.”
That’s also a testament to a guy who didn’t envision himself as a coach.