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Coloring players’ perception

With one move, Boston now an attractive NBA city

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 14, 2011

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Boston has notoriously been a difficult sell to NBA free agents. For various reasons that have been well discussed over the years, players in their prime would never consider the Celtics. Hence, Danny Ainge had to compile a championship-caliber team through trades.

Doc Rivers’s seven-year tenure has turned Boston from a cold, unwelcoming place for younger players to a vogue locale for those looking to win and play in front of a loyal and astute fan base. Boston is no longer a place where African-American athletes feel unwanted, and Rivers can be thanked for changing that perception.

Doc looks as if he has fun here. He announced Wednesday after the Celtics’ Game 5 loss to the Heat that he was a Celtic and always would be. Agreeing to a five-year contract extension yesterday exemplifies his dedication. Such loyalty to an organization and a franchise that has perceived troubles with diversity is a selling point to those who otherwise would cross Boston off their free agency tour stops.

If you ask any NBA player which coach he would prefer to play for, besides his own, that player mostly like would say, “Doc Rivers.’’ He shows poise and friendliness even in the most competitive of situations. He never publicly criticizes opposing players, but fiercely defends his own. And he has little issue gaining the respect of his players, because behind that winning smile and the persona created by those finely tailored suits, is a demanding coach who has no hesitation with brutal honesty with even the most egotistical of players.

That consistent discipline has garnered league-wide respect. His four-plus-year stint in Orlando ended badly, but it served as an educational experience in dealing with injured players (Grant Hill), spoiled superstars (Tracy McGrady), and those past their prime (Patrick Ewing).

By the time Rivers arrived in Boston, he was a championship-caliber coach inheriting a downtrodden franchise. The fact that he had a major role in rebuilding the Celtics has not only cemented his reputation as an exceptional coach, but also made it more difficult to walk away when the organization is facing another crossroads.

Other highly regarded coaches — such as Phil Jackson — have departed organizations when it appeared that title runs were and glory days were dissipating. Rivers could have easily done the same thing, bolting when the Big Three were beginning to show age spots and wrinkles.

Rivers has always been loyal to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, and Ainge would have been satisfied if Rivers remained for next season and then departed to watch sons Austin and Spencer play basketball. But Celtics fans can thank that dynamic teenage duo for keeping their dad in Boston.

Austin is wildly independent and relishes his father being an NBA coach. While he has committed to play for Mike Krzyzewski, it’s unlikely he will be at Duke for a full four years, meaning Doc could be coaching against his son in two years. Spencer, the lone child at home, is entering his sophomore year at Winter Park (Fla.) High School. Spencer enjoys visits to see Dad in Boston, shooting baskets at TD Garden and the Sports Authority Training Center in Waltham.

A family meeting last year, when Doc was deciding whether to return for one more season, influenced him greatly. All four of his children voted for him to remain the Celtics’ coach, making this decision easier to reach.

Knowing that Rivers is here for the long term will be an attractive feature for free agents. Rivers’s year-to-year status has hovered over the organization for some time. Many were convinced that he would take a few years off, and then coach the Knicks, Heat, or Magic.

The fact Rivers made a long-term commitment to Boston puts the Celtics in an entirely different category, one they generally couldn’t reach because of the city’s stigma as being a difficult place to live and work for people of color. It’s an old stigma, one that has reached its course, but perception is in many cases reality.

Since the advent of the Big Three, the Celtics haven’t had salary-cap space to attract premium players. But after next season when Garnett, Allen, and Jermaine O’Neal — who will make a combined $37 million in 2011-12 — come off the books, the Celtics will have an opportunity to pursue their first major free agent in a generation.

Rivers will be waiting on that tour stop with his winning smile, recruiter’s pitch, and secure status. And that may be the biggest selling point of all.

The rebuilding of the Celtics in the post-Big Three era won’t be easy, but Ainge’s job just became more manageable and the possibility of the playoff-caliber Celtics without Pierce, Allen, and Garnett just became more feasible.

And two days after the Celtics’ disheartening elimination by the Miami Heat, the road back to prominence just became smoother.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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