Glenn "Doc" Rivers plays ball the way an artist writes: he practices endlessly to perfect his technique, he constantly thinks of the whole, the game, ahead of himself; and in those moments of inspiration when "the ball starts to move," that's when the real fun starts. Talking with award-winning author Bruce Brooks, Rivers tells us about the game he loves.
Beginning with schoolyard contests in Chicago against Isiah Thomas and clashes with an older brother who was his toughest one-on-one challenge, he shows us the determination, the competitive fire, and the brains he needed to succeed. We find out about mentors like Johnny Davis and Moses Malone, infuriating opponents like Michael Jordan and Kevin McHale--and coaches like Hank Raymond and Pat Riley, whose techniques Doc will use someday when he gets to lead a team.
Doc has a good life in the NBA, but he looks directly at the racial problens sports hides, at the distortion that comes when a game turns into a highlight film, at the pressure on himself and his family that comes from being a too-often-absent dad, and at the day every athlete dreads: retirement. Looking back to last year's play-offs and ahead to his future, Doc Rivers guides us on a thought-provoking, readable journey into the mind of one special ballplayer--one of Those Who Love the Game.
|Publisher:||Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)|
|File size:||299 KB|
|Age Range:||12 - 14 Years|
About the Author
Glenn Rivers was givne the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award by the Basketball Writers of America in 1991. An eleven-year NBA veteran, he now plays point guard for the New York Knicks.
Bruce Brooks is the author of an unbroken string of critically acclaimed novels and nonfiction books for young readers, among them What Hearts and The Moves Make the Man. His most recent book, Boys Will Be, was published by Holt.
Glenn Rivers was given the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award by the Basketball Writers of America in 1991. An eleven-year NBA veteran, he now plays point guard for the New York Knicks.
Read an Excerpt
Those Who Love the Game
Glenn "Doc" Rivers on Life in the NBA and Elsewhere
By Glenn Rivers, Bruce Brooks
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1993 Glenn Rivers and Bruce Brooks
All rights reserved.
THE REAL GAME
"That dunk," says Doc Rivers, shaking his head, "may become the biggest challenge John Starks has ever faced."
Rivers is sitting on the floor of a high-ceilinged room in his home in Connecticut, a room he calls his sanctuary, with John Coltrane's "Naima" sweetening the air in stereo, and eleven-month-old Austin Rivers tooling around the edge of the glass coffee table and gurgling in mono. "That dunk" refers, of course, to the amazing shot Starks threw down over Michael Jordan and Horace Grant in the fourth quarter of Game Two of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals. We have all seen it twenty times; indeed, only a few hours after it ripped the cords it had become a signature shot for The Exciting Game of Pro Basketball, as touted by the NBA itself in those brilliant promotional highlight commercials that seem to run over and over and over on network TV.
The shot went like this: In a close game, on a crucial possession, with the twenty-four-second clock down to about five, Starks drove the baseline, ran into two of the best defenders in the game, rose in a shockingly vertical spring, and tomahawked the ball over them with his left hand. It was a big two points. But it was also one of those rare shots that cuts the heart out of a defense: The Bulls were humiliated, and not even Jordan could shake it off for the remainder of the game.
"You can read that John was deliberate and cunning and ingenious to design such a shot, but the fact is, that dunk came out of pure desperation," Rivers laughs. "John had dribbled into trouble, which is pretty easy to do against the Bulls. I was actually starting back upcourt to set up on D. There was no way he was going to score or we were going to get a rebound—the Bulls had the paint, they had John, they had everything. So—boom, out of nothing John creates a bucket. Two points when we needed two points."
Ah, but it quickly became a great deal more than two points. "The trouble is," Rivers says, "the shot was the biggest thing in the world. The shot itself, not the whole game. There were dozens of newspaper articles analyzing it, saying how it symbolized the way the whole series would play out, symbolized the Knicks' arrogance, symbolized Starks's arrival and his potential superiority over Jordan.... Any point the writers wanted to make, they could use that shot as an illustration. And they did. It was on television around the clock no matter where you turned—Starks dunking and dunking and dunking. Reporters were all over him and they asked about nothing else. People in the street hollered at him about it—enthusiastically, of course. Man, somewhere there were probably even posters being printed. Overnight John was a folk hero: He was literally the biggest star in the NBA in one leap. All for a completely desperate move that he did by instinct in two seconds in the heat of a game."
