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Rising Rivers

His methods were once questioned, but the praise from players now is overflowing

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 20, 2011

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There was something there.

And so, when all Glen Davis wanted was for his coach to shut up, to stop riding him, to cease the challenges to his basketball skill, to his manhood, to his behavior on and off the court, Doc Rivers did none of that. He did anything but, the bark following Davis all the time, everywhere.

It has worked, Rivers’s constant chiding of his young players, his development style that leaves them shaking their heads and letting more than a few curses drop. He has made Davis into a player, made Rajon Rondo into a player, made Kendrick Perkins into a player, made a team with seemingly too many superstars into one with a championship and a chance for more.

“He’s a player’s coach,’’ said Miami’s Eddie House, who played for Rivers for three seasons in Boston. “It means he listens to the players. He’s been in players’ shoes, so he understands how players think and what players are thinking about and how they need rest and at the same time need work.

“I think he does a great job of managing that. He makes it easier, definitely makes it easy to play for him.’’

Over the last few years, he has gained not only many more wins on his résumé, but also widespread respect for his coaching style. And today, the 49-year-old Rivers is being rewarded for that success, as he will coach the ultimate player’s game, the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, where four Celtics will represent the Eastern Conference.

All this from a coach who was roundly criticized just four years ago.

That was back when Rivers wasn’t winning, when a proud franchise had stumbled to 18 straight losses and there were calls for his firing. So much has changed since then. A trio of future Hall of Famers has been added, and Rivers’s work with callow players has paid off.

“I kind of do what I do,’’ Rivers said. “And I believe in what I do. I don’t know if there’s a style to it. I think there’s days where I’m sure my guys love me, and there’s days when I’m sure they hate me.

“I try to be honest and straightforward. I’m not a game player. If I’ve got to trick someone into playing basketball the right way, then there’s a very good chance we’re not going to get along.

“Other than that, I just do my job.’’

Learning your place Rivers stands in the center of a loosely assembled group of players on a Monday, and as he finishes his message, he gently mocks Davis for an ugly failed dunk in a game the day before. Davis can laugh, can make fun of himself, can yield to the jibes of a coach that he has finally accepted, despite four years of abuse.

“He challenges you,’’ Davis said. “If you’re competitive, if you have any kind of will or determination to be great or to win anything, he challenges that.

“He brings that out of you, especially if you have talent or you have a lot of potential, he challenges you as a man. You don’t realize it, but it affects your overall well-being, on and off the court, as a person.

“It’s amazing how basketball can work in a way that can kind of mold you for the rest of your life, as far as the standards that you live by and the morals that you live by. He creates that.

“Sometimes it’s tough. But you have to be mentally prepared and also, inside of you, you have to have the will to want better. That’s what he does.’’

Starting in Orlando, when Rivers was plucked from a TV gig to lead a young, ragtag team, he has tried to find places for each of his players. He wants (and needs) them to accept their roles. Above all, he needs trust — from everyone — and the ability to play, as he says, “clutter-free.’’

“Veterans understand who they are,’’ Rivers said. “Young guys don’t understand who they are, and when you tell them who you think they are, they want to show you that they’re somebody else. Rarely does a young guy want to be one of the role guys. That’s because they haven’t figured out who they are yet, and you haven’t done a good enough job yet convincing them who they need to be.

“When we got this group together, they followed from Day One, and that’s what allowed us to win and trust.

“But I haven’t changed a lot in my beliefs since the first day I coached, because as a player I knew that to win you really need to give yourself up to the team. The tough part is getting the 12 guys to believe that.’’

Early impression It all goes back to high school, really, to an ex-Marine named Glenn Whittenberg, Rivers’s coach at Proviso East High School outside of Chicago. It goes back to a sign that hung on the wall. It suggested the teenagers stick a foot into a bucket of water, remove it, and remember that the hole left was how much they would be missed by the team once they were gone.

“As blunt as you can get,’’ said Rivers. “But it just told you nobody’s above the team, no matter how good you were. I had great coaches — [Pat] Riley and Larry Brown and Mike Fratello. But that guy had a hell of an imprint on me.’’

That is clear in the way he speaks about Whittenberg, harkening back to a Southern accent, to a coaching style that has more than a few similarities to the one the Celtics are experiencing now, down to the team’s practice drills.

“We were good because everybody was free, because they were free inside their roles,’’ Rivers said. “They knew what they were supposed to do, and they knew if they didn’t, they weren’t going to play. Including me. And that was the best thing for me. I had a high school coach that called me on my crap.’’

Rivers needed that. He internalized it. So much so that during the final seasons of his 13-year playing career, it was obvious that Rivers would transition to coaching, that he would take the lessons of Whittenberg (and the other luminaries) to his own team.

“Without a doubt,’’ said Nets coach Avery Johnson, a teammate of Rivers’s in San Antonio.

“We talked about the game, and that’s what our dinners and lunches were about. It’s amazing when guys would go to lunch and we would have napkins and ink pens and markers just like we were coaching and that was pretty cool. Guys had high basketball IQs and it was fun to be in that environment.’’

Life lessons It’s that kind of preparation, whether for his coaching career or for individual games, that has helped bring Rivers to this point. Credit is given to the Big Three, of course. But credit, too, is given to Rivers.

“His preparation was among the best in the game,’’ said the Heat’s Juwan Howard, who signed with the Magic in 2003 mainly to play under Rivers. “His knowledge for the game, as far as X’s and O’s, he draws up plays and sometimes you feel like all five guys are open.

“He’s so detail-oriented and defensive-minded as well. Hard-nosed coach, just like how he played when he was a player. So it didn’t surprise me [that] everywhere he goes, teams turn into good teams because of his leadership. He knows how to manage players.’’

And that comes back to the young guys. While Rivers at first had some difficulty getting his veterans to buy in, notably Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, he said the harder task is developing the young players, something at which he has proven to be adept with the benefit of time.

“He’s strict on young guys,’’ Rondo said. “You have to break them down and try to continue to humble them, because you come in with probably a big ego, you’re probably the man on your team in college. So, for me, it was a tough transition.’’

There are other factors at work, though, said the man who tries to coach with “a feel or sense or spirit.’’

“There are so many issues in coaching now,’’ Rivers said. “I think more so than when I played . . . I just think there are not a lot of fathers. A lot of the guys in this generation are fatherless, and so now you become a male figure that they either have not trusted their whole life, or they’re looking for one to trust. And you don’t know which one that is until you get in there with them.’’

Some players never get Rivers, including one from his Orlando days the coach was forced to trade. He knew it would never work out, so he cut ties and focused on the players who were left, the players he could convince to take on the roles he needed them to.

He focuses on those players now, as he watches a team that understands what he wants, a team that will define him.

“We grow every day as people,’’ Rivers said. “I want to improve every day as a coach. I don’t care how good you are at it, at any point you can get better at it.

“It’s funny. As a player I always believed that. I think that probably has helped my cause as a coach. I believe that, I use it all the time on my players and on myself.

“I tell my players I’m never going to treat you [as] who you are today. I’m going to work with you to [be] who you should be someday. And that goes for me, too.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin. Gary Washburn of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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