Doc Rivers Explains How He Almost Quit Clippers Job Before First Season

Ernie Johnson and Doc Rivers
Ernie Johnson and Doc Rivers

In the most recent case of NBA history of a team trading a coach for a pick, the Boston Celtics sent Doc Rivers to the Los Angeles Clippers for a first-round pick ahead of the 2013-14 NBA season. Rivers would go on to enjoy seven years of playoff success with Lob City, and currently helms a Clippers squad that was second in the Western Conference when the season went on hold.

Everything nearly came crashing down before it even started, as Rivers shared with Ernie Johnson on Monday night. The root of the problem, as one might expect, was former Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Sterling, you might recall, was given a lifetime ban from the NBA by Adam Silver in April 2014 after audio of Sterling making racist remarks was unearthed.

Rivers said he didn't quite know what he had gotten himself into when he agreed to go coach the Clippers, but found out very quickly after negotiating a J.J. Redick sign-and-trade that was nearly nixed by Sterling. The reason? Sterling didn't like white players. Rivers nearly outright quit in response: (starting at the 2:00 mark):

"I think [Redick] was going to sign with Minnesota, and I literally talked him out of it," said Rivers. "The trade is done, J.J. agrees, I jump on the plane and head back to Orlando and I get a call. From Andy Roeser [then-president of the Clippers]. He says, 'Hey, the deal's off.' I say, 'What do you mean the deal's off?' [He said], 'Donald doesn't like white players.' I said, 'Excuse me?' Donald Sterling said no. I said, Well, we've already agreed!'

"I'm in the garage in the Orlando airport, Ernie. I get a call from Coach K, who's upset because of J.J. I get a call from J.J.'s agent, I think it was Arm Tellem, he's screaming at me. So I called Donald Sterling. This is three weeks to a month into the job. Me and Donald are having a conversation, it made the Pat Riley conversation look meek," Rivers continued. "By the end of the conversation, I quit. I said, well, I quit. 'You're not going to quit,' this is Donald Sterling on the phone. I said 'I will not let you ruin my reputation. Not going to happen, it'll never happen.' And Donald goes in, 'Oh, just trust me, I have this great reputation around the league.' And I was screaming, 'No, no, I have the reputation. You don't. I will not coach another day if this deal goes through.'"

Rivers then detailed how he called his agent and Chris Paul to explain he might've been fired. Or he quit. He wasn't entirely sure. But a few hours later, Roeser calls him again to tell him Sterling is on board with no explanation about what changed his mind.

"That moment, I knew we were in trouble. I knew I was in trouble."

While the actual transaction wouldn't have made a difference in the Clippers' title chances one way or the other that season, Rivers' firsthand account of how Sterling would mettle in basketball operations based on racial bias is revealing. There have been many stories that have come out about Sterling's racism since his lifetime ban, but not many that demonstrate how it affected the basketball team in the manner Rivers' story demonstrates. Arash Markazi previously detailed this story for the LA Times in 2019.

It's also interesting to me that Coach K called Rivers because he was angry on behalf of a former player. Coach K is as widely respected a basketball coach there is in the world, so it's not terribly shocking that he has enough influence in the NBA sphere that he'll call a coach who slighted a former player.

The Clippers wouldn't be where they are now without Rivers. I imagine his players are glad he managed to cope with Sterling long enough to outlast him and lead the franchise into a much better era.