But the aftermath made it impossible for Starks to see it that simply, Rivers says; John felt he had to consider the very smart-sounding, often elegant explanations of what the shot meant. These interpretations were, after all, words of praise; how can you resist cocking an ear toward someone who says you have just created an act of genius, dense with meaning? A twenty-seven-year-old from Tulsa who was never even drafted by an NBA team is not used to being called a genius by sophisticated New York media types. You tend to listen to those guys a little. You watch the film, like everyone else, and you start to think, "Wow—I really did do something. Didn't I?"
Starks thus became—for a brief time, one hopes—the Sonny Rollins of the NBA. In the mid-1950s Rollins blew through the New York jazz scene as The Man on tenor saxophone. No one could touch him for the perfect balance he achieved between rough power and fluid grace, between clever invention and emotional directness, between note and tone. But when his album Saxophone Colossus appeared, one of its biggest fans was the director of the New England Conservatory, Gunther Schuller, an art-music composer of prodigious academic power. Schuller wrote an incredibly brilliant analysis of one of Rollins's solos on a song called "Blue Seven," an article that should stand forever as the greatest example of how an intellectual can turn a spontaneous improvisation into an abstract masterpiece through sheer word power. Schuller praised the solo to the heavens for its intricate technical achievements, spelling out all of the dazzling tricks and motifs Rollins "composed," as if Sonny had sweated over the piece for years. The article got very wide play, and Rollins read it. He was flattered to receive such serious treatment. Trouble was, he had not sat around puzzling about how he could invert the harmonic sequence of a flatted fifth for the recapitulation of theme in the third chorus; he had stood up and played a solo that came to him as he blew, in real time. The discrepancy between the deliberateness Schuller attributed to him and the quickness with which he had played made Rollins feel obligated to start observing himself. Am I doing all of that? Am I inverting the harmonic structure of a flatted fifth? Whew! I better start paying attention. I better start thinking. But when he started thinking, Rollins found he couldn't play his horn. The result: He froze up, and lost his gift, and disappeared for two years, playing alone until he got it back.
"You think too much on the basketball floor," says Rivers, "and you're dead. Concentrate, certainly. Play smart, of course. But playing smart usually means making a move too quick for thought—taking a shot or throwing a pass or slapping at the ball by instinct, because you are wrapped up in the game so deep that you don't have time to analyze. That's how John has to play; that's how we all have to play. Even the players the media dub 'super-intelligent' play almost entirely by instinct. You can't watch yourself to see if you're the genius the papers say you are. You've got to play."
As Rivers talks, it is clear his real subject is not John Starks and his dunk. Rivers is really looking at the weird discrepancy between the quick game of basketball as played on the court by human beings making snap decisions that are often invisible—and the smooth, shiny, ultravisible realm of NBA basketball as projected by the league and the media, in which the quickness is packaged (without irony) in slow motion, and the snap moves are rendered as if they had been calculated by choreographers. The more the game is taken apart and reassembled in the tape editing room, the less it resembles the game the players play. The more a move is written about by excited, speculative columnists looking for higher meanings, the less it belongs to the man who made it and the moment in which it was made. It is obvious the players' game is the real game, and the public's is a secondary invention. But what may not be so obvious is this: The game is over in forty-eight minutes, but the highlight film and the clever column tend to endure.
The players know this, of course. As long as there have been sportswriters and broadcasters, there have been inventive, complex retellings of simple on-court events. Sometimes this amuses the players, sometimes it angers them. Rivers smiles and mentions a few examples of absurd invention, when journalist confronts jock with a theory and won't take no for an answer, refusing to hear anything but details that confirm his hypothesis.
