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Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers is on ESPN, doing another interview, trying to keep himself and his team together amid the most bizarre and hate-filled controversy to hit sports in a while. As the interview ends, he says some words that have echoed in my mind for 12 years.

“You’re never going to be a victim,” Rivers says. “I’m not going to let you be.”

He was repeating the wisdom of his late father, Grady Rivers, who died six years ago. The coach is private and fiercely protective of his family, and once you learn his life story, you’ll understand why. But he’s also a master storyteller, and some of his most profound tales include his parents. In 2002, as a 24-year-old sportswriter about to take over the NBA beat for The Orlando Sentinel, I first heard Rivers reference his dad’s line about never becoming a victim.

We were outside a coffee shop in Winter Park, Fla., and we talked for 2½ hours. Even then, he was the Glenn “Doc” Rivers that an entire nation should respect now: classy, engaging and forthright, a beacon of strength and integrity.

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Never a victim.

Rivers coaches for a team whose owner, Donald Sterling, is a racist who can’t conceal his hatred even after being given ample time to prepare for an interview on national television. He coaches players whose anger would blind them if not for his leadership. He coaches during the most stressful part of the NBA season without even knowing whether he wants a future with the Clippers after the playoffs end.

And even though the strain is obvious on his face, Rivers coaches with the passion of a man seemingly lucky enough to be obsessed only with winning.

Never a victim.


If there were a coach of the year award for all sports, Rivers would win it for the graceful manner in which he has guided the Clippers through the tumult of Sterling’s racist rants and the franchise’s uncertainty as the NBA tries to force the insolent owner to sell the team.

A dozen years later, it’s surreal to observe this man from far away. You never know how people will handle disaster, and you should be compassionate when passing judgment under these circumstances. But for me, and anyone who has gotten to know Rivers over the years, this is exactly how we’d expect him to deal with a sad situation.

He’s 52 now, not the 38-year-old who jumped from the broadcast booth to coaching the Magic in 1999. A life of conflicting experiences — extraordinary highs, heartbreaking lows — has prepared him for what he now endures.

Rivers’ story: hardened by hate, sustained by love. You ever notice that he’s always smiling? You ever notice that he’s smiling with false teeth because he lost a few as a player?

Never a victim.

Rivers, a Chicago native, was a child born into the Civil Rights movement. He learned hard lessons about race as a child, but his parents refused to let him be anything other than accepting and open-minded. He went to college at Marquette and met his future wife, Kris Campion, the daughter of a physical therapist in suburban Milwaukee. But even at Marquette in 1980, and even though Rivers was a huge star, his interracial relationship wasn’t accepted.

During the 2001 NBA playoffs, Brian Schmitz, a longtime Sentinel writer, got Rivers to open up about his time at Marquette. His future wife had her tires slashed. Someone wrote a racial epithet on the sidewalk in front of her parents’ house. People made anonymous phone calls with bigoted remarks.

In 1997, Rivers was living in San Antonio, and while the family was out of town, an arsonist destroyed their house in what was deemed a racist incident. Valuable family photos were lost forever. Some of Rivers’ memorabilia was burned, too. And one of the family’s dogs, Ginger, who was 15 years old and half blind, died in the fire.

The entire Rivers family can still see the scars of bigotry. So it would’ve been understandable if Doc Rivers had supported a Clippers boycott after the Sterling recording became public. Instead, he has kept his team united and focused on winning, even though that could benefit Sterling’s bank account.

Never a victim.

I’ll never forget seeing Rivers in 2003, days after the Magic had fired him from his first head-coaching gig. He had led the franchise to three consecutive playoff appearances despite not having Grant Hill because of an ankle injury each of those seasons. But at the first sign of trouble, the Magic fired him after a 1-10 start to the 2003-04 season. By then, I had been promoted to columnist, and I wrote a piece calling for Rivers to be fired. I regret that now. I regretted it almost immediately, but that’s what I wrote then. And here I was, one November night in 2003, face to face with Rivers in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ press box before a Monday Night Football game.

“Sit down,” he said.

It turned out to be a great conversation, open and no holds barred, but respectful. It’s one that still influences me when I have to write about a coach’s job performance. Rivers didn’t pout that night. He didn’t assign blame. He listened. And we both learned something valuable.

Never a victim.

You can ruin a portion of Doc Rivers’ college experience. You can burn down his house. You can fire him from his job, and you can turn his championship pursuit with the Clippers into a nasty controversy. But you can’t steal his will. And you can’t ruin his perspective.

Never a victim.

Always smiling, through false teeth.

Grady Rivers helped raise a special man.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277


On Twitter @JerryBrewer

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