As far as the Hornets’ rookie is concerned, rough times are what his father, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, endured early in his coaching career, before bringing a 17th championship banner to Boston in 2008 and ascending to his current status as one of the best coaches in the game.
Compared to those trying early years with the Celtics and the ignominious end in Orlando, Austin Rivers’ up-and-down campaign is nothing.
“When [the Celtics] won versus L.A., I saw the emotion on my dad’s face,” Austin Rivers said Wednesday before taking on his dad’s team at the TD Garden. “That was probably the happiest I’ve ever felt for someone else. I was so proud and so happy, just because I’ve seen my father go through seasons where he’s only won 15 games, 20 games, and people have been in the stands holding signs saying, ‘Fire Doc.’
“You want to talk about a tough time? You think I’m having a tough time, my father’s gone through stuff 100 times worse, and look where he’s at now. To have someone in my corner who has been through all that, I know if he can do it, I’ve got to work hard and I can do it, too.”
Of all the tough things Doc Rivers has had to do, he admitted that coaching against his son was one of the toughest. Doc and Austin Rivers became the fourth father-son duo to face each other as a coach and player in the NBA, joining Butch and Jan van Breda Kolff, Mike Dunleavy and Mike Dunleavy Jr., and George and Coby Karl. The best Doc Rivers could say about the experience was that it was “strange.”
“It’s something I really did not look forward to,” Doc Rivers said. “You do in one way, in a parent way. The fact that you’re coaching a game that your son is playing in is a really neat moment. It’s not a moment I’ll enjoy now — maybe later. On the other end, it’s tough because you’re trying to win a game, and when you’re trying to win a game that your son is playing in, that’s different. It’s just unusual.”
Before he scored eight points as the Hornets won, 90-78, to snap Boston’s six-game winning streak, Austin Rivers said he had this game highlighted on his schedule, along with matchups against storied franchises and star players he looked up to as a kid. He came into the game averaging only 6.2 points per game and shooting only 33 percent from the field. Among the top-10 picks in last summer’s draft, only Thomas Robinson of the Kings has a lower scoring average and none have shooting marks as poor as Rivers’.
When Austin Rivers first checked in with a little more than four minutes left in the first quarter, Doc Rivers issued his entry into the Father of the Year competition by subbing out defensive menace Avery Bradley. Jason Terry, a much less formidable defender, covered Austin Rivers, who tossed in a runner on his first shot of the game. But Doc Rivers did not go easy on his son for long. Austin Rivers absorbed just as much contact when he went to the hoop as any opposing shooting guard would. When that contact sent him to the floor, the rest of the Rivers clan — which was well-represented for this historic occasion — might have cringed, but Dad didn’t even give it a second thought.
“That’s one thing my kids know with me — when you go to the floor, I don’t flinch,” Doc Rivers said. “They all laugh at that, because that’s how I’ve always been. My wife would run out there. I’m not. I say, ‘Get the hell up!’”
Doc Rivers had one luxury in the game, however. He may not have cared how hard his son got hit, but he did not have to mete out the punishment. That fell to players like Kevin Garnett, who has watched Austin Rivers grow from a little boy staying to himself on the periphery of Celtics practice, to the older boy scrimmaging with the NBA players, and now as the young man who is one of them.
“It was strange for everybody in here,” Garnett said. “If we didn’t feel a little old already, we felt a little old seeing that little kid who used to say absolutely nothing and dribble his ball and kind of be in his own little world, to being a young man now in this league trying to make something of himself.
“We root for him, obviously, when he’s away from here. But yeah, I’ll admit it. It was a little odd. He’s family, but when we all hit the floor, we’re all trying to win.”
Before the game, to his credit, Austin Rivers abandoned all pretense of this being “just another game.” He knew it was not, although he and his father both hope that he has many other memorable moments and sets history of a different manner in his career. Basketball is an emotional game, but only against one team is Austin Rivers going to experience that certain type of emotion that comes with facing family. He joked that his mother, Kristen, would be rooting for the Hornets because “she loves me more,” and this is the only matchup he is likely to have where the word “love” is going to come up so often.
“I was talking to the players a lot,” Austin Rivers said. “KG’s obviously talking. Courtney Lee and I are very close, so me and him were talking the whole game. Jason Terry, all those guys, I talked to them. But my dad didn’t really say anything to me — just before and after the game, he told me that he loved me, and he just told me to go out there and compete, so I did.”