Rivers runs through hoops

Duke freshman alternately shrugs off and lashes out at criticism

jdaly@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2012 

  • G Austin Rivers, Duke, Fr.

    Height: 6-4

    Weight: 200 pounds

    Hometown: Winter Park, Fla.

    Scoring: 14.5 per game (team-high for Duke)

    Rebounds: 3.1 per game

    Assists: 2.0 per game

    FG Shooting: 44.7 percent

    3-point shooting: 38.2 percent

    Note: Rivers has been named the ACC Freshman of the Week a conference-leading six times.

The first time many people in the Triangle saw Austin Rivers play in person was last summer during the Greater N.C. Pro-Am basketball league at N.C. Central.

During one of Rivers' first games, he found himself trapped near the sideline by his defender. Rivers twitched to his right before accelerating to his left, shedding his man for a pretty reverse layup. It was the kind of move the Duke fans in attendance came to see, the type of play they hope Rivers will deliver Wednesday when the No. 10 Blue Devils (19-4, 6-2 ACC) face No. 5 North Carolina (20-3, 7-1) in Chapel Hill (ESPN, 9 p.m.).

The only problem was that the referee called Rivers for a travel on the hesitation step.

After the whistle, Rivers kept after the official, barking a couple of "Hey, refs!" that failed to get his attention. He continued to press the issue and said something else, and the referee responded by giving Rivers a technical foul. Rivers no longer remembers his exact words, but he says they were something along the lines of: "That move is why I was the No. 1 recruit in the country. Stop calling a travel."

"I've been doing that move my whole life - it's my move," Rivers said recently, reflecting on the summer-league play. "I do it at least once a game, and I haven't been called for travel yet this season. He called it twice that game."

The technical was a quick flash of frustration, one that may not lend itself to too much interpretation.

Yet it does offer a glimpse into an aspect of Rivers' basketball persona: When confronted by someone who expresses doubt about his game, he has a tendency to coil.

When he first started playing basketball, Rivers would lash out against the idea that he was just Doc Rivers' son.

Like many great basketball players, he now tries to use slights, grudges and perceived acts of disrespect as motivation. Rivers' basketball hero is Kobe Bryant, who, like Michael Jordan before him, has the ability to turn just about any comment into an insult.

"I envy him," Rivers said of Bryant. "I really look up to him more than anybody else. He plays (ticked) off. He finds things to motivate him, and he doesn't change."

Rivers, 6-foot-4, who had his fifth 20-point game for Duke in Sunday's overtime loss to Miami en route to winning ACC Rookie of the Week honors for a sixth time, cannot be compared to Bryant at this stage of his development.

However, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski thinks everyone can learn from the way the Lakers guard approaches the game.

"I think everybody's a little bit better if they have a purpose," Krzyzewski said. "Whether you call that a chip, an energy, a passion. ... I think a Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan had a chip in their heart. It was embedded in them."

'I hated it'

The thing that motivated Rivers in high school was his identity as the son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

Rivers loves his father and everything about his family. But he thought his last name was a bit of a millstone around his neck. Back then, he says strangers knew him as "Doc's son - what's his name again?"

"I hated it," Rivers said. "I hated it. There's that shadow that you've been born with. I don't think people understand until they get there. People think I had it easy growing up because of my dad. Actually, I have it harder than you because everything I do is (perceived as being) because of him. I don't blame my dad - I look up to my dad. I want to be like him, only better.

"People think I've had it easier; I've had it harder because I've had to deal with exceeding people's expectations that were set so high."

While Rivers said he never told anyone his feelings, his high school coach, David Bailey, says they were readily apparent. Rivers' intense drive lifted the entire Winter Park (Fla.) roster, turning a team that had only one major Division I prospect into a two-time state champion.

"He was great to coach," Bailey said. "He could've just coasted and been one of the top players in the country, but he constantly worked to get better. He worked so hard that some of the other guys on the team were like, 'I want to be good, I want to get some recognition, I want to play college basketball.' "

A brother's example

Now that Rivers is at Duke, his brother, Jeremiah, is just as much of a motivating factor as his father.

Jeremiah is five years older and was the first of the Rivers children to deal with the pressures of being Doc's son. After a distinguished high school career, Jeremiah played two seasons at Georgetown before transferring to Indiana for his final two years.

Somewhere along the way, Jeremiah lost confidence in himself.

Struggling with his own expectations and the perceptions of others, he averaged only 1.8 points for his Georgetown career, making 34.3 percent of his shots. Known primarily as a defensive stopper at Indiana, Jeremiah averaged 3.8 points his senior year while playing six minutes fewer per game than in his junior year.

"There were so many inside and outside factors that were really hindering the way I was playing," Jeremiah said. "It had me thinking too much. I think college basketball is all mental. I had the physical gifts and I had the skill. I think it was just I was mentally struggling to find consistency."

As he watches his younger brother, Jeremiah said he's communicated with him the importance of not letting doubt, whether it is internal or external, seep in.

"I told him, 'I should be a perfect example of how you can become stronger and not have to do deal with things that I dealt with and am dealing with,' " said Jeremiah Rivers, who played professionally in Serbia earlier this season. "I think Austin really learns from that."

Rising to the challenge

Rivers said the thing he takes most from his brother's experience is the importance of not changing who you are as a player and not letting outside forces affect your confidence. The importance of not paying attention to external forces, in other words.

Yet herein lies the rub with Rivers.

He can't help himself.

He can't help but take a peek at what his detractors are saying.

And he can't help but take some of it personally.

It may seem strange to talk about criticism when Rivers has received so much positive feedback - he was the Parade, USA Today and MaxPreps national high school player of the year in 2011, and he played for the USA U18 national team - but he says he doesn't pay attention to that. It's the negative stuff he notices.

"When I hear it or see it, it goes in one ear and out the other," Rivers said. "I don't care. But at the same time, it does bother me."

Much like Jordan, who rattled off a long list of old grievances during his induction speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Rivers says he keeps a mental list of people who have crossed him.

Before his Duke career was even a month old, ESPN.com ran a story with the headline: "The Problems With Austin Rivers."

The article critiqued Rivers' decision-making, with freeze frames showing what he did wrong during his first four or five games.

Rivers read it all and says he's used it to channel his inner Kobe. One only has to scan through Rivers' Twitter feed to see how it seeps in every now and again ("Haters give me motivation! Thanks to y'all...I have gotten a lot better! Call me overrated call me what you want! I'll prove ya wrong!").

Whether or not this ultimately runs afoul of his brother's advice is up for debate.

"People always ask what makes me hungry now: I haven't done anything yet," Rivers said. "I haven't done anything yet. I had a great high school career, I was No. 1 - I don't care. No one cares about that anymore. At Duke, I haven't won a national championship, I haven't won an ACC tournament, I don't play in the NBA. I haven't done anything.

"I have everything that can motivate me."

Daly: 919-829-4954

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