As a first-time NBA coach with the Orlando Magic in 1999, Doc Rivers knew his success, or failure, rode on surrounding himself with the experience he didn’t have.
As Rivers began his search, a coach with decades of experience sought him out too.
Jack Ramsay wasn’t angling for a job. After coaching the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA title and winning 864 games in 21 NBA seasons, Ramsay was an analyst for ESPN Radio. But seeing a newcomer to the profession, he offered his help.
When Ramsay worked Magic games, he’d visit Rivers before tipoff and “download” his knowledge of the game’s nuances to the rookie, from drawing plays to managing personalities.
“He was a very generous man,” Rivers said. “He took an interest in what my philosophy was. He would share his. He kept telling me, ‘Go with yours, do what you think, stick to your guns, you’ve been playing this game your whole life.’”
The pregame drop-ins from Ramsay, who died in 2014 at 89, continued as the years went on and began with the same refrain.
“He would always come in early and say, ‘Where are you now?’” Rivers said.
The Clippers’ coach would have quite the answer for “Dr. Jack” now. Rivers is one victory from tying Ramsay for 13th on the NBA’s all-time victories list entering Thursday’s game against Dallas at Staples Center.
“The fact that [Rivers] would be passing someone of that caliber, to me, says a lot about what Doc has done in this league as a coach,” said New Orleans coach and former Clippers assistant Alvin Gentry.
To Rivers, who is 863-637 in 20 seasons, it also says much about the generosity of those molded his career, Ramsay included.
Hank Raymonds, Rivers’ coach at Marquette, called before nearly every game until his death in 2010. Rick Majerus, a Marquette assistant under Raymonds, was another frequent caller until his death two years later. Chuck Daly, the coach Rivers succeeded in Orlando, was a trusted friend, as remains Pat Riley, who’d coached Rivers in New York. He learned from Larry Brown, his coach with the Clippers. Mike Fratello, Rivers’ coach in Atlanta during his playing career, kept in touch then as he does now.
“I know Doc reached out and had relationships with several veteran coaches that first year,” Nevada coach Eric Musselman, an assistant on Rivers’ first staff, wrote by email.
Said Rivers: “I was one of the luckiest players ever.”
Rivers merged the lessons from their experience with his own beliefs and proved a quick study. Musselman calls him “the greatest pregame speech motivator that I have ever seen.” The Magic won 41 games his first season, eight more than the year before. He was fired 11 games into his fifth season in Orlando. Four seasons later, in 2008, his Celtics won an NBA championship, beating the Lakers in the Finals. He is the winningest coach in Clippers history, a history that includes Ramsay, who coached the franchise formerly known as the Buffalo Braves from 1972-76.
“I learned as much as anything from [Rivers] when I was there as any coach that I’ve ever worked for,” Gentry said.
What Rivers learned from his mentors, he said, was that within a league where teams fight for the tiniest advantages, there also existed a culture of sharing among coaches past and present. Gentry is another who counts Ramsay as a mentor, from their time together in Miami in the early 1990s, when Gentry was an assistant and Ramsay worked on the team’s television broadcasts.
“My dad was a proud member of the coaching fraternity,” Chris Ramsay, Ramsay’s son, wrote by email, “and mentored a lot of coaches along the way.”
The example left an impression on Rivers. He counts former Cavaliers coach Ty Lue, Minnesota's Tom Thibodeau and Brian Adams, a former Clippers assistant now leading the organization’s G League affiliate in Ontario, among the many he has mentored. Gentry even called to talk Wednesday morning.
“I still listen as much as I talk,” Rivers said. “You learn from a guy that’s had one year of experience. Everybody has new thoughts, everybody has their own take on how things should be done and you’ve got to stay open-minded about it as a veteran, but then you have to teach too.
“I think you have to give back. I’m a big believer in that.”
So was Ramsay.
“I don’t know if he got anything out of it,” Rivers said of their talks. “But I got a lot out of it.”
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