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March Maddening: Why NCAA tourney will be bittersweet for Doc Rivers

‘It’s amazing … that all four of my kids have played in the NCAA tournament’

Doc Rivers had a bittersweet family moment when the March Madness field was revealed on Sunday.

He was ecstatic to learn that his youngest child, Spencer, and the University of California, Irvine will play Kansas State on Friday in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But he was disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to cheer on the Anteaters in person in San Jose because he’ll be coaching the Los Angeles Clippers in Cleveland that day.

“I couldn’t wait for the seedings to come out because I was like, ‘We’re going to make this work,’ ” Rivers told The Undefeated. “I was hoping they played on Thursday. But when I saw they played on Friday, I was like, ‘No!’ ”

“I know he wants to be there,” said Spencer Rivers, “but some things just aren’t controllable.”

Spencer Rivers will be making his first NCAA tournament appearance, joining his father and older siblings who have made it onto college sports’ biggest stage.

Doc Rivers starred at Marquette University from 1980-83 and made two NCAA tournament appearances. His eldest child, Jeremiah, played for the Georgetown squad that advanced to the 2007 Final Four and the second round in 2008. His daughter, Callie, was an outside hitter for Florida’s volleyball team, which went to the NCAA regional semifinal each year from 2007-10. And son Austin played on the No. 2 seed Duke team that was upset by C.J. McCollum and 15th seed Lehigh in their opening game of the 2012 NCAA tournament.

“It’s amazing to think that all four of my kids have played in the NCAA tournament,” Doc Rivers said. “That is pretty cool.”

If the 13th-seeded Anteaters can pull off the upset on fourth seed Kansas State, there will be added victory for Spencer.

UC Irvine guard Spencer Rivers celebrates the Anteaters’ 92-64 victory over Cal State Fullerton in the finals of the Big West conference tournament at Honda Center.

Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

“My goal right now is just to beat Austin’s record. At least get one win in,” Spencer said.

Austin Rivers will be rooting for that outcome too.

“So proud to see him in the NCAAs,” said Austin. “Hopefully, he can win a game and advance, unlike his older bro.”

Spencer’s mother, Kristen, Jeremiah and Callie plan to be at the UC Irvine game. Austin, however, will be on the road with the Houston Rockets visiting the San Antonio Spurs. Even if UC Irvine upsets Kansas State, neither Doc Rivers nor Austin would be able to make Spencer’s next potential game Sunday because they both have NBA games that day too.

“As soon as the schedule came out, I was hot,” Austin said.

Doc Rivers says UC Irvine is a “tough out” and he is hoping for a shocking Sweet 16 appearance so he can see his son in an NCAA game. But missing out on Spencer’s game has also made him have a stronger appreciation for the games he has been able to see his children play. Rivers has paid for expensive private jets to see his kids’ high school and college games dating to his days coaching the Boston Celtics. He said each trip was worth the effort and money since “there is no greater joy than seeing your child do well.”

“One time we had a game in Portland on a Thursday and I flew on Wednesday to Florida and then flew back to Portland. And then after the Portland game I flew back to Florida and then we played the Lakers the next night on that Sunday,” Doc Rivers said. “It was brutal. But it was worth it. You slept on the plane and got a lot of work done on the plane. Then you did the game and then you crashed. But I wouldn’t take it back for the world. …

Doc Rivers (second to left) along with his family.

Photo Courtesy of Spencer Rivers

“I have fun. I don’t go there to coach them. I go to support them, be a fan, and cheer and yell. I act just like a fan would act.”

Doc Rivers said he has gone to close to 10 of Spencer’s games this season, including one on a Clippers game day. On Jan. 14, 2017, he was at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles coaching the Clippers past the Los Angeles Lakers, 113-97, in a game that started at 12:30 p.m. Afterward, he drove 45 miles to Irvine for his son’s game, which started at 5 p.m.

The longtime NBA coach was also able to go to his son’s senior day this season. And perhaps best of all, he saw Spencer score two points in 15 minutes as UC Irvine defeated Cal State Fullerton in the Big West tournament championship game on March 16 to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

His children appreciate his efforts to support them.

“It meant a lot now knowing how crazy this schedule is up here in the NBA,” Austin said. “It really takes a lot of energy and, quite frankly, money to charter planes to be able to see the game and be back in time for your own game. Crazy.”

Said Spencer: “The fact that he is getting on a plane, spending a whole bunch of money to come from across the country to watch me play is very much a blessing.”

Spencer Rivers, right, watching his brother, Jeremiah, along with his parents back in 2013.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

What makes Spencer’s appearance in the NCAA tournament especially sweet for the family is the challenging road he took to get there.

Spencer said he turned down some small-college scholarship offers in Florida to be closer to his father in the Los Angeles area while in college. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound point guard was a walk-on at UC Irvine’s basketball program during the 2014-15 season. He missed the entire 2017-18 season with a broken foot and strongly considered giving up college basketball. Ultimately, Spencer decided to return for his final college season.

Spencer wasn’t cleared to play until about three weeks before the season started, but the decision to return paid off for the reserve guard as he earned a spot in the Anteaters’ rotation off the bench. After finally shaking off the foot injury, he has averaged 2.3 points and 17.6 minutes over the last eight games. Now he’ll get to participate in the second NCAA tournament appearance in school history.

“I just figured that if I start something, I should probably finish it,” Spencer Rivers said. “I just thought I’d give it one more chance. I’m glad I did. It was awesome to make the NCAA tournament. …

“I’m thrilled. This is once in a lifetime for people. I’m just trying to take advantage of it the best that I can.”

And the family will cherish it, whether near or far.

“You’re always happy with all your kids,” Doc Rivers said. “But all the kids are happiest about Spencer because he’s the kid that has always been to their stuff and supported them, so it’s nice that he is able to play and help the team.”

Spencer Rivers is expected to graduate from Irvine with a degree in sociology this spring. He plans to follow in his dad’s footsteps in basketball in some capacity, perhaps starting as a Clippers intern this summer.

“I think I want to get into coaching,” Spencer said. “Just being around my dad and being around the sport of basketball my whole life, I want to stay around basketball, whether that is coaching, front office or becoming an agent.”

It’s something his father can see happening too.

Said Doc: “I’ve talked to several other guys who have coached him who have said, ‘If he doesn’t coach, something is wrong with him.’ ”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.