"You'll get a writer telling you that you thought something you didn't think, or even did something you didn't do," says Rivers. "Insisting on it. 'In the first quarter you were trying to intimidate so-and-so.' 'No, I had no intention of doing that—I was just feeling quick and hitting that short jumper, so I took it.' 'No, you were trying to embarrass him.' 'No—as a matter of fact, that's the last thing I would do, because when that guy gets embarrassed, he gets angry and plays better, so I didn't—' 'No, that's wrong! You were trying to intimidate him! It was obvious!' And so on." Rivers shakes his head and watches Austin, who is disassembling a CD jewel box. "I pretty much like the writers and media people. I understand their predicament—their job is to find something new to write about in each game, when in fact all eighty-two games are basically the same. And they have to do it by tomorrow! It's a hard job. But some of them can be like kids—they won't listen, because they know everything. It can be pretty funny."
But it doesn't always stop at being funny. Because ultimately the columns get into print, the edited tapes go out over the air, and the weird ideas are pushed before the public despite the fact that they are fiction and fantasy. The players, meanwhile, cannot live the fiction; they cannot step into the fantasy. They have to play the real game, night after night, against real opponents.
The people who read the papers and listen to all-sports radio talk shows and watch the highlight-film commercials come to the games expecting the fiction to be embodied. Their demands, and the speculations of the writers, take on a life of their own. Pretty soon the players may begin to notice a difference between what they do and what everyone out there thinks they do.
What Rivers is saying is that when the fans consume the media-packaged version of the NBA game, sometimes the players begin to consume it too. Some players are unable to resist completely the urge to become a little more like what people think they should be; it's a natural response, even a generous one.
"All of us want to give the fans a good time. All of us want to be liked, too. So if you keep reading all these stories about how you ought to be shooting more, or blocking more shots, or playing more of a power game because you look like a power forward, then you may feel a sort of obligation to try it. To give people what they want. Look, every single player is at least a little bit insecure. Some more than others. Most fans don't know this—they think, 'Look at Dominique Wilkins, he's got it all, he must feel great about himself all the time!' But Nique is very insecure. We all are, at one time or another; we're all motivated a lot by fear, even Michael Jordan. Michael is full of fear, that all of a sudden one day he won't be able to dominate anymore—or that he won't want to. I heard him say he is quitting right away then—he knows he won't be able to live with the change and the doubt."
In the history of the NBA some players have shown themselves susceptible to this oblique manipulation by the public's imagination and desire. It is hard to know what makes for the steadfastness that enables some players to resist the cries for unnatural modification. This resistance is probably the only thing Wilt Chamberlain lacked: As the most physically gifted athlete ever to play the game, he could do anything the press and public demanded—and he did. One season he would score an astonishing amount (averaging more than fifty points a game in 1961–62), one season he would show that he could pass to other guys (he led the league in assists in 1967–68), and so on. But Chamberlain learned the hard way that you could not satisfy the people you were trying to answer. As soon as you mastered one persona, they wanted another. There was always some new talent the public could imagine for you to exemplify.
Doc Rivers has managed to grow smartly through a very fine basketball career without having his head turned by the theorists and well-meaning modifiers. The 1992–93 season was his tenth in the NBA; he feels he has about three more in him, and there is no doubt he will get his playing time until he decides to step away. He is the kind of player coaches want on the floor, even when he has lost a little quickness or touch. In eight years with the Atlanta Hawks, Rivers quickly showed he could be depended upon to bring to each game several fundamental qualities: good ball-handling, great defense, just enough offensive dash to be dangerous when the chance arose, and the court smarts to take advantage of every opportunity that opened up for him or his teammates. Dependability made him a leader, for teammates as well as coaches. He is one of those rare basketball men who are equally revered by both the troops and the brass.
Except for losing, nothing shakes him. He is not sure how he became so resolute: "It wasn't really confidence. It was more like determination, though my mother would call it pure stubbornness. I always felt I knew best what I should do. Sometimes I knew what I should do was listen, to a good coach for instance. But I wouldn't listen to just anybody. My game was my game."
Also, Rivers says, he has never really had a "style" of play: "I wasn't good enough to stick to one great, original style." This protects him from the usual critiques. The player with a well-defined role or style, who always seems to play one way, is perhaps vulnerable to demands that he shift to another way. But a versatile player who cannot be pinned down is harder to fit into a fantasy.
