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Irish Coffee: The Doc Rivers coaching philosophy

11.09.11 at 5:33 pm ET

Appearing less as Celtics coach and more as parent/coach on behalf of the Positive Coaching Alliance, for which he serves on the National Advisory Board, Doc Rivers conducted an interview with WBUR’s Radio Boston program on Tuesday while sitting in I-93 traffic on his way to the Boston Garden.

While he declined comment on the NBA lockout, other than to say he hopes to coach the Celtics during a 2011-12 season, Rivers did offer a glimpse of the man who has accumulated a 336-238 record (.585 winning percentage) on Boston’s bench, trailing only Red Auerbach (795) and Tommy Heinsohn (427) on the team’s all-time wins list.

“I think you have to know people, and I don’t think there is a book on how to treat people,” he said. “I think to be a successful coach, you have to be a successful people person, not meaning that everybody has to like you — but you have to find a way to get to people. I have to find a way every single practice and every single day to get to a group of men, to motivate them to act as a teammate, not as an individual.

“To me, that’s an every day process, it’s a very difficult process, but it’s a process that you have to be willing to reach in and get your hands in there every day.”

Rivers knows people. It’s why he’s garnered respect from Celtics ownership, to Danny Ainge and the front office, to superstars like Kevin Garnett, to the most curmudgeonly of the Boston media, to his broadcasting colleagues, to the people he comes across every day as a parent of four successful student-athletes.

“The definition of Ubuntu is that a person is a person through other people,” said Rivers. “I can’t be all I can be, unless you are all you can be. Basically, I am because you are. It’s a powerful way of life. It’s the way the South Africans under apartheid connected themselves. They realized that everything each and every individual did was important to their success.

“We try to conduct ourselves in Ubuntu as Celtics. It allows us to be a team, to drop our guard as individuals and let the team in — put the team first — and I think it’s very important. It’s a very important way to live life.”

Which makes it all the more curious why, if Shaquille O’Neal is to be trusted, Rivers has never been able to convince Glen Davis to completely buy into that philosophy. Perhaps Big Baby just doesn’t understand the difference between constructive and destructive criticism.

“I’ve seen coaches who scream and yell, but I say there’s a positive way of doing that and there’s a negative way,” said Rivers. “The negative way is yelling at someone, telling them, ‘You’re a terrible player. I can’t believe you’re taking that shot,’ or, ‘You’re stupid for doing something like that.’ And then the positive way is the same tone. The guy is yelling at you, but he’s saying, ‘You’re better than that. I know you can do it. You’re a great player. You’re not playing like that.’ They’re both yelling, but it’s completely different.”

Has Rivers ever yelled at a player for poor shot selection? I’m sure Davis or Nate Robinson forced the thought to cross his mind somewhere between once and 4,691 times. Even the Celtics coach — entering his eighth season on the bench in Boston — admits he’s not above mistakes. Just don’t take them personally.

“I make them all the time,” he said. “It’s funny, I tell my players on opening night that I’m going to do my best to make you better people, I’m going to do my best to make you better players and to make our team a better team. And I guarantee you that I’m going to make a mistake, and when I do I guarantee you it’s never personal.

“Every decision I try to make is for what I think at that moment is good for the team. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be the right decision, dealing with an individual, and that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the right decision for the team, but if we do it and follow there’s a chance you’re still going to win, because everybody has bought in.”

Mistakes are bound to happen. I made one once. Taking ownership of those blunders is what earns respect.

“I’ve gotten on a player,” said Rivers. “Usually, it’s something about his effort, or in my opinion I think he’s being selfish. And then you go back, watch the film and find out, ‘You know, I think I was wrong.’ When that happens, I go in and tell the player that.”

His philosophy has led the Celtics to the second round of the playoffs in each of the past four seasons, including two trips to the NBA Finals and one championship season. Sure, KG, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce deserve a lot of that credit, but Rivers has earned his share, too. And if the C’s are going to avoid another post-Big Three era malaise, it will be because Rivers is the captain of the ship.


It’s funny, on a day when Doc Rivers talked so much about the importance of team dynamics, two unrelated articles raised similar questions along these lines: What’s the greatest individual rivalry in the NBA?

Both answers involved Celtics.

The death of Joe Frazier and the 20th anniversary of Magic Johnson‘s HIV announcement — two transcendent athletes forever tied to Muhammad Ali and Larry Bird, respectively — led’s Land O’ Lakers blog on a quest to determine who the Ted Williams is to Kobe Bryant‘s Joe DiMaggio.

The answer: “The closest candidate is probably Ray Allen, in that he’s multiple All-Star, he and Kobe clearly don’t get along and they squared off in two Finals. But without additional fireworks in the near future, does anybody expect ‘Black Mamba v. Jesus Shuttlesworth’ to be regarded as the stuff of legend 10 years from now? Not me.”

I’m not sure I completely buy Allen as the best candidate for Batman to Kobe’s Joker, even after Shaq’s retirement, but my favorite part of their “rivalry” is this iota: Bryant clearly backed off Allen on his record-breaking 3-pointer this past season, as if he knew he’d forever appear on the highlight reel.

Meanwhile, appearing in Boston for some reason to help promote an upcoming Broadway play about Magic and Bird, Heinsohn was faced with a question from about this era’s Magic-Bird rivalry.

“Well, right now, you have LeBron [James] and the current Celtics players,” he said. “So Paul Pierce and LeBron, that’s the closest thing I can think of.”

That’s probably a stretch, too, although Pierce’s “It’s been a pleasure to bring my talents to South Beach” tweet might beg to differ. So, what is the greatest individual rivalry involving a member of the Celtics? LBJ and Delonte West? KG and Charlie Villanueva? I don’t know. Here’s what I hope it is: Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose.


I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Paul Pierce is spearheading the decertification discussion among members of the National Basketball Players Association. NBPA executive director Billy Hunter obviously has, and it doesn’t bother him one bit, according to a report.

“I think Paul is kind of frustrated with the process,” Hunter told columnist Ken Berger. “Paul has been at the bargaining table and he doesn’€™t feel that we’€™ve been making any kind of progress. And so he thought that maybe that’€™s necessary. We don’€™t have a lot of options and that’€™s the option Paul was pushing — still is pushing.”

The Celtics were reportedly the lone team without player representation at Tuesday’s collective bargaining session, not that there is anything wrong with that. There appears to be some optimism about a potential deal between NBA owners and players, even after Wednesday’s 5 p.m. self-imposed deadline.

However, if the latest session comes and goes without a handshake exchanged between both parties, Pierce reportedly has more than the required number of signatures to petition for decertification. And the season is likely dead.

And to Heinsohn, that is “ridiculous” (obviously). The former NBPA president told, “For the last two years, we’ve been seeing in certain cities and towns that were mainstays, like Detroit, like Washington, like Philadelphia, where there weren’t people in the seats. Now, I always thought the players were pretty smart and observant. Well, where do they think they’re getting paid from?”


Condolences go out to the Macauley family after the passing of “Easy” Ed, an NBA Hall of Famer who was traded to the St. Louis Hawks — along with the draft rights to Cliff Hagan in 1956 — for Bill Russell. …

Former Celtics forward Antoine Walker will be sentenced to probation and required to repay his $750,000 in gambling debts to a trio of Las Vegas casinos, according to a Globe report.

(Have a question, concern or conception for tomorrow’€™s Irish Coffee? Send a message to @brohrbach on Twitter.)

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