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Unfinished business

Rivers craves title as much as players

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / December 12, 2007

Derek Fisher of the Lakers summed it up perfectly. He called the current Celtics situation "the perfect storm." And it's not just the presence of three title-starved, veteran players all pointing to one common goal. Fisher sees someone else in that storm: Doc Rivers.

"He never won it as a player, so this has got to be a big thing for him," Fisher said.

It is. But, as Rivers noted, "It's only a perfect storm if the storm happens."

And we won't know that until the spring.

But as much as Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce want to get that elusive first championship, their collective desire in no way surpasses that of their coach. Think about it: As a player, Rivers never played in an NBA Finals (although his team did). He looks back now and sees three NBA titles that slipped through his hands. As a coach, he's never even won a playoff series. He wants it every bit as badly as his players.

"When he was a player, he had longevity," said Rivers's agent and longtime pal, Lonnie Cooper. "He was never an All-Star. And I think he had an empty feeling when he retired that he never played for a champion."

Rivers's Atlanta Hawks teams in the 1980s were good, just not good enough. They never could get by Boston or Detroit or Chicago.

"In that time, we believed we had a chance, we really did," said Randy Wittman, Rivers's backcourt mate in Atlanta and now the coach of the Timberwolves. "But we just couldn't get over the hump.

"You start to wonder if that chance is ever going to come again. They're few and far between, which is why, as you move on through life, you have to cherish the opportunities when they do come. That's why Doc has to see this as a great opportunity to fulfill that dream."

After leaving Atlanta, Rivers came close to getting a ring. In 1993, he played 77 games for the Knicks, who had the best record in the Eastern Conference. He appeared in all 15 playoff games, averaging 30-plus minutes a game. But that team went down in the conference finals to the eventual champion Bulls; the indelible memory of that series is Charles Smith having his shot blocked time and again at the conclusion of Game 5. The Bulls, who were down, 0-2, in that series, won the last four.

"That New York feeling has been never erased," Rivers said. "I still don't like to talk about it. It brings back too much. That was our year. But they beat us."

In 1994, the Knicks went to the Finals, but Rivers was injured - he played only 19 games in the regular season - and did not participate in the postseason.

"I could have been activated, but Riles [Pat Riley] was scared about my knee," he said.

The Knicks lost to Houston in seven.

"You sit and you watch and you are a part of it," he said. "But I don't think it would have felt the same as it would have had I been playing. It couldn't have."

In December of 1994, the Knicks waived Rivers, and the day after Christmas, the Spurs claimed him. He finished the season with San Antonio, which had the best record in the league. The Spurs lost to the eventual champion Rockets in the conference finals, dropping all three home games in the series.

"I thought we were going to win it that year, I really did," Rivers said. "And when you decide that you're going to win, and it doesn't happen, then it leaves an empty feeling. It has to."

There were tough years in Orlando in his first coaching gig, marked by an unsuccessful courtship of Tim Duncan and a devastating series of injuries to Grant Hill. Rivers long has joked that he'd still be in Orlando had Duncan signed with the Magic after the 2000 season.

He thought the Magic had a chance to be "something special" with a three-guard lineup built around Hill, Mike Miller, and Tracy McGrady. But it never came to pass on any consistent basis.

His Orlando teams scrapped and made the playoffs - and unfailingly lost in the first round. He's had three Boston teams and only one of them - the first - made it to the postseason. It, too, was a first-round casualty, an upset, really. And Rivers will tell you that after the Ping-Pong balls came down last May, he in no way envisioned he'd be coaching the team he's coaching.

"I didn't see any of this happening," he said. "Then, all of a sudden, it changes so quickly and you can't help but be excited. You want to take advantage of the opportunity, but it's really up to you to do it.

"When I started coaching, Lonnie asked me why. I had enough money. But I hadn't won. And that's all I want to do is win. When I talked to Danny [Ainge] about this job, I said, 'Look, I know we're going young and we're going to struggle, but tell me we are in this thing to win.' I feel we're in a great situation."

So far, 17-2 after 19 games indicates things are going well. Rivers joked yesterday when reminded that a year ago at this time, there were "Fire Doc" chants in the TD Banknorth Garden.

"I believe in what I did last year and I believe in what I'm doing this year," he said. "But I don't believe I'm any smarter this year."

Garnett said Rivers is, "other than Flip [Saunders], one of the best coaches I've ever been a part of. And that's high school, AAU, whatever you want to call it."

Does Garnett sense the same hunger in his coach that he knows is there in him, and in Allen and Pierce?

"I sense that he recognizes the hunger in us," Garnett said. "And it's vice versa. As much as he wants it, we want it."

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