LOS ANGELES — The day before I left for Los Angeles was what passes for warm in Boston, which means hoodies and layers instead of puffy coats and down. The snow mounds had melted down to their sooty essence, eroding into impossibly grotesque monuments to the nightmare we had all endured these past few months. People who had removed "getting fresh air" from their list of priorities met in Davis Square and acted like spring was finally upon us. It wasn't. It snowed again on Monday. Another storm was on the way later in the week.
It has been a brutal, nasty winter in New England, and the local basketball team hasn't done much to lighten the mood. The Celtics play hard and are likeable enough, but everyone knows this season is a matter of inconvenience. It's a necessary step in a fairly massive rebuilding project and it feels interminable.
The mood around the team is so dramatically different from past seasons that they hardly resemble the same franchise. Kevin Garnett's brooding presence has vanished like a shadow, and the space where Paul Pierce hung his uniform for 15 years is now occupied by Gerald Wallace. Or it was, until Crash joined the rest of the infirmed after undergoing a pair of surgical procedures.
Considering what he's had to endure, Brad Stevens has maintained a dignified posture throughout the downfall. Plucked from the college ranks by team president Danny Ainge, Stevens looks like the right choice to lead this new generation. It's increasingly difficult to imagine Doc Rivers keeping the same stoic resolve through all this losing. I went to L.A. to catch up with Doc and escape the cold, not necessarily in that order.
I went to L.A. to catch up with Doc and escape the cold, not necessarily in that order.
I walked into the press conference before the Clippers played Phoenix and it was like old times. Doc worked the room, feigning that he didn't want to deal with the press and then giving us 10 minutes of gold.
He has long mastered the art of talking in quotes, which is a different tactic entirely than being quotable. The former understands the game better than the questioners, the latter often walks right into their trap. Doc knows when the beat guys need a notebook item or an off-day story and he's always great about talking up players from other teams for the visiting writers.
Need a Goran Dragic quote? "He's just relentless." Need a reaction to some national trend like raising the NBA Draft's age limit? "I still think you have a right. You have a right to make a mistake."
Doc bantered with the regulars, welcomed a bunch of journalism students from USC and knew just the right moment to throw in a laugh line. He's a master in these settings, as good as there is in the league. He spotted me standing along the wall and casually brought me into the conversation, as if I was a guest in his living room and he was entertaining friends.
"He's a person, a human being, a father and an ex-player, all those things before he's a coach."
Photo credit: NBAE / Getty Images
He did this through a reference to one of his Celtics teams -- "You probably remember this," he said motioning in my direction. In a room full of strangers I was suddenly a part of the group. If he can do that for a guy with a notebook that he hadn't seen in almost a year, imagine the motivational strings he can pull for a basketball team.
"He's a person, a human being, a father and an ex-player, all those things before he's a coach," said Ryan Hollins who has played for Rivers in Boston and here in Los Angeles. "He's a very good coach on top of that. He takes the little everyday things and approach it to a bigger picture that he sees. He might say, ‘I need you to set a better screen. I need you to get at this angle because in a game at a certain point I'm going to need you to set a screen and that's the difference between us winning and losing a game.' It seems like such a small concept, but it's a huge, huge thing.
"It's respectful how he asks," Hollins continued. "You're not taking it wrong. There's a difference man to man when somebody comes at you respectfully versus another way, you know? Either too demanding or too nice. There's a respect factor about him that comes off. You want to do it."
Jamal Crawford brought up a moment from the preseason. The Clippers had executed a set, but they could have done more with it. The result was positive, but the process still needed work. That's essentially why Doc is here: to help the Clippers take the next step from a good regular-season team to one that succeeds in the postseason.
"He was already looking ahead," Crawford said. "He's like, ‘Yeah, you guys did that right. But there's three more options on that play that we have to get to be good in the playoffs.' He's always thinking big picture. His attention to detail has been off the charts."
We don't think about Rivers as a Norman Dale type, but his coaching method is as old school as the men who coached him, a list that includes Mike Fratello, Larry Brown and Pat Riley. Yet while Fratello, Brown and Riley ruled by intimidation, Doc famously preached Ubuntu.
