Rivers takes rocky path and prospers

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Doc Rivers took the hard way.

Five months shy of his 50th birthday, few would have blamed him if he had walked away from the Boston Celtics this summer to enjoy a full year of golf, family and Duke basketball. Then, when the itch to coach returned (and it surely would have returned), Rivers would have been the most sought-after coach in the NBA (call him "Priceline" because he would have been able to name his price and location).

Or, if he really wanted to, Rivers could have simply inked another one-year deal with the Celtics, took part in one more rodeo during this Big Three era, then rode off into the sunset.

But Rivers took the hard way because Danny Ainge never took the easy way.

It's forgivable to forget now, when Rivers is the king of X's and O's, and his team is the standard for late-game execution (the just-completed Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Miami Heat notwithstanding) and the new blueprint for NBA success.

Over Rivers' first three seasons in Boston, he compiled a mere 102-144 record. The Celtics won the Atlantic Division and were the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference his first season before getting bounced by the Indiana Pacers in seven games. Over the next two seasons, Boston was a combined 25 games under .500, bottoming out with a 24-win campaign during the 2006-07 season, which included a franchise-record 18-game losing streak (back then, no one ever considered the catchphrase, "It's all about 18").

On Nov. 25, 2006, the TD Garden crowd chanted, "Fi-re Doc! Fi-re Doc!" during a one-point win over the Charlotte Bobcats. But even as the Celtics limped through the lowest of franchise lows, Ainge never truly considered a change.

"I saw determination, hard work, persistence and a great leader," Ainge said. "In the face of adversity, there's no one I'd rather have on my side than Doc."

Winning has a way of changing how everyone views a coach. The Celtics assembled the Big Three during the summer of 2007, and Rivers became the toast of the town after bringing Boston its 17th world title just 11 months later.

On Friday, Rivers agreed to a new five-year contract with the Celtics that ensures he'll be around, not only for what's likely the final season of the Big Three era, but through the retooling process that's certain to follow.

Rivers has talked at times about the faith Ainge and the front-office staff showed him during those lean years. With Friday's contract extension, he's showing it back.

Ainge couldn't hide his excitement while relaying the details of Rivers' extension to the media Friday morning during a year-end news conference at the team's practice facility. The news has taken a fair amount of the sting out of Boston's second-round exit from the playoffs, giving hope to another potential title run not only next season, but in the years that follow.

"The most important thing is that we have a really good coach for years to come," Ainge said. "That's exciting."

Some will scoff and suggest that agreeing to a deal that will reportedly pay Rivers upward of $35 million -- this after he earned a mere $7.85 million total in 13 years as an NBA point guard, topping out with a $1.4 million paycheck for the New York Knicks during the 1994-95 season -- is hardly the easy way out.

But Rivers could have commanded a similar paycheck, maybe even more, after a year away. And when he came back, he could have picked a young team with a bright future in a warm-weather city.

Instead, he's coming back to Boston, where nothing is guaranteed but the winters are certain to be cold. While noting after Wednesday's Game 5 loss in Miami that he was "leaning heavily" toward a return, Rivers stressed his allegiance to this organization and to these players.

"I want to win again here," Rivers said. "I do. And I'm competitive as hell. I have a competitive group, and so we'll see. But I can tell you that's where I'm at today. Tomorrow, I may change my mind, but that's where I'm at today."

He didn't change his mind. A day after rumors swirled about a potential two- or three-year deal, Rivers sent eyebrows and jaws heading in opposite directions by signing up through the 2015-16 season. Boston doesn't have a single player under contract that season (Rajon Rondo's current deal expires in 2014-15), but Rivers isn't letting that uncertainty detour him.

Just as Ainge always saw better days, Rivers does, too. Boston should count its blessings. Veteran free agents now openly gush about the opportunity to play in Boston, not just for the championship potential during the Big Three era, but to play for Rivers.

When Shaquille O'Neal was asked last summer who got him to sign in Boston at the bargain-basement price of the veteran's minimum, he answered, "His name is Doc Rivers."

Rivers is already one of only four coaches to win 300 games in Boston. His 336-238 record in seven seasons in Boston has him among an elite group that includes K.C. Jones (308), Tommy Heinsohn (427) and Red Auerbach (795). Asked after passing Jones this season whether he might ever catch Auerbach, Rivers laughed and said: "No, that ain't going to happen. I can guarantee you that."

Never say never. Even if he goes .500 over the next five years, he'll finish this contract as the No. 2 winningest coach in Celtics history. Few could have ever imagined that during the 2006-07 season.

Not even Ainge, and he knew better than any of us.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.