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‘There’s no such thing as a lucky champion’: Doc Rivers on leadership, what it takes to win and Donald Sterling


By Poppy Harlow, CNN

(CNN) — Legendary basketball coach Doc Rivers sat down for an in-depth interview with CNN This Morning’s Poppy Harlow. He spoke in revealing detail about his experience in dealing with the Donald Sterling racism case during his first season with the Los Angeles Clippers. Sterling, then owner of the Clippers, was banned from the league and forced to sell the team after making racist remarks.

He also discussed how coaching crosses over into everyday life and reminisced about his 2008 NBA Championship victory with the Boston Celtics.

Here are Rivers’ thoughts that have been lightly edited for clarity.

On the 2014 Donald Sterling case

Poppy Harlow: So let’s go to 2014, it’s the NBA playoffs. Brand new coach. First season. You’re in the playoffs. And the Donald Sterling tapes come out. And, the team tells you, not a big deal. Then you listen, and what do you think?

Doc Rivers: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I’m sitting in my room and the PR guy brings up the video and says, “You need to look at this.” I said, “No, Andy [Roeser] already told me it’s not a big deal.” And he’s, he screams like, “It’s a big deal.” He said, “It’s a big F-ing deal.” And so, I look at it and I’m shocked. I’m blown away, but I don’t know what to do. That is, you know, I look back on that two-week period where I was lucky. I was really unprepared. I mean, you’re not prepared for that: on what to do with your team. And there’s so many steps that could have gone wrong that went right, overall, for our guys. You know, the first step was, we had a team meeting right after it got out on ESPN. We called a team meeting and it was a misstep by me. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know, should I wear a Clippers shirt?

PH: You think: “Does this organization represent me?”

DR: Yeah, yeah. And I’m the head coach and my players are going to have their practice gear on. So I put it on, and I walk downstairs and half the players don’t have theirs on. And so I’m like, “Uh, OK, yeah, it’s mistake number one.” And I’m talking to them about this. And honestly, the first 10 minutes of the talk didn’t go right. And thank God I had the ability to read the room that day.

PH: And what did you read? What did you see?

DR: I read bad body language and that’s something the coach looks for all the time. I saw folded arms and I felt like they in the middle of the speech thought I was part of them… and so, I remember that and I remember thinking, “I don’t want one of my players to say something that then becomes part of the story.” I was panicked by that.

PH: You didn’t want your players to be the ones forced to say something?

DR: I didn’t want my players to say something that would become a bigger story than what Donald Sterling did. I was so mad at what he did. I wanted the spotlight to stay on him. And so, I told them, I said, “Listen, we’re about to go do media.” And I have to admit, this is what I meant by lucky. I thought it was a story. I didn’t know it was going to be a story, if you know what I’m saying. I thought it was a sports story – it was an American story.

On dealing with the pressure of the Sterling situation during the Clippers’ playoff series against the Golden State Warriors

DR: So before the first game in Golden State, I’m not on the floor until five seconds before the tip-off.

PH: Why?

DR: I’m arguing with Donald Sterling and (Clippers President) Andy Roeser on a cell phone. Donald Sterling was actually going to come to the game. He was coming to the game.

PH: And you’re telling him not to come?

DR: I am yelling, to the owner of our basketball team and to the president of the team. He cannot come. He will not come. I’m threatening to have the police meet him at the door. I didn’t have any of that power. I’m just saying these things. I just knew. Donald Sterling sitting across from our bench would be a disaster. And I couldn’t understand how they didn’t know that.

PH: You were not only the voice for the team – you were the shield for the team?

DR: I was the only thing. It was the owner, the president, and then it was me. So I walk out… and I said, “We’re going to lose by 50 points.”

PH: But it wasn’t about the game.

DR: It wasn’t about the game. It really wasn’t.

PH: The whole NBA, all the teams came together.

DR: They came together. Adam [Silver] was unbelievable… and I did believe in Adam. I do remember the only time I broke down, I got in the car and I called Adam. I said, “I need help.”

PH: You called him crying?

DR: Yeah. “I need help. I’m in over my head.” And he said, “I need you for 24 more hours, and you’re going to be very proud of where we’re going. You just got to get through the day.”

On his prized possession, a boxing glove signed by Muhammad Ali

PH: What does this mean to you?