"I have always come to the game ready to figure out what I needed to do to win on that particular night," Rivers says. "Whatever it takes, I'll do it. I'm a simple player—no flair. That makes it easier for me to adapt myself to the team's needs at the moment. Basketball is a game of rhythm—each stretch of a game has its own rhythm, and if you are trying to run to your own rhythm, you may not hear the one the game is running on. You have to keep yourself open to perceive the feeling that can arise between your teammates, that can suddenly turn a game around." He thinks. "It is intense. I love that. I have to be intense, myself—it's my key."
Rivers mentions a moment near the end of Game Five against the Hornets in last year's conference semifinal play-off series. "It was late in the game, it was very close, and we could all feel that for some minutes the game had been up for grabs. But neither team had snatched it. No one seemed to want to step up and take over. It was a very delicate sort of moment, everything was hanging there. Coach Riley called a time-out. One of our coaches, Dick Harter, said to me, 'Doc—somebody's got to do something.' So we went back out and I knew it was time to break Charlotte's back and I was going to start it. I made three steals, bang bang bang: took the ball out of Larry Johnson's hands, stole it from Dell Curry, tied up Alonzo Mourning for a jump ball. We lost the jump ball, actually, but it didn't matter: all of a sudden the whole team had the feeling, and we sent it right through Charlotte: It's over, fellas. And it was. They knew it. There was nothing they could do."
He smiles; it was a good victory against a team that didn't know how dangerous it really was, and the Knicks were relieved to get the Hornets out of town. After a moment to savor it, Rivers returns to the point. "I want to make sure it's clear that it wasn't just me who did this: I was just responding to the feeling, to the need of the team at that time. And I could perceive the feeling because I was ready to do anything. If we had needed a three right then, I would have tried to become a shooter of threes."
This story reflects the kind of year Rivers had in his first season with the Knicks. He filled many different roles, adjusting as the team met different challenges, suffered injuries, endured scoring slumps, faced hot teams or players. At one time or another he was: the starting point guard who would initiate the pressure on the opponent's defense; the level-headed fourth-quarter substitute who would settle down the frazzled play and refocus everyone on the fundamentals; the sudden-danger three-point gunslinger; the stop-dead defensive specialist; the fiery spirit unafraid to fight; the cool head keeping peace; the demure veteran stepping gracefully aside for the brash, talented youth in the Knicks' guard corps; the aggressive competitor beating the kids out for playing time ...
"Everyone wants to be known for consistency," he says. "But consistency doesn't necessarily mean you do the same thing every night. You don't guard the same guy every night, do you? Your teammates are not equally hot or cold every night. You don't feel the same every night. What you want to be is consistent at figuring out what will work right now, for the team. The only consistency that matters is a string of W's. Anybody on the Knicks would gladly take up- and-down personal stats if he could get win after win."
Rivers mentions other players in the league who are adaptables rather than stylists. "Horace Grant. Magic Johnson—look how he switched to center for the final game of the championship series as a rookie, when Kareem was hurt. Michael Jordan. Everybody thinks of him as a shooter, but believe it or not, Jordan is probably the best player ever at adapting his own play to the needs of the team at the time. He changes his game nightly. There were six games in our play-off series against the Bulls, and Jordan was six different players. He's the greatest role player ever, and he can play all the roles."
Excerpted from Those Who Love the Game by Glenn Rivers, Bruce Brooks. Copyright © 1993 Glenn Rivers and Bruce Brooks. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Real Game,
Family: The Uncle Plays,
Teaching: Do It,
Players: Chris Mullin,
The Real Game: Loving It,
Family: Rivers in for Rivers,
The Real Game: Race,
Players: The Footwork King,
The Real Game: Team D,
The Real Game: Competition,
Teaching: The Extra Step,
Players: Dr. J,
The Real Game: Loss,
Family: J-Man's Dad,
Players: Johnny Davis,
The Real Game: Desperate,
The Real Game: The Coach,
Players: Sly and Eddie,
The Real Game: Taking Leave,
Teaching: The Ball,
About the Coauthor,