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Doc Rivers’ father was his ‘biggest inspiration.’ Sixers coach shares moments that shaped him

Philadelphia Inquirer 6/20/2022 Keith Pompey, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sixers coach Doc Rivers © YONG KIM / Staff Photographer/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Sixers coach Doc Rivers

MAYWOOD, Ill. — Every few months, when the situation demands it, Doc Rivers speaks out about social injustice, racial profiling, or whatever hot topic is gripping our country.

What the 76ers coach doesn’t talk about is how the racial tension in his hometown of Maywood, Ill., which sits 11.9 miles west of Chicago, affected him during the late 1960s and still impacts his life.

Rivers doesn’t talk about how he views himself as an underdog after becoming the nation’s top high school basketball player in 1980, playing 13 NBA seasons, coaching the Boston Celtics to the 2008 title and ranking ninth in career coaching wins.

Instead, he speaks up for the less fortunate and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations.

No one in his hometown is surprised. Rivers, 60, was groomed to be a leader who hit milestones at an early age..

The Sixers’ second-round playoff exit to the Miami Heat capped his 23rd season as an NBA head coach. He’s not just the longest-tenured Black coach, but one of the longest-tenured coaches altogether. And he has been named one of the top 15 coaches in NBA history.

Again, this isn’t surprising to people in Maywood. His late father, Grady Rivers Sr., set an example Rivers follows and can be proud of, especially on a weekend that celebrates Father’s Day and Juneteenth.

To know Glenn, as they call Rivers in his hometown, is to know he comes from a family that makes milestones.

Those milestones started with his maternal grandmother and Kentucky native, Quinella Hathaway, who moved to Maywood with her family in the early 1900s. Hathaway, who was born in 1899, was the only Black student in her elementary and high school graduating classes. She was the first Black female graduate of Proviso East High School and one of the first Black students to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago. Quinella’s husband, Walther Hathaway, was Maywood’s first trustee.

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Meanwhile, Rivers’ late first cousin, the Rev. Tyrone Crider, was a prominent South Side pastor and social justice activist who fought alongside some of Chicago’s most notable cultural icons — from Harold Washington to Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Rivers’ uncle Jim Brewer, known as Papa, was the first Proviso East basketball player to have his jersey number retired. Brewer was a member of the 1972 Olympic team and selected second overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1973 NBA draft. He played nine NBA seasons, capping his career by beating the Sixers in the 1982 Finals as a Los Angeles Laker.

But Brewer’s biggest accomplishment might have been helping end the racial divide in Maywood in the late 1960s.

And Rivers’paternal grandmother, Dorothy Brewer, was a tough lady who fought for what she believed in.

Back in 1967, Proviso East standout Al Nuness, a family friend, headed to the University of Minnesota to play basketball. He became a two-time All-Big Ten player and the first Black, full-time coach at the university. But let’s say the news coverage of his recruitment there out of junior college wasn’t initially flattering.

“They were making a reference, a refugee from Proviso,” said Walt Williams, Rivers’ cousin. “They called him that. She wasn’t having it. That didn’t go over well with grandma.”

Nor did the time when a defender undercut Rivers during a super sectional game in his senior season at Proviso East. Grandma Brewer was listening to the game on the radio when the play-by-play announcer called it a dirty play.

“I’m sitting there with ice on and my grandmother comes walking into the gym with her robe on,” Rivers said. “Like my dad had to restrain her. She wanted to know who the [bleep] did this.”

And there was the time when she called then-NBA commissioner David Stern in an attempt to get Hakeem Olajuwon deported after the Nigerian-born Houston Rockets star inadvertently knocked Rivers out in an NBA game.

But Grandma Brewer had a kind heart.

“She would [take in] folks,” said Grady Rivers Jr., Glenn’s older brother by three years. “We always looked at people, once you were around us enough, you were family. That was it. You go over there, you got this guy named Sweets. They basically adopted him. That was the house of refuge. So Glenn didn’t have a choice but to take after people.”

And he has followed his family’s lead in every respect.

Rivers and his ex-wife, Kristen, have four biological children, Jeremiah Rivers, Denver Nuggets guard Austin Rivers, Callie Curry, and Sixers skills development coach Spencer Rivers. They’ve also adopted two sons, Patrick Diop and Adam Jones.

Caring for others is a trait that was passed on from Grandma Brewer to Rivers’ parents and down to him.

‘If that ain’t Moon Rivers’

Rivers is the spitting image of his late father.

To this day, old-timers refer to him as “Quarter Moon,” just as they call his brother Grady “Half Moon,” in honor of Grady Sr., aka “Moon.”

Everything about Glenn Rivers — his walk, voice, look, and 6-foot-4 height — reminds people of Moon. So much so that Grady Jr. frequently get calls from friends watching Sixers games, saying, “If that ain’t Moon Rivers.”