"He gets everybody to buy in," Crawford said. "Everybody out there has a role and it's important. Even if you're not the guy catching and shooting or making the pass, we're all tied together. He gets everybody to believe in that and nobody's above the team. I really appreciate that. He coaches the top players like he does the bottom players and vice versa. He has no problem getting on anybody, because it's all about the Clippers winning and we've bought into that."
Paul Pierce took his rightful place among Celtics immortals. Kevin Garnett got his championship validation. Ray Allen got to work in a big media market where his OCD shooting rituals became the stuff of legend. Rajon Rondo became everyone's favorite weirdo genius. Tom Thibodeau graduated from cult figure to defensive guru.
But no one's reputation benefitted more from that experience than Glenn "Doc" Rivers. He was just another coach when the Big Three came together, but by the time they were done, he had become a symbol of their charismatic toughness. The Celtics were a difficult bunch to get to know, but Doc was not. He took his heart out and showed it to Boston time and again. The city loved him for it.
"From afar when he was in Boston, it was like he was America's coach," Crawford said. "Everybody loved Doc. To see it every single day, he's not only lived up to that, he's surpassed that."
"I want to act like a winner. There's no guarantee to it, you just have to be willing to get your heart broke."Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images
Doc doesn't bring up his Celtics teams all that much with his players. There may be a reference here or there, but by the end of preseason it was all about the here and now. It didn't end the way he or the team wanted it to end in Boston, but in hindsight it may have been time for everyone to get a fresh start. Doc has made peace with the decision and the new challenges in Los Angeles.
"I'm just here to try to win," Rivers said. "I want our guys to believe that. I want our organization to believe that. I want to act like a winner. There's no guarantee to it, you just have to be willing to get your heart broke. If you don't do that, then you can't win."
He couldn't resist bringing up one familiar memory when we talked privately in his office: the 2008 playoff series against the Pistons. That was the team they had to beat, the one that gave them the most trouble during the regular season. It was, as they say, a bad matchup.
Detroit came into Boston and took a game at the Garden, the only one the Celtics lost at home that playoff season. Everything had come so easily for the Celtics during that 2008 season and now here was the moment when they had to decide who they were going to be. "They come in and pop us right away, we go back and beat ‘em twice," Rivers said. "That was the birth of us."
There is a feeling that matchups will determine just how far the Clippers can actually go this season and that, all things considered, it would probably be a good idea to avoid their nemeses from Memphis. You can see the old fire rise in Doc when this is brought up.
"If you want to win it, you're going to have to beat a bad matchup," Rivers said. "That's the way I look at us. San Antonio, I'm sure they have a couple of teams they don't match up with, we have a couple of teams. Doesn't matter, and that's what I tell our guys all the time. It doesn't matter. It really doesn't fucking matter. You have to beat somebody that's bigger than us that we don't matchup [with] well, yup. So what? We're just going to have to beat them."
Zen and the art of franchise maintenance
Phil Jackson agreed to become team president/maharaji/whatever of the New York Knicks while I was out here. At least I think he did. I happened to be having dinner with some friends in Silver Lake when the "news" broke. Or didn't. Again, the whole thing was very confusing.
My friends don't have a TV, which isn't some kind of new-age hippie statement. They consume as much media as anyone, just not through a TV screen. This was how, for the first time since the season started, I spent the evening without League Pass at my disposal and in the company of people who don't check Twitter during dinner.
When the whole Jackson thing allegedly went down -- or started to go down, or whatever -- the sun was setting on another perfect day. The breezes were blowing softly through open windows and we were catching up over a lovely local red wine. I mentioned that I was seeking L.A. enlightenment in between basketball games and they suggested that I check out the Self-Realization Fellowship in Mount Washington. They had made the trip on what happened to be the 121st birthday of the Paramahansa Yogananda.
When it was time to leave they found that their car wouldn't start. Surrounded by practitioners in flowing robes, a woman dressed as a fairy descended upon them. She opened the hood, waved her wand over the engine block and the car started right up again.
I stared back, incredulous. My friend shrugged. "It's L.A."
