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All in the family: UC Irvine's Spencer Rivers gets a chance to make a big impact

All in the family: UC Irvine's Spencer Rivers gets a chance to make a big impact
UC Irvine guard Spencer Rivers, left, puts up a shot against Cal State Fullerton forward Johnny Wang during the second half of the Big West conference championship game in Anaheim on Saturday. (Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

The poster was hanging there waiting for him, waiting like a slap across the face.

By his recollection, it read, “Austin Rivers: 30 points per game, Jeremiah Rivers: 32 points per game, Spencer Rivers: 0 points per game.”

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He noticed it while trotting onto the floor for the season opener of his sophomore year at Winter Park High in Florida.

This was before Spencer Rivers had even played a game, a point at which everyone’s average is, technically, zero.

“It was kind of crazy,” he says now, smiling. “But it didn’t affect me because I was dealing with that stuff in middle school.”

This sort of public ridicule can happen when the name arched across the back of your jersey lays there like an anchor.

Spencer’s father is Doc Rivers, longtime NBA guard and current coach of the Clippers. One of his brothers, Jeremiah, played at Georgetown and Indiana. His other brother, Austin, is a Houston Rocket. His sister, Callie, was a standout volleyball player at Florida.

UC Irvine guard Darrian Traylor, right, fouls UC Riverside guard Jordan Gilliam, middle, as Spencer Rivers helps defend during second half of a Big West men's tournament game in Anaheim on March 14.
UC Irvine guard Darrian Traylor, right, fouls UC Riverside guard Jordan Gilliam, middle, as Spencer Rivers helps defend during second half of a Big West men's tournament game in Anaheim on March 14. (Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

And now, to conclude a college career that has featured an entire year lost to injury, limited playing time and fleeting moments, Spencer is heading to the NCAA tournament, as a reserve guard for UC Irvine.

“I’m really happy for him as a staff member but more importantly as a friend,” says Alex Young, a former teammate and now Irvine’s video coordinator. “I’m really excited for everything that has happened for him. He deserves this.”

Rivers rarely has played more for the Anteaters than he has the last few weeks. Thanks in part to an injury to Eyassu Worku, Rivers averaged nearly 20 minutes over the final five regular-season games.

In the opener of the Big West tournament, Rivers played 25 minutes, his high for the year.

Finally, for someone who coach Russell Turner says has brought so much to the Irvine program, Rivers’ contributions have been as easy to read as a box score.

“Coming from his family there’s an authority behind his voice,” Turner says. “That allows him to lead in the locker room. He’s learned how to be incredibly positive because of that voice.”

Rivers can be heard during timeout huddles, spreading encouragement. And from the back of the bus, where he routinely sings aloud from beneath headphones.

Young called him “the life of the team,” a description that’s particularly true when Rivers launches into one of his impersonations of Turner or an Irvine assistant coach.

“He has like a Jamie Foxx ability when it comes to that stuff,” teammate Max Hazzard says. “He kills the coaching staff. That’s probably our highlight.”

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Growing up as the baby in a basketball family, Rivers recalls hours spent on the backyard half-court, the one that included flood lights so the boys could play into the night and a giant net so the ball wouldn’t bounce into the next-door lake.

He and Austin, who’s three years older, have played “thousands of games of one-on-one” back there, though they never stopped at just one. Instead, they’d typically play a best-of-seven series.

“I think I’ve got him three games, but I don’t think I’ve ever completed a series,” Rivers says. “Whenever I get to two games, his level turns up a bit. There’s also no ref out there and I’m the youngest brother. I’m not getting a foul call.”

As if those results weren’t proof enough, it was two years ago at a game in Santa Clara that a heckling fan continued to point out to Rivers that Austin clearly was the better player.

Having heard enough, Rivers looked at the guy and said, “He’s in the NBA. So, yeah, he probably is.”

He has repeatedly listened to the chants of “Where’s your daddy?” He was booed a few weeks ago at Oracle Arena when the Golden State fans realized his brother was playing for the Rockets. Rivers remembers opponents coming at him harder because of his last name as far back as early AAU ball.

“There’s definitely an expectation with having ‘Rivers’ on the back of your jersey,” he says. “But I just love basketball so much. For me, this is just about having fun and playing as long as I can.”

And now, his final season at Irvine extends at least one more game, Friday in San Jose, against Kansas State.

Spencer Rivers might not be either one of his brothers or his sister or his father. But none of them were Anteaters, and there are worse places to cap a career than in the NCAA tournament.

“When he first got here, he said, ‘I don’t want anybody looking at me differently because I’m Doc Rivers’ son or Austin Rivers’ brother,’ ” Young says. “He wanted to create a name for himself. I think he’s done that so well.”

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