Doc Rivers was on television, facing the world and an ugly ghost from the past as he tried stepping through the minefield created by his boss, Donald Sterling, Los Angeles Clippers owner and candidate for the KKK’s bigot of the week.
The last time I heard that kind of pain in Doc’s voice was on April 24, 2001.
We were sitting in a hotel coffee shop in Milwaukee, where the Magic were between Games 1 and 2 of the first round of the playoffs against the Bucks.
Doc was in his second season as Orlando’s head coach. He was the first African-American hired for the job by the then 10-year-old franchise, which plucked him out of a broadcast booth to replace legendary Chuck Daly.
Emotions were running rampant through Rivers as we talked that day in Milwaukee, where he played at Marquette University and endured a racial firestorm, long before Sterling’s alleged remarks on tape rocked the NBA.
Doc met the woman who would become his wife at Marquette in 1980. He was a freshman basketball star and a beat cop’s son from the Chicago area; Kris Campion was a daughter of a physical therapist from the Milwaukee suburbs.
She also happened to be white.
Doc and Kris didn’t see their relationship as an issue. But judging from the slashed tires on Kris’ car and the crank calls and the racial epithet scrawled on the sidewalk in front of her parents’ house, others clearly objected.
“It was a long time ago, and interracial dating was not all that acceptable. It was the hot talk on campus,” Rivers told me.
Complicating matters was that Kris’ former boyfriend, who was white, was a member of the basketball team.
Then-Marquette coach Hank Raymond, hearing the rumblings on campus and among his players, called Rivers into his office as tension mounted.
“Do you love her, Glenn?” Raymond asked Rivers, referring to him by his real first name.
“I think so, Coach. I’ve never been in love before,” Rivers said.
“Then the hell with everybody,” Raymond replied.
Recalls Rivers, “What Hank said – that made me feel like a 7-footer.”
Doc had ridden in his father Grady’s police car in Chicago, exposed to the underbelly of society. He had heard the occasional slur while playing for an all-black high school, but the turmoil at Marquette was too much to take.
Doc regrettably decided to leave school for the NBA after a jittery junior season.
“The whole thing with me and Kris affected my play,” Rivers said. “I had a terrible year. I wasn’t focused on the games. It was why I left.”
Doc and Kris were married in 1986, the groom wearing pink Chuck Taylor basketball shoes and his groomsmen black tennies.
“No one single event in my life taught me more about life and people – judging people and how they judge you – than my years at Marquette,” Rivers said.
After a stellar 13-year playing career, Doc and Kris and their four children were living in the San Antonio area when misfortune – perhaps racial hatred – struck them two years before he accepted the Magic job. Their home was suspiciously burned to the ground by a fire started in a clothes closet.
Rivers was away at a golf tournament, and Kris and the kids were in Wisconsin visiting her parents at the time. Ginger, one of the family’s dogs, was killed. Kris had given her to Doc as a gift. All of the Rivers’ family pictures and albums, and many of Doc’s career keepsakes, were lost.
The Sterling controversy brought back deep wounds from the blaze as Doc’s son, Jeremiah, tweeted on Saturday, “Along with anything we ever loved and held treasured, because of the color of my dad’s skin. We lost everything and had to start over.”
Jeremiah also tweeted some things even more telling: Not all the Sterlings in the world would make him feel hate. “One man cannot have the power to make me feel hate towards a group, race, or another person’s skin color,” he said. “. . . Racism isn’t born, it’s taught. It is the refuge of ignorance and seeks to divide and destroy.”
His words reflect the tolerance so successfully passed on by his parents, Doc and Kris Rivers, who had gone through so much fire themselves.