A LONG-AGO TRIP WITH THE CLASSY CLIPPERS COACHJune 28th, 2013
In the summer of 1988, I was among those fortunate enough to take a 17-day tour of the Soviet Union with the Atlanta Hawks, Commissioner David Stern, various NBA and Turner executives and two journalist compadres. Those on the trip no doubt think I’m using “fortunate” ironically as it was a trip filled with strange and not wonderful scents, backed-up toilets and rude service employees … and that was just on the flights.
But even in the middle of it all, I understood that the trip was destined to be of those so-bad-it-was-good experiences, every tribulation a potential story nugget, every shared deprivation a bonding memory.
One of those with whom we all bonded was Doc Rivers, then the feisty starting point guard for the Hawks. I thought of the trip again this week after being cheered by the news that Rivers had taken the Clippers head coaching job. The league is better when guys like Doc are in it.
Before getting to Doc, a few points about the trip.
I furnish the link here, not because it was a great story. It wasn’t. I hate the term “political correctness” because one person’s description of “political correctness” often represents something that another person finds deeply offensive, but this story was, quite literally, an example of political correctness.
Before I wrote it, I was instructed by my editors to leave out all of the obvious jokes about Soviet inefficiency (this was the “old” Soviet Union, about a year before the Berlin Wall fell) and the comparisons to our Western way of life—i.e., all the stuff that smartass journalists love to write—in favor of writing a straight hoops story. I understood it at one level, but they had not been along for 17 days of fouled-up schedules and accommodations that sometimes suggested a Boy Scout camp that fell on hard times. And so did much great behind-the-scenes detail get lost.
Like Hawks coaches Mike Fratello and Brian Hill trying—and failing spectacularly—to do vodka shots with our hosts. You know how it’s considered a stereotype that Russians drink a lot of vodka? Not a stereotype.
Or, Fratello, standing with a bunch of us in a 125-degree elevator that was descending into a mine (our hosts’ idea of the perfect morning tourist stop), our nasal passages assaulted by the acrid stench of perspiration (not ours; it had been there much, much longer) and, referencing his missing superstar, said: “Man, I bet Dominique’s sorry he missed this trip, huh?”
My journalist friends who were along for the ride are now both late and great—Jeff Denberg from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Jack Smith, a Seattle-based freelancer. Jeff and I were already friends, and, after about five minutes inside the Soviet border, we began conversing in a nonstop Russian dialect, which undoubtedly sounded like a bad Yakov Smirnoff knockoff (is there any other Yakov Smirnoff knockoff but a bad one?) that continued until the day Jeff died from brain cancer in 2004.
I hadn’t known Jack before the trip, and I was the poorer for it. He was a true original (as his obit demonstrates)
and, unlike the rest of us, fell in love with the Soviet Union.
“A man could make a real life for himself here,” Jack said one day, without irony, as he, Jeff and I trudged through a military museum that included the remnants of Gary Powers’s shot-down spy plane.
I had just emerged from the museum outhouse in which toilet paper was replaced by leaves.
“If that man wanted, in fact, to kill himself,” I responded.
Jack was a tad overweight—okay, he was well into three bills—and one day, during a luncheon at a 15th century Czarist palace—he sat down and promptly broke a chair, presumably priceless and sure as hell irreplaceable.
“Well,” said Jack, lifting himself up, “there goes another chair.” Jack was a man with more than a passing acquaintance with broken furniture.
Rivers comes into the picture because, of all the players—in fact, of all the anybodys on this trip—he was the one who kept spirits up. The players knew they were, to an extent, pawns in this excursion, which was more about spreading the NBA brand and trying to sign Soviet players Sarunas Marciulionis (as you see in the story, I was going with a different spelling then) and Alexander “Sasha” Volkov. The trip took a course diametrically opposed to the normal summer arc of pro players, who do not factor in, say, 17 straight days of borscht for breakfast.
But Rivers, then 26 and having just completed his fifth season as a Hawk, just kept on smiling, shaking hands and conveying the impression that he was ensconced at the Maui Four Seasons instead of—at one stop—a 1940s-era barracks, where the electricity flickered on and off and air conditioning was something you generated by flicking a newspaper in front of your face. I’m sure the presence of Doc’s wonderful wife, Kris, had something to do with his comportment. But probably not all that much. Doc was like that. He’s still is like that.
“Doc was the complete diplomat, leading by example for the players and demonstrating the professionalism with which our coaches, players and teams conducted themselves,” Stern said in an email when I asked for his memories of Rivers on that trip.
Terry Lyons, the ace NBA liaison on the trip—we may have shared a vodka or two along the way—echoes that.
“Doc was the go-to guy on a team filled with go-to guys and a media-friendly coach in Mike Fratello,” said Terry. “Doc was the perfect international ambassador because it took him two seconds to ‘get it,’ warm up to the international media. Simple things like remembering people by their first names and treating everyone so professionally.”
For Rivers, “getting it” went beyond that. I was surprised when I re-read my story that I didn’t quote him but then remembered that most of the stuff he told me was off-the-record, insightful comments that helped inform the story, always delivered good-natured, never bitterly, but always honestly.
The great thing about Rivers, though, is that he had (still has) both that up-with-people savvy and a hard-boiled competitiveness, “combining his Chicago street smarts with his Marquette book smarts,” as Lyons put it. Doc Rivers never good-guyed his way through a basketball game, either as a player or a coach. He was the scrappy one on that Hawks team that could never quite make it past the Celtics or Pistons to compete for a championship.
For years afterward, Rivers and I, given some time, would reminisce about the “wonders” of the Black Sea “resort” known as Sukhumi or the Moscow of the late -80s where making a simple phone call involved three hours of strategic planning.
I only run into Doc once a year at most these days. But I hope to see him in L.A., coaching a championship-caliber team and yelling a hearty “Hey, Comrade!” when he spots me. The best memories often come from some of the worse times, particularly when they involve the best people.