BOSTON -- Late last summer during a long interview with Danny Ainge, the conversation ultimately turned to Doc Rivers. At the time he and Rivers had been going back and forth about how Rivers had come to be the former coach of the Celtics.
Danny said it was Doc's call. Doc said it was Danny's. As one member of the organization put it, both of them needed to stop talking about it. But with a new coach in place and a new direction established, Ainge was almost wistful.
"I hoped he would coach here for 30 years and be the all-time winningest Celtics coach forever," Ainge told me that day in late August. "At the same time I understand it. Coaching is a hard thing. No matter what happened or anything, I'll always be grateful for what he did for us. I've always said Doc's greatest strength is his stamina and how quickly he could bounce back through tough situations. I think he gave me everything he had in coaching. I have not one bad feeling toward him."
As it turned out, not many people at the Garden had bad feelings toward Doc on Wednesday when he returned as coach of the Clippers. There was some contrived talk about whether fans would boo Rivers during the pregame introductions, but save for a tiny minority there was nothing but love for the coach who worked the sidelines for nine years and won more games than anyone in franchise history counting playoffs except for Red Auerbach.
As he walked down the back hallway before the game shaking hands with security guards a passerby yelled out, "We love you, Doc." A young fan with a hand-drawn sign that read "Do you miss us?" was granted an audience and Rivers lit up when he saw her. He received a two-minute standing ovation during a typically well-done tribute video that pointedly featured as many shots of him and Ainge as anyone else.
"I'm still emotional," Rivers said after the game. He paused almost 10 seconds as he struggled to regain his composure. "It was just a really nice day. This is ... it's just such a classy place here. So it was really nice when I walked out and, you know I'm not used to walking out on that side, and all those guys, the people, they lined up and I was basically useless for the first eighteen minutes of the game, I thought. It was just nice. It didn't surprise me because that's just the way -- you've got to live here to understand it -- that's just the way they are. It's an amazing fan base. It really is. And I just want everything to go well for them."
Someone asked if he regretted his decision to leave and he caught himself again.
"I don't know," he said. "I tell you, boy, this is such a neat place. I tell people all the time -- people don't get Boston. They really don't. They don't understand. And I think you have to be part of it to get it. I really do. I don't think you can get it from the outside. It's just a special, different place, and people were born here and raised here and they cheer for their teams, and they love their athletes. And it's just a great place to be. The best decision I ever made was 10 years ago, when I decided to come. That was the best decision I ever made."
It makes it easier that no one in Boston is pining for him these days. His successor Brad Stevens, who is younger and unburdened by history, is probably better suited for the rebuilding process. The 2015 first round pick Ainge acquired from the Clippers doesn't hurt either. Rivers is simply at a different stage of his career and one wonders how he would respond to the challenge in Boston.
He could be merciless with young players, and older ones too if they didn't fit into his concept that was built around defense and shared responsibility on the offensive end. He made his rep as a veterans' coach and the ones he did reach will swear by him forever.
"I think the reason he left is he's done so much in this league, he didn't want to be part of the process of starting over," Jeff Green said. "That's fair for him. He's done enough in his career that he has the opportunity to do that. No grudges. He's a grown man. He can do what he wants."
Yes, Rivers said, he would have liked the whole process to have gone more smoothly. No, he doesn't feel like he abandoned the Celtics, although he did finally acknowledge in a radio interview earlier in the day that it was his decision to leave.
Rivers suggested that after nine years it was time for a new voice and maybe it was. The Celtics are very different from the team he led off the court last April after their first round playoff exit against the Knicks. On that fateful evening, Rivers said that he always wanted to make things perfect for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but he couldn't do that anymore.
We take it for granted that Pierce, Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen were perfect for each other as basketball players, but someone had to pull those four headstrong personalities together and create an environment where all of them were able to carve out their own little niche in the context of something bigger. That was Rivers' genius as a coach.
The 2008 championship will always be his greatest achievement. Not only did he win the first title in 22 years in Boston, he also guided his team to a dominant 66-win season when most people thought it would take a year or two to mesh. If not for Garnett's injury in 2009, who knows what would have happened? That, more than anything that went down last June, is the great unknown of Rivers' tenure.
"I think about '09 a lot," he said. "I tell people, we were the best team in the league in 2009, and then when Kevin went down, obviously, we were never the same, ever. I should just look back on '08 but I don't think coaches work that way. I believe if Kevin were healthy, we would have won two, maybe three in a row."
They were 44-11 when Garnett's knee gave out in Utah and, as Rivers said, the Celtics were never really the same. From that point on they were held together by their unshakeable, almost naive, confidence in each other and miles of Kinesio tape. It was during those years that Rivers became an enduring figure in Boston sports.
"I don't know if we'll win or lose," Rivers liked to say before do or die playoff games. "But I know you'll be proud of the effort."
From anyone else that would have been corny. From Doc, it was something your father would say and no one ever wanted to disappoint him. As much as his Hall of Fame players, he was the face of the Celtics in those years with his raspy, reassuring voice and just the right play drawn up out of a timeout.
As Rivers exited the postgame press conference there were more reunions with staffers and press people. He bumped into Stevens. The two shook hands and Rivers told him he was in a special place. "Brad's going to be a terrific coach," Rivers said. "And he's going to be here a long time."
In the end, everyone is probably where they belong. Rivers has a good team that is trying to be great and control over the basketball operation. Stevens has a developing team and he and Ainge have the promise of nine first round picks over the next five years. But Boston will always be a special place for Rivers and on Wednesday he and the city showed their appreciation for each other.