David Rivers, the man of the final

Nov 04, 2013 by Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net Print
Vladimir StankovicAfter brilliant years at Notre Dame University - where he was the fourth-best scorer all-time with 2,058 points and second in assists, 586 - and after being picked by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 1988 draft, everything pointed to a splendid future in the NBA for David Lee Rivers despite a car accident could have put an end not only to his career, but to his life, two years earlier.

After several operations, he managed to overcome every single obstacle. The fact of being selected by one of the best teams in the NBA had a bad side: he would have strong competition. At his position was none other than Magic Johnson, which meant that Rivers would not play many minutes. But under Pat Riley's command, he practiced alongside the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Orlando Woolridge, AC Green, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Jeff Lamp and Mychal Thomspon. He finished the season with 1.9 points and 2.3 assists. A little frustrated he decided to switch teams but stayed in the same city. He signed for the Los Angeles Clippers where he managed to improve his figures the following season, though not by a lot: 4.2 points and 3.0 assists. Between injuries and rehabilitations, he chose another team, Tulsa of the Continental Basketball Association, and he got his confidence back with 16.1 points and 7.6 assists per game. He even improved his averages in LaCrosse, another CBA team, with 20.3 points and 11.8 assists, but it was not what he wanted nor what he deserved.

Europe, his new kingdom

In one of those decisions that can change one's life, he took the offer from Antibes of France. In that country he discovered another kind of basketball, another culture, another lifestyle. He adapted easily and quickly to it because his qualities allowed him to be a team leader. Soon enough he was the idol of the fans. In his first season in Europe, 1992-93, he averages 16.9 points and 6.6 assists but he got better the following campaign. Antibes won the French League title and he was MVP with 22.4 points and 7.0 assists. The big clubs of Europe started noticing David Rivers.

The fastest team to act and with a more concrete offer was Olympiacos Piraeus of Greece. In his first season in Greece he won the league title with decent numbers (13.6 points, 4.3 assists) but the fact that Panathinaikos became the first Greek team to win the Euroleague in 1996 was a sting that created an urge for an answer among the Reds. The 1996-97 season would see bench wizard Dusan Ivkovic have a pretty good roster, but the start of the campaing didn't look too promising.

In the Euroleague, Olympiacos was in the same group with Fortitudo, Estudiantes, Cibona, Alba Berlin and Charleroi and finished fifth in the group with a 5-5 record. The Reds lost twice to Alba and then to Estu, Cibona and Fortitudo. The team was only saved by the competition system: all the 24 teams continued, mixing up the first three teams in each group with the last three of the other. In the second phase, Olympiacos got better playing against Olimpia Milano, CSKA Moscow and Maccavi Tel Aviv. It won 4 games and lost 2 with a total 9-7 record to finish third in the group and advanced to the playoffs but its opponent, Partizan Belgrade, had the homecuort advantage after having ended up second in its group.

In Belgrade, despite a great game by Predrag Drobnjak (19 points, 14 rebounds), Olympiacos won 71-81 but lost the second game at home, 60-61. The series was decided in the third game, once more at the legendary Pionir packed with more than 7,000 fans. Olympiacos, led by Rivers with 21 points and 5 assists, won by 69-74.

In the quarterfinals, it would be a showdown against archrival and European defending champion, Panathinaikos. At home, in front of 15,000 fans, Olympiacos won by 65-57 with 12 points by Rivers. The advantage was not too large, but in the second game we could see one of the biggest shows ever put by a team in a derby of this kind: against 18,000 Green fans, Olympiacos won by 49-69. Rivers played for 40 minutes and had good numbers: 2 of 6 two-pointers, 2 of 2 triples and 7 of 7 free throws for 17 points plus 5 assists. Olympiacos had advanced to the Final Four where it would join Olimpija Ljubljana, Asvel Lyon and FC Barcelona.