It would have been interesting to view Doc and Phil work opposite sidelines in the same city. While Phil talked the language of togetherness inherent in the Triangle offense, Doc demanded the sacrifice required to execute the strong-side pressure defensive scheme that has become his trademark. One is the son of ministers from the hinterlands of Montana, the other was born to a Chicago cop, but they are oddly kindred spirits.
The two have maintained a respectful distance, but there has always been a bit of a rivalry there, as you would expect from the men who led the Lakers and Celtics through the latest chapter in their shared epic. Rivers, after all, can appreciate what it means for Jackson to take the risk of leaving a hallowed organization to overhaul a dysfunctional one on the opposite coast. "I'm happy for him," Rivers said. "I know New York was always a special place for him."
Jackson's job, while still nebulous, appears to be something of a spiritual advisor. If he can clean up the toxic mess at Madison Square Garden and bring peace and harmony to the Knicks, it would suggest that perhaps there's really something to this whole Zen Master business. Rivers, for his part, is trying to turn the laughingstock Clippers into a championship organization, and in the process show that he can succeed without the ghost of Red Auerbach smiling down on him.
"I took the gamble, that's what I always tell people. ... It gives me a lot of life and it's a task."
The day after Jackson did -- or didn't -- accept his new calling, Kobe Bryant put the Lakers on blast. He railed against the front office and let it be known that he wouldn't accept losing. As a parting shot, Kobe mentioned the 48-point blowout the Clippers had administered on the Lakers saying, "Now I know what it was like to be a Clipper fan all those years."
"I took the gamble, that's what I always tell people," Rivers said. "It was me taking this gamble. It's worth it. If we get it right, it will be worth it. If we get it wrong, it will be a great attempt. It gives me a lot of life and it's a task. If you know, there's a lot, not just the basketball part that we're trying to change here. It's more the mindset."
The Clippers don't practice, or at least they haven't in about two weeks, which comes as no surprise to anyone who followed Doc's teams over the years. During the lockout season, they basically did away with practice altogether. Between playoff games, media members would gather in the lobbies of some of the nation's finest hotels for brief availabilities.
We got used to living on Doc Time in Boston, but this has caused some consternation among the beat writers who rely on practices to get the kind of access they need to work on off-day stories and big picture pieces. The best times they have are shootarounds, which are held at their training facility, down by the airport.
This presents a uniquely Los Angeles challenge. I was staying on the East side of the city, close enough to Staples Center to cut through downtown and avoid the freeways. The East side is a world -- and an untold and unpredictable amount of traffic -- away from Playa Vista where the Clippers facility is located.
Reporters live in fear of missing media availabilities, especially at shootarounds, which are short and often uneventful. But if you time it right, you may be able to get a guy when he's a little more relaxed and not thronged by the media horde that only attends games. I left an hour and a half early for the 20-mile drive.
There were accidents on 10 West and the 405 was a nightmare. I successfully created a new route, taking 110 South to Florence, then cutting across South Central and Inglewood. I congratulated myself on my ingenuity and was feeling so good I figured I'd be fine getting back on the main route. I didn't count on the left lane being closed while crews painted fresh lines on the pavement.
Shootaround was mostly a dud anyway. Chris Paul talked for a few minutes, which was as much time as anyone was going to get with him. He deftly brushed aside generalities and strategic questions alike and that was that.
Chris Paul creates space. It's what he does on basketball court better than anyone else playing the game. Paul doesn't have KD's wingspan or LeBron's power, but with his dribble, his pace and his vision, he is constantly probing opposing defenses for weaknesses and angles. If he has to take it upon himself, Paul can create his own shot with a simple hard-dribble step-back jumper or a straight line drive to the basket.
"When your little guy is a tough sumbitch, then everybody else becomes a tough sumbitch."Photo credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA TODAY Sports
Chris Paul also creates space between himself and everyone else. He is professional but short with the press, never revealing too much about game plans or strategy and revealing even less about himself. His arrival three years ago, after a trade to the Lakers was blocked by the NBA head office, brought legitimacy and credibility to a franchise that lacked both. Paul has an aura about him that says, "Don't mess with me," and few people try.
