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Rivers had blast in past

Celtics coach enjoyed playing days in Atlanta

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / April 26, 2008

WALTHAM - The uniforms aren't the same as the cool ones he wore in the 1980s with the Hawks. His home arena, The Omni, was demolished 11 years ago. And young Hawks fans probably don't even know he played for Atlanta.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers, however, in many ways still sees himself as a Hawk, although he also played for the Clippers, Knicks, and Spurs. And the Hawks haven't forgotten him either, as a picture of Rivers during his Atlanta playing days hangs near their locker room, and he is still featured strongly in their record book.

Tonight, Rivers's Celtics will face the Hawks in Game 3 of their first-round series, the first home playoff game for Atlanta since 1999, with Boston up, 2-0.

"In my mind, he's a Hawk," said Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge. "We had some great battles back in the day. Doc is one of the fiercest competitors that I played against. He was tough, athletic. He had all the tricks. He was clever. You always knew you were in for a battle playing against Doc because he played both sides all the time. He was a great athlete. The key word is was."

After three seasons at Marquette, Rivers was selected by the Hawks with the 31st overall pick in the second round of the 1983 draft. He quickly became a starter and played in Atlanta for eight seasons.

He was the floor general for the talented and exciting Hawks teams that starred Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins. But during Rivers's time in Atlanta, the Hawks couldn't overcome such Eastern Conference powers as the Celtics, 76ers, Pistons, and Bulls to reach the Finals.

"He was a tough son of a [gun]," Wilkins said. "At the point guard position he may have been considered maybe too aggressive. He's a guy who picked you up full court and he pounded. But more importantly, he knew how to run the offense. He knew how to get people in the right situations. So, it's not surprising to me that he turned out to be a great coach."

Said Rivers: "I loved it. But it was really unfinished as far as we didn't win it."

From 1983-91, Rivers averaged 13 points and 6.8 assists in 568 regular-season games with Atlanta. He remains the Hawks' all-time leader in assists with 3,866 and is third in steals with 1,166. Rivers holds the franchise record for assists in a season with 823 in 1986-87, and shares the NBA record for assists in a half in a playoff game with 15 against Boston May 16, 1988.

"A big, strong guard," said former Hawks coach Mike Fratello. "People said he was like a locomotive. Once he got going he gets faster as he gets going running the floor."

Said Wilkins: "In Atlanta, he'll always be remembered as a workman-type guy who comes to work 9 to 5. That's how I look at Doc. Doc was a very athletic point guard. He could get anywhere up and down the floor that he wanted. He was a monster on defense."

Rivers also earned a strong reputation for his community work in Atlanta. He received the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 1990.

"Doc was very well respected by the way he handled himself in the community," Fratello said. "If Doc ever wanted to go into politics in Atlanta, he could probably hold a spot somewhere."

Said Rivers: "I was young and very involved in the community. It was just a good fit."

Rivers's best scoring season with the Hawks was in 1990-91, when he averaged 15.2 points, 4.3 assists, and 3.2 rebounds. But that season, the Hawks lost to Detroit in the first round of the playoffs. Soon thereafter, then-Hawks president Stan Kasten told Rivers he would likely be traded because the franchise was interested in going with a youth movement.

On June 26, 1991, Rivers was dealt to the lowly Clippers for a first-round pick and two second-round picks. The Hawks used the first-rounder to select UNLV's Stacey Augmon ninth overall.

"They were going to go young," Rivers said. "Stan was great. He told me right after the season, 'The chances of you being back aren't going to be great. We have to get young. We've taken this team as far we can go. We can't move 'Nique and you're the second guy.'

"I understood it. I said, obviously, 'Stan, please send me to a contender.' But they were going to get the best deal . . . I thought I was going somewhere else. [Kasten] called me and told me I was going to the Clippers. I wasn't thrilled with that news."

The trade ended up being a blessing for Rivers. During his lone season in Los Angeles, the franchise made the playoffs for the first time since 1976. The Hawks didn't make the postseason in 1992.

"It made my life miserable because I loved playing with Doc," Wilkins said.

Said Rivers: "I just wanted to play for a contender and you know what, we ended up making the playoffs for the first time in 16 years. It ended up being a nice move for me."

Rivers lived in Atlanta for three more years after being traded. He still feels close to the city and his best friend still resides there. And even though Rivers is now coaching the Celtics, don't be surprised if the former Atlanta star gets a warm welcome when he is introduced tonight.

"I don't know why guys fit a community and guys don't," Rivers said. "But clearly there it was something different. It just worked. I do think it was the community stuff. Maybe it was my play. I was very physical and gave up my body a lot and I think people appreciated that.

"It's completely different. Different uniforms. Different arena. But it's still Atlanta and will always be."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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