The Washington Wizards introduced their newest backup guard, Austin Rivers, on Monday less than a week after trading away Marcin Gortat. For Rivers, it begins the next phase of his playing career, but more noteworthily ends the phase where he was the only individual to play under his dad on the NBA stage. With Doc Rivers no longer having personnel power with the Clippers, Austin was shipped out of Los Angeles. That was an incredibly difficult event for Austin to even fathom and he believes he may not be able to truly understand the gravity of it until years from now.
Rivers was entering the final year of his contract with Los Angeles when his offseason began at the end of the regular season with the Clippers missing the playoffs. The 25-year old was working on his craft, business as usual to continue to improve as a player. Because of a minor right elbow injury, Rivers was extensively working on his left hand to improve that facet of his game. Coincidentally enough, Rivers had crossed paths with John Wall where both were training in Miami before the trade even went through. Then, on an ordinary Tuesday, while lounging around, Rivers received the life-changing news from Clippers (and former Wizards) assistant coach Sam Cassell.
“I did not know I was going to be traded,” Rivers began. “I was just sitting on the balcony on the phone with somebody and I got a call from Sam Cassell. ‘Ay yo, you bout to get traded’ [Rivers mimicked in a Cassell voice]. He had told me that something was about to go down and I just need you to relax and take a breath. I was like, ‘what happened?’ Then obviously when I heard D.C. first, I was like a lot of emotions go into being traded because you have family. That’s what happens when you work with people every day, they become family. You actually see them more than your family. So obviously you are sad to leave those people, but there is also an excitement about new beginnings and for me personally with everything I’ve been through, playing for my father the past three, four years, this is a great opportunity for me to come here and just compete and play without all of that stuff. More importantly though, just being on a playoff team, that’s the most fun thing. Not making the playoffs this year was horrendous. Just sitting here on this couch watching these guys compete, that’s the only thing that matters is being a player at that level. Just being on a playoff team is very exciting.”
All of that “stuff” that Rivers was referring to was constant noise from peers and fans poking fun at the fact that he was only where he was because of Doc’s name and legacy. To a degree, that made the move away from his father’s direct shadow a good thing for Austin.
“A little bit,” Rivers said about potentially being relieved to no longer play for his father. “I was grateful that I was able to do something with him that hasn’t been done before. People either loved it or they hated it. It was one or the other, but it was something that I’ll never forget. I don’t think obviously he will. When I get older, I’ll probably reflect on it, not now, but I know once I get older I’ll be like, ‘man, I can’t believe that even happened.’ But with that came a lot of stuff. It was fun, but most of my life I never really had to deal with that until I played for him so just to kind of go back to playing basketball will be pretty fun. I don’t really like to make, let the negative stuff take way from all the positive things that happened there so I’m very grateful for all the people that I was able to meet in L.A.”
About two hours after Austin had heard about the trade from Cassell, he spoke with his father. Both understood the business aspect of the deal as the Clippers may be headed down a short one-year rebuild in hopes of hitting it big in 2019 free agency, but it did not make the end of a father-son basketball relationship easier.
“It was a hard conversation,” Rivers opened up. “He was extremely emotional. You can imagine what he had to go through. We both have an understanding, it’s a business. I think people feel like because it was me and my father, ‘you’ll never be traded.’ I used to tell people, you don’t understand, I almost got traded two years ago to the Knicks.”
Three years ago, Doc Rivers’ mother past away. Austin said that was probably when he saw his father most emotional. The son also said his dad was emotional with the departures of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan because of how his father poured his heart into their games. Doc no longer coaching his son ranks somewhere in between on the emotion scale.
“He had a hard time talking,” Rivers described about his father. “I think he had so much on his mind and he was emotional at the same time. He like hung up the phone and then he texted me because he was like, ‘I just can’t talk. I don’t know what to say right now, this is crazy.’ … “It wasn’t so much he couldn’t talk because he was crying. My father wasn’t on the phone sobbing. He was just trying to get everything out the right way.”
Like Bradley Beal, Austin will be a father to a baby boy soon and Rivers believes that he will not truly understand the magnitude of what his dad is going through until once baby Kaden James ‘K.J.’ Rivers arrives.
“It’s hard to reflect on my father’s stuff right now because it’s just so fresh,” Rivers explained while getting a little emotional himself. “I don’t even think I grasp what we just did. I think when I get older, I’m about to have a son and I think when he starts playing one day, I’m going to look at him and be like, ‘I can’t believe I did that with my pops.’ That’s the only thing he really said to me on the phone is, ‘Austin, I don’t care what anybody says. What I just did with you will probably be one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.’ Coming from him and all the things that he’s achieved, that’s something that made me feel very special and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
Wizards team president and de facto general manager Ernie Grunfeld described Rivers as having a chip on his shoulder during his introductory press conference and much of that comes from who his father is. Austin estimated that 70 percent of people hated him playing for his dad and even though he would like to keep it 50-50 between love and hate, “we all know what it was,” he said. The perception that Austin is only where he is today because of his father is one of the things that irks him the most.
“I think just growing up in a shadow my whole life,” Rivers explained where the chip on his shoulder comes from. “There’s a lot of perks that I got. There’s a lot of things I had growing up that other players did not have. I was very fortunate that I had a roof over my head and food on the table. To a certain degree, the things I didn’t have to deal with, I was spoiled. I was a spoiled kid. I grew up in a lifestyle where I didn’t have to worry about those things that most players in the league had to worry about. But on the other side, I also got criticism from age seven or eight. Like when I started playing basketball, people just judging just because. ‘You’re not going to be this, you’re only this because you’re this.’ That followed me all the way up to forever, I guess. Obviously, that multiplied by 100 when I actually played for my father so I just had to play with that chip on my shoulder to be able to play through that and that pressure of playing for him especially in the media there in L.A. I had to have that [chip] or I probably wouldn’t be here today. So, it makes me who I am kind of.”
A sophisticated young man, Rivers can see where some of the reproach comes from, but he wishes that his merits as a player were able to speak for themselves.
“For me, it wasn’t even about me playing for my dad,” Rivers reasoned. “I can see why people think that. I totally get it. I understand the criticism, I totally understand that I had to step back and look at it from somebody else’s point of view and understand. I get it, but my whole thing was, judge me off my actions. Don’t judge me on anything else. At the end of the day, I’m out there alone just like every other player. No matter if my grandma’s coaching me, I don’t care who’s coaching me. When I’m on the floor, I’m on the floor. Ain’t nobody can help me do what I do besides myself and my teammates. That’s what I always ask for, just judge me off that. The only thing I can say is that every year there has been growth, every year I’ve gotten better. No matter how you cut it or slice it, that’s a fact. I’ve gotten better and that’s due to hard work and the great teammates and coaches I’ve had to help me get better.”
Rivers would like to challenge his doubters as to why “if anyone can do it, why didn’t anyone else do it?” He pondered that if it was so easy then why didn’t the greatest players of all times or NBA general managers have their kids play for them. It is clear that he feels as if he got a bad shake for no reason at times, but he now has the chance to earn respect on his own terms.
“I’m very thankful to have him as my father and very thankful for those opportunities. I’m grateful and I’m glad to be here, though. This is what I needed and now was about that time,” Rivers concluded.