"It's good for your point guard to be that," Rivers said. "When your little guy is a tough sumbitch, then everybody else becomes a tough sumbitch. They become surly during games because they know Chris ain't going to allow that. That's great leadership."
It was impossible, sitting there in Rivers' office, not to think about Rajon Rondo. Doc and Rondo. They fought and bonded, sometimes in the course of the same game. They pushed each other's buttons and tested each other constantly. A very good book is waiting to be written about their relationship, but for now both men are keeping it to themselves.
"Huge IQ," Rivers said of Paul. "Very similar to Rondo. I've been very lucky. I've had two really high IQ point guards in back to back jobs. That's a gift."
Theirs is a different relationship. Where Rondo was constantly striving for acceptance from his coach and older teammates, Paul had already laid the foundation when Rivers arrived. The Clippers were 32-50 the year before CP3 showed up and they were 44-20 in his first season, which coincided with the lockout.
People tend to forget that the Clippers actually beat the Grizzlies that year, winning a tough, wrenching series in seven games by taking two victories in Memphis, including a gruesome seventh game. Paul was everything in that matchup, scoring 20 points, grabbing almost six rebounds and generating seven assists per game.
But Paul, like Rondo, is a distributor first. Since coming back from a shoulder injury, he's adjusted seamlessly to the Clippers' new emphasis on featuring emerging power forward Blake Griffin. Some players force their way back into the action, others try to pick up exactly where they left off. Paul blended.
"He just gets it," Rivers said. "I think it's his IQ. He watches all these games. He watches the way we played and instead of coming back saying let's go back to the way we played he figured out, ‘Well shit, this is good for me.' We're playing at this pace and that's hard for the point guard to play at this pace. What Chris is doing now is, he gets it and throws it to Blake. Instead of grabbing it and thinking ego, he's thinking team."
That night against the Warriors, Paul shot miserably for three and a half quarters. In the final six minutes, he took over, making all the right plays and sinking clutch shots. Unsatisfied with his performance, he went back out on the court after the game and took more shots.
"He's just a tough dude," Rivers said. "Great teammate, soft spoken, great with his family. Then when the game starts ... I had a teammate in New York in John Starks who was the most soft spoken, most meek human being you ever met. Then when the game starts he was the devil. Chris is not that, but he's close. He's a competitive, fiery guy. To be the point guard of this team, it's exactly what this team needs."
I said my goodbyes to Doc that night and told him I'd try to catch up with him again in the playoffs. "You better," he said. "That's kind of up to you guys," I answered. I remembered one of the last things Rivers told me.
"The one thing that I found interesting in Boston [was] when we were losing, we were losing with a championship mindset. We're winning here without one and we have to get that mindset. It's not just the players, it's everyone. When we started winning in Boston, we just fell back into what they were. They knew. They had been about winning. Here we don't because we haven't. That will be a task."
The lack of practice time was actually a blessing. Rather than battle traffic and hope for interview scraps, I was free to stare at mountains and live a purposefully solitary existence. I went for runs around the Silver Lake Reservoir and by the Los Angeles River. I watched the sun set.
At night, Los Angeles glowed and glistened in the distance, but I resisted its charms, opting instead for a James Ellroy novel and Gram Parsons playing softly in the background. The city is simply too big and vast to experience as a whole; everyone who arrives must choose their own path. On my final day in town I went to the Self-Realization Fellowship.
In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda left India with a mission to spread the word about Kriya Yoga to the West. His first stop was Boston, where he gave a speech on the science of religion at the International Congress of Religious Liberals. He founded the Self-Realization Fellowship and opened Boston's first meditation center. Five years later he arrived in Los Angeles and established the international headquarters on top of Mount Washington.
The grounds are open to the public and are a destination spot for tourists and yogis alike. The views are spectacular. From the crest of a scenic overlook, downtown Los Angeles was wreathed in smog and sunshine; the Staples Center was down there somewhere, invisible.
It was quiet where I was and I did my best to be still. I was wandering through the Temple of Leaves when my phone buzzed with a text. It was my wife, with news that the windshield wipers were frozen to her car. It was 19 degrees in Boston. Enlightenment would have to wait. It was time to go home.