There’s a lot at stake in the Warriors-Clippers playoff series. A chance to move on and face the mighty Memphis Grizzlies? Sure. But don’t overlook the personal rivalry between coaches Mark Jackson and Doc Rivers.
Neither would ever admit to it, but you can bet these two old point guards keep track, at least vaguely, of their head-to-head encounters over the years.
Rivers was four grades ahead of Jackson in school, so they wouldn’t have faced one another in college. (Rivers played at Marquette, Jackson at St. John’s.) As far as anyone knows, the boy from Chicago (Rivers) never went against the kid from New York (Jackson) in youth leagues. But they became familiar foes as professionals.
Both had long NBA playing careers and bounced around the league a little bit, and they overlapped from 1987-88 (Jackson’s rookie season) to 1995-96 (Rivers’ final year in the league). For the first four of those seasons, Rivers was with the Hawks and Jackson with the Knicks. For the final two, Rivers was with the Spurs and Jackson with the Pacers. Rivers also spent some time with the Knicks. And both played for the Clippers; at one point, in 1992-93, Jackson actually replaced Rivers as the L.A. playmaker.
Over those nine seasons, they went head to head 21 times. (I didn’t count games in which their teams played but one or both did not suit up, though I did count games in which one or both came off the bench.) The final tally: Jackson 12, Rivers 9.
Sixteen years after he last faced Rivers with ball in hand, Jackson was hired as head coach of the Warriors. Rivers was already coach of the Celtics, and this year he moved to the Clippers. In three regular seasons, Coach Rivers has a 4-3 edge over Coach Jackson. In this first-round postseason series, Rivers is currently up 2-1. That adds up to a 6-4 lead for Doc in the coaching ranks.
Full tally: Mark Jackson 16, Doc Rivers 15.
So Rivers will claim the upper hand over his rival if the Clippers take the next two games. Jackson will ensure himself of even footing if the Warriors win another game this season, and will widen his lead if Golden State can fight back to win the series.
Yes, basketball is a team game, not an individual duel. And anyway, it’s really about the players in the NBA, not the coaches, right? So why, if Jackson and Rivers were to air up a ball and play a little game of one-on-one in the Warriors’ gym tomorrow, with the facility quiet and no one around to watch, do I picture one of them ending up with a bloody nose or a mouse under his eye?