Player Resource: Confidence, Austin Rivers

Jonathan Abrams, Grantland (http://grantland.com/features/ball-in-the-family-austin-rivers-nba-doc-rivers-los-angeles-clippers/)

During the rocky beginnings of his pro career, when Austin Rivers was running low on both confidence and playing time, he would seek advice from an NBA head coach — but not the one he played for. That’s one of the benefits of being Doc Rivers’s son. Drawing on 30 years of experience in the league, Doc told Austin to get back in the gym — to stay deep into the night if necessary — and work with the future in mind. “When I was in New Orleans, I’d talk to him a lot, because he would help me through what I was going through,” Austin said. “I would be so frustrated, because I would be watching kids I used to play against and they’re in situations where they’re playing. You don’t understand how angry that made me. It was probably the darkest time of my life. Because I knew I could do it. I needed a chance.”

So Austin heeded the advice from his father, who had moved on to coach the Clippers. He got back in the gym and dedicated himself to training as hard as he’s ever trained. At the time, it was just fatherly guidance — work harder — only Austin’s dad happened to be an NBA coach. Neither expected they would soon be united on the court. Austin had always imagined hitting big shots against his dad’s teams — not for them. “It’s never been done before, so why would I think that it would be done?” Austin said.

“I was just myself,” Austin said of his half-season in Los Angeles. “I stopped thinking. I stopped trying to show everybody I could play. I don’t need to show anybody anything. Just go be myself, and if I do that, then I can really show how good of a player I can be. I almost was mad at myself. I was so pissed that for the past two years, I’ve been putting so much pressure on myself, just for no reason.”

Austin finished his high school career as the nation’s top recruit, seemingly fast-tracked toward an NBA career that would surpass his father’s, but then, during his first and only season at Duke, he encountered his first significant career hurdle. The Blue Devils had captured a championship two years before Austin arrived and had bowed out in the Sweet 16 the following season. In 2011-12, Austin was pegged to lead a talented Duke squad back into championship contention, but that group struggled to coalesce. Critics suggested that the way Austin dominated the ball on offense was an important reason that team didn’t come together as well as it could have. “We just didn’t mesh as good as we wanted to,” Austin said. “I tried to do whatever I could. It was one of those things where you just have to learn from it and get better. We all took learning experiences. I could have been a better leader. Everybody could have through that whole thing.”

Midway through last season, Austin’s third in the NBA, the Pelicans traded him to the Celtics. Austin doesn’t hold a grudge over his time in New Orleans. “He taught me a lot, just in becoming a better player and a better professional,” Austin said of playing for Williams. But he had felt ready for a new start anyway, and Boston was a place where his father had earned a championship. Then, not long after he arrived in Boston, Austin received a phone call from his father.

Doc, serving the dual role as Clippers coach and general manager, had known many players who faltered early in their NBA careers before eventually finding stability, and he believed that the ones who made it usually relied on their deep connection to the sport to persevere through their initial struggles. “Give me any kid that has an amazing amount of love for what they do and a lot of passion for what they do,” Doc said, describing this type of player. “Usually, those are the ones that work out.” He knew his son fell into that category. When Doc was coaching the Celtics against the Lakers in the 2007 and 2009 NBA Finals, Austin chose not to attend most of the games because cheering on his dad would have interrupted his AAU schedule.

Soon after completing the trade, Doc summoned Austin into his office in Los Angeles. He told his son to block out everything else and listen to him: “You’ve got two options here. You are either going to play well and people are going to be like, ‘All he needed was a chance to play and a system where they gave him a chance.’ Or you could be shitty. And people could be like, ‘This kid’s a bust.’ It’s your choice.”

“What the heck?” Austin recalled thinking.

“I believe you can be the first player,” Doc continued. “That’s why I brought you here. You will only be the other way if you keep doing the shit you’re doing. Stop fucking thinking. Just be yourself, like the guy you used to be. You used to be almost too cocky in high school and college. I want that Austin. Be that guy. Believe in yourself.”

Austin also adapted to the Clippers’ easygoing vibe. “On the plane ride in New Orleans, players hardly ever joked,” said Austin’s youth coach and confidant, Therion Joseph. “They didn’t really play rap music. They didn’t play cards, because that was the culture in New Orleans. So when he got to Los Angeles, [Doc] never asked what you did last night. He don’t care. He just asked that you be ready for the game.” Austin’s veteran teammates taught him how to play freely under Doc, whose stern approach to the game sometimes conflicts with the style and flair that Clippers like Jamal Crawford — and Austin Rivers — often bring to the game. The sight of Doc shaking his head on the sideline after he watches Crawford shake and bake on the court is familiar to Clippers players and fans alike. “Coach is all over him,” Austin said. “He’ll look at the bench and just be like [shrugs his shoulders]. So when you start to think like that, it just makes the game more fun. And when you have fun, you play better. When you play better, you get your confidence. When you get your confidence back, it starts becoming consistent. That’s all it is. It’s not rocket science.”

Building that type of relationship, Doc learned, should be his goal with every player.

“If you want to be a good coach, that’s the point you’ve got to [reach] with every single player, that the player believes the coach has his back,” Doc said. “And if that happens, I think you can unlock the freedom key with that player — that player will then play free … So I’m learning lessons from this relationship. Not just with us, but I’m learning lessons as a coach as well.”

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