Sports

Coach Doc Rivers helps Clippers rise above the tumult

Los Angeles ClippersSportsProfessional BasketballDoc RiversDonald SterlingBasketballGolden State Warriors
Doc Rivers' well-chosen words and actions during Donald Sterling scandal have inspired Clippers and their fans

Jennifer Teruya isn't a Clippers fan. She doesn't even follow the NBA.

None of that mattered last week when the aerospace engineer from Torrance found herself captivated by a courageous performance involving Los Angeles' most talked-about team.

It didn't feature a ferocious dunk or a last-second shot but required the kind of resolve rarely found on "SportsCenter."

By the time Teruya finished watching Doc Rivers address the Donald Sterling scandal in a televised news segment, Rivers no longer just coached the Clippers.

He had taught Teruya and scores of others across the country how to confront hatred.

"So many times I see people who are victims of another group that thinks they are better just take it and use it as an excuse why they can't succeed," Teruya wrote in an email to Rivers that was forwarded to The Times by one of her friends. "It ends up being a crutch and being a victim ends up being a never-ending cycle.

"The strong work ethic you showed today was so effortless. You are absolutely right in that this is not about the players or you and how you should respond. You just keep on keeping on."

The Clippers have done just that, persevering through the most turbulent week in franchise history to defeat the Golden State Warriors in a breathless first-round playoff series that required the full seven games. They open the Western Conference semifinals Monday at Oklahoma City.

Their season is continuing in large part because their coach kept everyone on board at a time when it would have been so easy to splinter. Comments attributed to Sterling in which the team owner disparaged blacks were released in an audio recording three games into the series against the Warriors.

Rivers decided he would speak for his team that day on the practice court at the University of San Francisco. His words were angry but composed, pointed but not extreme.

"It's a disturbing comment," Rivers said of Sterling's remarks, "but we have to be above it right now."

Rivers presided over a team meeting that morning and continually checked in with his players over the next week to encourage them and listen to their concerns. He didn't like their symbolic protest before Game 4, when they shed their warmup tops in a pile at midcourt, revealing shirts turned inside-out to obscure the team logo, but he didn't try to stop it.

The coach constantly gauged the emotional temperature of his team, giving players days off before Games 5 and 6 because he felt they needed to decompress even after the specter of Sterling had been removed with a lifetime ban. He then sent his players home 30 minutes into a practice the day before Game 7 after realizing they were still spent.

Rivers even set aside a few hours that same day to meet with team employees who felt like they had been forgotten amid the tumult.

Nearly every day, Rivers reaffirmed his mantra, that the Clippers weren't going to let this ordeal distract them from the dream of a championship.

The dream lives on after a wild Game 7 victory Saturday punctuated by Rivers high-fives and first pumps, the weary coach unleashing a week's worth of emotion in a few seconds.

"I needed to exhale," the coach explained afterward. "This was a hard week . . . it feels like two months. I just needed to be able to smile and laugh and cheer and be proud of something and I was very proud of my players."

His players and Clipper Nation returned the favor, joined in their appreciation by a much larger nation. Rivers said he had heard from "a lot of people" touched by his response to the ordeal.

"Obviously, it's not really the way you would want to have contact," Rivers said Sunday in a conference call with reporters. "You'd rather have it because of something positive and it's just starting to become positive for us, which is very nice."

America's coach has turned the Clippers into America's team, its journey capturing the hearts of people like Teruya who normally stray from basketball this time of year. Of course, this voyage has suddenly become about so much more.

"I hope your players realize what a great coach they have," Teruya wrote in her email to Rivers. "And I just wanted to thank you for inspiring me as well."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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