But a physical resemblance isn’t the only thing he has in common with his father. Like his father, Rivers’ presence can light up a room. And it can also change lives.

“Moon” impacted a lot of lives during his 30-year career as a police officer in Maywood. So did his wife and Rivers’ mother, Bettye.

“As influential as my father was, my mother was just as influential if not more,” said Grady Jr., who retired after 28 years as a Maywood firefighter. “She was like the town mom. We would come home and there was no telling who was sitting at our dinner table.”

Perhaps it was a good thing the Rivers family moved from their two-flat Maywood apartment on 14th Avenue and Washington Boulevard to a single-family house at 1413 South 16th Ave. in 1967. There, the family had four bedrooms, two baths, and a garage in the backyard.

“As far back as the third, fourth grade, there would be six or seven people in the living room or the house who went to spend the night,” said Craig Patterson, Rivers’ longtime friend who grew up around the corner.

But that wasn’t out of the ordinary for the family.

“We had six different people that lived with us growing up,” Rivers said. “I remember one, Castle Reed. We never met him [before]. He got in trouble, didn’t have parents, and the next day I come home from school and there’s somebody in my room. It was Castle. It was never an issue. It was just the way my parents were.”

The Rivers family also unofficially raised Corey Cooper, Rivers’ best friend for the last 52 years. Coop, as he’s called, lived across the street but used the Rivers’ address on 16th Street to sign up for his youth baseball team. He eventually ended up staying there so much that he refers to Doc Rivers’ parents as “Mama and Dad.”

“All the ones who didn’t have parents, mother and father figures, mama and dad was the house,” Cooper said. “So 16th Street was the house you go to. Yeah, I call them mama and dad. That’s my mother. That’s my dad.”

Grady Sr. used to take Rivers and Cooper to school in his patrol car. “So I was like, when I grow up, I want to be a policeman,” Cooper said.

Rivers didn’t follow his father’s footsteps to the police force, but he took after him athletically.

Grady Sr.’s younger brother, Jim Brewer, and Grady Jr., a former all-state basketball player at Proviso East High School, were equally as athletic.

“His father was a hell of an athlete,” Brewer said.

Adds Grady Jr.: “I have never seen anybody hit a baseball as far as my dad could hit a baseball. He could hit a baseball a country mile.”

Grady Sr. also played basketball at Kentucky State University before joining the U.S. Air Force, where he became a world-class pingpong player and avid golfer.

Just like ‘dad’

In late 1970s and early ‘80s, Rivers and Cooper were the best athletes at Proviso East.

Rivers was an all-star baseball player before focusing solely on basketball at 14 years old. The 1980 Proviso East graduate and three-time all-state selection is regarded as one of the greatest players to come out of Illinois. Cooper was an All-American in football, an all-state selection in baseball, and a standout basketball player before graduating in 1981. He played in Purdue’s defensive backfield alongside Hall of Famer Rod Woodson.

But Cooper never gave up his dream of being like “Dad.” So after college, he served as a Maywood police officer for more than 20 years and recently retired.

“He was a sergeant and I followed in his footsteps,” Cooper said. “So a lot of things are embedded in you and you don’t even know it. I always wanted to be a policeman.”

So well-respected was Grady Sr., who rose to the rank of lieutenant, that he never had to use his gun in the line of duty.

“Moon” was the youth baseball coach, football coach, and basketball coach, in addition to being the town therapist. At baseball practice, he drove his patrol car onto the field in his police uniform and turned up the volume on his dispatch radio so he could hear incoming calls.

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Grady Sr. was dedicated to providing outlets for youths. He made sure his family always had a new professional basketball rim on the front of the garage. There was even a spotlight on the side of the house so the two brothers and their friends could play at night.

He also introduced his children to different genres of music as the owner of Nationtime Record Mart, the first Black-owned record store in Chicago. Folks would come to the store to hang out and listen to live music or on the speakers.

“That’s the kind of support we had,” Grady Jr. said. “We were lucky because we were sort of middle class. We weren’t poor. Never wanted for nothing. Didn’t have everything, but didn’t want for nothing with being a policeman and my mother always worked.”

Bettye was an assembly line worker at GTE and ran 10th Park, which is located across the street from the Washington Dual Language Academy. Back in the day, the basketball courts there were frequented by a who’s who of eventual NBA talent from Chicago and its suburbs.

People would line up to watch the likes of Isiah Thomas (Chicago’s West Side), Mark Aguirre (West Side), Terry Cummings (Near North Side), and Skip “Money in the Bank” Dillard (West Side), along with elite players from all over Chicago, face the top talent Maywood had to offer at 10th Park.

