Doc Rivers reflects on death of coaching legend Rick Majerus
By Chris Jenkins
Photos courtesy of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries.
Coaches Majerus and Raymonds along with players, including current Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
One of the most important things Doc Rivers learned from Rick Majerus was that any coach hoping to get the best out of players had better have a stubborn streak.
So in an age of instant communication, perhaps it’s no surprise that when Majerus had something important to tell Rivers in recent years, he often did it the old-fashioned way.
“Rick became a pretty great letter writer,” says Rivers, Arts ’85. “In my life, he’s sent me some great letters. He sent me a great one recently, which I’m not going to get into. But he wrote things that made you feel good.”
When Majerus, Arts ’70, died of heart failure at the age of 64 on December 1, Rivers lost a close friend and trusted mentor dating back to his grade school days. It was Majerus, then an assistant to Hank Raymonds, who talked Rivers into coming to Marquette.
And it was Majerus’ brand of tough love on the court, and unconditional love off it, that helped mold Rivers into a successful NBA player and championship-winning coach of the Boston Celtics.
So although Rivers has games to coach this week, he won’t let that keep him from saying his final goodbye. Majerus’ funeral service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Church of the Gesu. Rivers plans to be there.
“I don’t think I would be the coach of the Celtics or a lot of other things if Rick was not in my life, if Rick had never come in my life,” Rivers says. “He gave me great love, great attention, great tough love. He made me grow up. He made me a better person and a better player. So this is the least I can do.”
Rivers will coach the Celtics’ road game in Philadelphia on Friday night, fly to Milwaukee on Saturday morning, then jet right back to Boston to coach another game that night.
“I think the one thing Rick would be really upset by is if I missed a game,” Rivers says, laughing.
Rivers calls Majerus one of the most passionate and knowledgeable basketball coaches he’s ever known. And although many fans knew Majerus primarily for his quick-witted, bigger-than-life personality, Rivers remembers his demanding side, too.
When Raymonds let Majerus run a Marquette practice, Rivers and his teammates knew they were in for a long day.
“He’s as frank, and as open, as probably any person I’ve ever known,” Rivers says. “Whether that makes you happy or upset, it didn’t matter. But in the long run, it was from his heart, and it was what he wanted. He was trying to help you all the time.”
And, of course, Majerus gave Rivers his name.
Rivers’ real first name is Glenn, but Majerus gave him the nickname “Doc” after he saw Rivers wearing a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Julius Erving — the legendary basketball player otherwise known as “Dr. J.”
The nickname stuck, no matter how hard Rivers fought it.
“From eighth grade on, Rick would say, ‘Doc.’ I would say ‘Glenn,’ ” Rivers says. “Finally, Rick won. I gave in. When I signed to go to Marquette, in the Chicago papers, it said, ‘Glenn Rivers signs to go to Marquette.’ In Milwaukee, it said, ‘Doc Rivers signs to go to Marquette.’ So I knew once I got there my name was going to be Doc, whether I wanted it or not.”
After 12 years as an assistant under Al McGuire and Raymonds, and three seasons as the head coach at Marquette — then a brief stint as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks — Majerus went on to coach Ball State, Utah and Saint Louis.
He had 517 career wins and 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, taking Utah to the national title game in 1998.
But Rivers, who is a Marquette Trustee, says Majerus carried strong feelings for his alma mater with him wherever he went.
“He loved Marquette,” Rivers says. “Absolutely loved it. I think he would have loved to come back and be the coach here for the rest of his life if he could have done it.”
Now Majerus is gone. But Rivers still has that stack of letters to help him remember.
“I don’t think Rick ever caught onto the technology boom for the most part,” Rivers says. “And, honestly, I get to keep those letters. And I’m very fortunate that that’s the way he chose to communicate because he did leave messages and he did write texts. But the letters are better.”