Commentary

Rivers still pained by Finals loss in '94

The current Celtics coach was injured, couldn't help when the Knicks lost to the Rockets

Updated: June 15, 2010, 8:32 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Phil Jackson should have known Doc Rivers defers to no head coach with a Mount Rushmore résumé and an ego to match. Back when he was playing for Jackson's old team, the New York Knicks, Rivers marched into Coach Pat Riley's office and demanded to be cut.

Rivers had just come off the major knee surgery that cost him most of the 1993-'94 season, cost him a chance to compete against Houston in the NBA Finals, and cost him a spot in Riley's rotation that fall.

[+] EnlargeDoc Rivers
AP Photo/Charles KrupaDoc Rivers was a very good NBA player, and is perhaps an even better coach.

The ensuing argument was so loud, so heated, so shaped by the fact neither combatant would surrender an inch, a couple of Riley's staffers prepared to push through the door and break up a potential brawl.

No punches were traded, no truce was signed. As Riley and the aging, surgically altered guard ran out of steam, a concession was finally made. Riley told Rivers he was stubborn enough to someday make for a hell of a coach.

So here's Doc Rivers in Los Angeles for Game 6, a hell of a coach trying to lead the Boston Celtics to their second conquest of the Los Angeles Lakers in three years. In jacket and tie, Rivers is chasing the defining June moments that eluded him as an Atlanta Hawk and New York Knick wedged between Larry Bird's and Michael Jordan's primes.

Up 3-2 on the other team's floor, he's chasing the title he couldn't help his Knicks win on Houston's homecourt in '94, when a 3-2 Finals lead ended up in a smoky heap, buried under an avalanche of missed John Starks 3-pointers.

Would the Knicks have ended their championship drought with a healthy Rivers?

"Yes, we would have," said Dave Checketts, a Rivers friend and the Knicks' president at the time. "We just didn't have enough experience on the bench to beat Houston. I always thought if Doc had gotten healthy, he and Derek Harper would've been great together in the backcourt."

Knicks fans should know Rivers still thinks about those '94 Finals. A lot. He doesn't think about them the way most Americans do, as the sporting event crashed by O.J. Simpson and the white Bronco.

Rivers thinks about them as a lost opportunity to be immortalized in a city he adores.

"That's a bitter memory obviously for me," Rivers said Sunday night. His Celtics had just taken Game 5 when someone asked about '94, and whether Riley stressed the need to avoid a Game 7.

"I was injured sitting on the bench," Rivers continued. "So it just felt like you couldn't help individually. As a team, we had a lot of great opportunities in that series, in Game 6 and Game 7 if you remember."

[+] EnlargeDoc Rivers
AP Photo/Ron FrehmRivers loved playing for the Knicks -- maybe he will coach them one day?

Rivers remembers. In '92, he was acquired with Charles Smith from the Los Angeles Clippers in a three-team deal designed to give the Knicks their first championship-level quarterback in forever. That team won 60 games, lost control of the conference finals to the Bulls on Smith's indelible Game 5 misses, and returned in '94 liberated from Michael Jordan's death grip -- Jordan was off playing minor league baseball -- and desperate to win it all.

If Patrick Ewing remained the frustrated face of the franchise, Rivers was the can-do heartbeat of the team.

"If we had a practice that was drill-oriented," said Jeff Van Gundy, then a Riley assistant, "Doc was a short-cutter. But whenever you attached a score to anything, in practice or in a game, Doc was one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen."

Rivers could cover bigger guards, play both backcourt positions, run the pick-and-roll, and take and make big shots. At least until he tore up his knee, and tore up his last great shot at a ring with it.

The Knicks traded for Harper, and the band played on. They reached the Finals, won the O.J. Game 5 in the Garden, and watched Hakeem Olajuwon block Starks' would-be dagger with his fingertips to send the series to a winner-take-all duel.

"And all John had to do was throw a little bounce pass to Patrick, who was rolling to the basket and probably scores and gets fouled," Checketts said. "I had a very empty feeling that night, because I thought if we didn't win Game 6 we wouldn't win Game 7.

"I went in to see Riles in the locker room, and he was standing in the corner with his back to me. He wouldn't turn around and face me, because he knew what I knew about Game 7."

Starks shot 2-for-18, 0-for-11 on 3s, and Riley refused to bench him in favor of Ro Blackman.

"It's really too bad we didn't have a healthy Doc with us in Houston," Checketts said. "Really too bad."

Back from surgery the following season, out of Riley's plans for keeps, Rivers burned to make up for lost time. He wanted to be in a contender's rotation, so he ordered his head coach to cut him.

Riley granted his wish in December. Rivers signed with San Antonio, never reached the Finals, and retired without a ring. In the spring of '99, before becoming coach of the Magic, Rivers talked to Checketts about replacing the fired Ernie Grunfeld as the Knicks' GM.

"Doc always saw New York as a special place," said Steve Kauffman, his longtime representative and friend. "He would've liked to have stayed there forever. Whether it was as a player, a coach or in management, he wanted to be a Knick for life."

Now some question whether Rivers will be a Celtic for life. Win, lose or draw in Los Angeles, Rivers might take a sabbatical to watch his children play ball. If he does step away, the Boston coach would return to the marketplace as a free agent worthy of a LeBron-like courtship.

Could Rivers ultimately be the coach of the next Knicks team that wins a ticker-tape parade, if it ever happens?

"I think that's very, very possible," Checketts said. "Doc does have a special place in his heart for New York and the Garden. It wouldn't surprise me at all if some day that's what he wanted to do.

"And if the Knicks are smart and Doc's ever interested, they should just hand him the keys and get out of his way."

Rivers has a far more realistic title to win first. Just like in '94, his team has a 3-2 Finals lead on someone else's homecourt.

Only this time around an injured knee is the Lakers' and Andrew Bynum's problem. No, Doc Rivers isn't sitting out this Game 6.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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