Decades later, the park remains a prominent place in Maywood, thanks to Glenn Rivers. During his NBA playing days, he had the park remodeled. At the time, Rivers was sponsored by Reebok and there are still Reebok logos on the backboards that Rivers had installed. The Rivers family is in the process of revamping the park again.

“It means a lot to us that he gave back to the community,” said Xavier Nelson, a 2011 Proviso East graduate and former basketball player. “As a kid growing up in Maywood, going to 10th Park and seeing the Reebok logo gave kids hope. They said if Doc Rivers, who came from here, could do it, so could we.

“[Former Proviso East standouts and NBA players] Jacob Pullen, Michael Finley, all them guys come through every now and again. Shannon Brown, Dee Brown. All them guys all came from right here. Everybody. So it’s a legendary park. A lot of people started their careers here.”

Brewer’s role in ending racial divide

1968 was a big year. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, in Memphis, Tenn. Among several young black activists like Fred Hampton — a former Proviso East student and deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, the assassination laid to rest the notion that racial progress could be won nonviolently. Hampton was also assassinated, on Dec. 4, 1969, in Chicago.

The racial tension of the late 1960s was also present at Proviso East. As the racial divide widened, the 1968-69 Proviso East basketball team remained a tightly knit unit. The Pirates were 27-1 and ranked No. 1 in the state heading into the Illinois High School Basketball Association Tournament. There were some who thought not playing in the state tournament would make a statement for racial justice. But Brewer, the team’s best player and captain, wanted to make a bigger statement for racial harmony by winning the school’s first of four state titles.

And that’s what happened when the Pirates defeated Peoria Spalding, 58-51, in front of 19,000 at the University of Illinois’ Assembly Hall on March 22, 1969. More than 125,000 people lined the parade route to celebrate the state title. Brewer received a huge ovation when he presented Proviso East principal Hubert Pitt with the state championship trophy. The victory helped to usher in a moment of racial healing for the school and Maywood as a whole.

“That title brought all races together, because it naturalized sports,” Cooper said. “So that kind of calmed everything down. And Papa was the focal point. He was like, ‘Hey guys, let’s get this together for them,’ because they were going to side with Fred Hampton. He said, ‘We are going to do it.’ ...

“[Brewer] was the captain and the star of the team. So you have to go with him. He didn’t want to be [the focal point], but he was. Just like Glenn. Glenn doesn’t want to be out there, but he has to because of our father.”

Moments like this shaped Rivers. One night during riots in Maywood, Rivers was riding in the patrol car with Grady Sr. He saw the racial divide firsthand and his father broke it down to him. He told him exactly what was taking place, embedding in Rivers at a young age the importance of seeking racial equality and social justice.

“The history of my life helps me,” Rivers said. “Chicago, Maywood is segregated. ... The walk from town to town was dangerous. So you learned all that. You learned how to communicate with all races. You learned how to live with everybody and you learn what’s right and what’s wrong. And you learn how to speak on it.”

Family over everything

Rivers will tell you he became the person he is today because of his family.

Grady Sr., Bettye, and “Papa” are Rivers’ role models. Grady Jr. has always been a security blanket for his younger brother.

“My father and Jim Brewer are the biggest inspirations in my life,” Glenn Rivers said. “My mom and my dad. But my father was No. 1. First of all, he scared the hell out of us. He was a big, strong cop.”

Rivers recalled one time as a fourth-grader that he and Cooper saw Grady Sr. in action.

“We were like, ‘We ain’t ever messing with that dude,’” Rivers said. “He was arresting someone, bringing him out of the house. And we just saw how physical he was and was like, ‘That’s it for us.’”

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Grady Sr. taught Rivers how to be a man, how to care for others and how to follow his dreams. He empowered him as early as the third grade, when a teacher asked what Rivers wanted to be in life. He said, “a basketball player,” and was told that it was unrealistic and he needed to set his goal lower. But Rivers refused when asked at a later date. Grady Sr. walked to the school and told the teacher there was no way she or anyone could change that.

Brewer and Grady Jr. were also Rivers’ protectors. His uncle taught him work ethic and how to remain humble despite success. And Grady Jr. has always served as an example of unconditional love.

“My brother takes care of me just as much as I take care of him,” Rivers said. “I think people think taking care of each other is financial. No, it doesn’t. It mean emotional. It means everything.

“And you know, I won a lot of big games as a player and a coach and I lost a lot as a player and a coach. And the one person I notice is there every time is my brother. So that’s why family means a lot.”

But “Moon” and Bettye Rivers, Grandma Hathaway, and Grandma Brewer have to be smiling down from heaven.

Rivers is an extension of them.

That was on display when he spoke about social injustice and how he provided for Diop and Jones.

“[The Riverses] were accustomed to raising the neighborhood, so to speak,” Patterson said. “Glenn’s philosophy was the same on that. It always has been. He doesn’t see it as an obligation. He sees it as life’s passage, what you do.”

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