DR: Well, it has a lot of meaning. Number one, it’s a boxing glove signed by Muhammad Ali, so you could probably just stop there if you wanted to. But it also tells a really interesting story, a tough story in some ways. If you can see the singes on here, it’s from a fire when I was playing for the [San Antonio] Spurs, someone broke in our house and burned our house down. Arson, skinheads. You know, not for anything that I did, just because of the color of my skin.

And RC Buford, who was the President-GM of the Spurs [now-CEO of the team], knew I had this Ali collection, and he literally ran into the on-fire house where the firemen told him you couldn’t go in and saved my Ali photo and this boxing glove. Other than that, everything else in the house was completely burned and gone.

PH: What does it make you think of other than him and that moment? What he stood for?

DR: Yeah, he stood for him, and guys like you know, Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe, that’s when athletes were advocates of social justice. It’s funny now it’s kind of come full circle. There was a long period where it was kind of quiet. In my generation, you didn’t hear a lot of athletes speak out. And so, it reminds me of what Ali went through and the tough things that he had to fight, not just the war … So that’s what [the glove] reminds me of: we still live in a country that is really not reconciled from doing some really bad things.

On what it takes to be a champion and his 2008 championship run with the Boston Celtics

PH: Is it true that you walk in at the beginning of each season and you tell your players, “I’m human and I’m going to make mistakes?”

DR: Yeah, I want to make it clear that I am human and I’m going to do my best, but I’m going to make some mistakes here. And hopefully, you’re good enough to cover them up. And hopefully, if you’re not, we can figure it out together – we are on the journey together.

PH: That’s some real vulnerability. I’ve seen you ask your players to “open [their] hearts.” What’s that about?

DR: I believe for you to be a champion, you have to open up your heart. You have to take a step out. You have to risk; you have to get out of your comfort zone. You have to give yourself to the team. You literally have to give yourself and get over yourself. You know, just get over yourself. And when you do that, it all comes back to you.

PH: You’re down 24 points in Game Four of the 2008 Finals and you come back. Why was the team able to come back like that?

DR: We believed that we were going to win the world championship. We believed we had a right to it. I believe that, in life, for you to attain something, you have to have a vision about it first. You have to believe it. There’s no such thing as a lucky champion. There’s no such thing as a lucky anything. You have to go get it. You have to see it; you have to vision it. I think that’s part of it. We believe we had a right that we were going to win. I was thinking, “OK, let’s get it to 18, let’s get it to 12.”

PH: Were you telling them that?

DR: Yeah, every timeout. “Get it to six.” And then when we got it to six, I’m on the court, you know, yelling, “It’s our game now. We’re here now. We’re back.” You know, I just kept repeating it, and kept repeating it because I needed them to believe it, too.

PH: How do you take all of the power of the players, all of the egos in the room, and bring them together on the page with you to do something like that?

DR: Well, you never stop. You’ve got to sell it every day. I still believe part of it is you’ve got to really get them to believe in you. You got to try to get them to drop their guard. You got to try to get them to get outside of themselves, and you have to do it every day. You can’t get disappointed on the nights that they don’t because it’s the big picture.

On coaching life

PH: Do you think in many ways you’re also a teacher?

DR: I am a teacher. I think that’s what a coach is for the most part. You know, I got it wrong early in coaching. I thought you just coached basketball. And then I realized, no, you coach life. And that allows you to play better basketball. That gives you freedom to play basketball.

PH: You’ve said: “I’m not going to coach the man you are, I’m going to coach the man you’re going to be.” Can you explain that?

DR: A player came in my office and was upset because I was on him a lot. And I asked him, “Do you think you’re going to be an All-Star?” He said, “Yeah, I want to be.” I said, “Well, I’m not going to coach you to who you are today. I’m going to coach you to who you should be someday.” If you can achieve that, then you will be satisfied, and I won’t be satisfied if I don’t push you to achieve that. It really made our relationship better.

PH: You said you got it wrong early on when you were a coach because you thought you were just a coach.

DR: Yeah… some of these players have become my kids in some ways. Many still call, and I’ve not been perfect with all of them. I’ve had some bad relationships with some. And you learn that doesn’t make the guy bad. That doesn’t make you bad.
Relationships sometimes just don’t work, and not everyone’s going to love you.
But you have to love them. That is a fact. You have to, in my opinion, to be a great coach or whatever you are. You have to open your heart up to every single kid that comes in the door, and you have to pour it out to them. And in many cases, they will not pour it back to you. And that’s got to be okay.

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