Two rhapsodies in Rome

The main feature of great players is playing better when it matters the most. David Rivers made that theory true in Rome in 1997. In the semifinal against the Union Olimpija of Rasho Nesterovic, Marko Milic, Arriel McDonald, Vladimir Stepania, Roman Horvat, Marko Tusek, Jaka Daney and the rest, Rivers scored 28 points, his season high, for a 74-65 win. In the other semifinal, Barcelona defeated Asvel, 77-70, with Sasha Djordjevic as best scorer with 16 points.

The big final was played on April 24, 1997 at the Olympic Arena in Rome. It was the desired final between the two favorites. A battle that was to be marked by the individual duel between Djordjevic and Rivers, the best two guards in Europe at that moment. Halfway through the season, Djordjevic had left Portalnd and joined Barcelona, becoming an immediate star and the leader of the team. He formed a great duo with big man Arturas Karnisovas.

After a bad start to the game, falling behind 2-9, Olympiacos was back thanks to 10 points by Rivers for an 18-18 tie. Once the Reds stepped ahead, there was no turning back. They won by 73-58 with Rivers as MVP. He scored 27 points, grabbed 6 boards, dished 3 assists and had 3 steals in 39 minutes. Dragan Tarlac, the other hero of the Greek team, had 11 points and 14 rebounds. On the other side, Djordjevic got stuck at 6 points, very far from the 13.9 he had been averging up to that game. It wasn't the first duel between both guards. In the 1993-94 Korac Cup quarterfinals, when Djordjevic was in Olimpia Milano, the Italian team won the first game 98-85 but the individuel duel was a tie, 23 points for each. In the second game, Antibes won 95-88 but Djordjevic finished with 31 points, Rivers "only" had 20.

Sixteen years after the Rome duel, Djordjevic told me from Milano about Rivers:

"I know him since he was in Notre Dame. One summer a group of friends that included Jure Zdovc, Slavko Kotnik and Vlada Dragutinovic played against him, Ken Barlow, Tim Kempton... Right there, right then I already saw what was confirmed later in European basketball: he was a great player. He was one of the best, if not the best, American guards that ever played in Europe. His game was like poetry. He had explosive legs, fast hands and ideas, solutions. He had talent on every part of his body."

Vassilis Skountis, the prestigious Greek journalist, remembers that there were many doubts about Rivers' contribution but he says that, after the "two rhapsodies in Rome" everything changed. In 23 games in Europe, Rivers averaged 37.9 minutes of play. After the win in Rome, Olympiacos won the double crown in Greece, the League and the Cup. Rivers was MVP of the season and the best player of the year according to FIBA. He was 32 years old, but for Ivkovic he was the key man, the extension of his hand on the court. Rivers was a life insurance for his coaches: a scoring guard, typical product of the American school. He had it all: court vision, excellent technique, good shot, leadership qualities and most of all, speed - both in his head and in his body - on the court. In Youtube there is a video in which he executes a coast-to-coact in 3 seconds!

Trophies in Italy and Turkey

After glory in Olympiacos, Rivers accepted the offer from Teamsystem Bologna, which was trying to build a great team in order to become European champs. Another American was Dominique Wilkins, also arriving from Greece, but from Panathinaikos. Both veterans helped the team to win the Italian Cup in the final against Benetton Treviso, 73-55. Wilkins scored 21 points but the MVP was Carlton Myers. Rivers' next destination would be Tofas Bursa of Turkey, where in two seasons he won two leagues and one cup. In 2000-01, already at 37 years old, he was back to Olympiacos and could still score 10.3 points and dish 2.3 assists.

In May of 2009, he received a well deserved homage in Piraeus. He received his red jersey with number 15 and, most of all, the love of the fans who did not forget what he did for the club. David Rivers was one of the best and most successful Americans who ever played in Europe. He was champion in the four countries where he played, and in three he also won the national cup. He was MVP of the season in France and Greece, and also MVP of the Final Four and twice, he played in the FIBA All Star in 1997 and 1998. More than enough to make up for a frustrated career in the NBA, where he did not triumph not because of his abilities, but for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.