LOS ANGELES -- Doc Rivers thought the worst was behind him and the Los Angeles Clippers when he prepared to board the team's charter back home late Thursday night. The focus had finally shifted back onto the court after a week of non-stop attention for everything off the court.
"It's not over," Rivers said earlier this week. "But it's the start of the healing process."
After Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life from the NBA and fined $2.5 million by commissioner Adam Silver for racist remarks he made that were published by TMZ, Rivers figured the controversy was in the team's rearview mirror. It was still visible, of course, but it was behind him.
That was until he heard about the Clippers' employees working out of the offices at Staples Center. The Clippers front office and basketball operations are run out of their training facility in Playa Vista, California, but the team's ticketing, group sales, sponsorship, marketing, human resources and fan relations departments are run out of offices at Staples Center.
While Rivers addressed employees at the training facility on Monday in the midst of the controversy, the employees working downtown felt as if they were on an island.
The employees were getting berated over the phone by angry fans, season-ticket holders and sponsors. White employees were being called "racists" over the phone while minorities were being called "sellouts." Through it all, they were given no guidance or support from a team devoid of an owner.
When Rivers heard about their situation, he decided he would pay them a visit Friday morning. After landing back in Los Angeles just before 2 a.m., Rivers went home and watched film of the Clippers' 100-99 loss to the Golden State Warriors until 4 a.m. He then drove to Staples Center and met with the Clippers employees in a conference room inside the arena around 9 a.m.
Rivers wasn't prepared for what he would hear and see from the employees, some of whom were already in tears before he spoke.
"It was really hard to see them," Rivers said. "I didn't realize. Ticket people and marketing people, they're sitting there crying and I felt so bad for them. I was thinking, 'My gosh, we've been in this thing as players and as coaches but you forget these are the people that are on the front line.' They work for the organization, too. You just felt so bad for them today. You're sitting there and they were sharing some of the calls they had. They didn't know the story was breaking and when it broke, like we said, there's no playbook for this."
Rivers spoke to the employees for about 45 minutes and many of them told him stories of the phone calls they received from disgruntled fans and others looking to vent their frustrations about Sterling's comments. They also told him how mortified they were by the statement released by Clippers president Andy Roeser, initially giving Sterling the benefit of the doubt, in the wake of Sterling's racist remarks being published on TMZ. Rivers told them that he agreed with them and sympathized with them and told them that Roeser's statement was not representative of his or the organization's beliefs.
"They're getting called names," Rivers said. "Listen, I'm not equipped ... I just told them to hang in there. The players have gotten a lot of attention and the players have had a chance to express their beliefs and how disappointed they were with this whole situation, but the people on the front line, they really haven't had that opportunity. The guys who are selling tickets and doing all that, they don't want to be lumped into what happened, like they support it. They support us."
While players contemplated boycotting games, employees were close to boycotting as well, or quitting their jobs altogether. They were not only getting harassed over the phone at work, but they were being asked about being employed by a racist by friends and family.
"When I looked at them, there was black, Hispanic, white, Asian, women, men -- there were so many different groups and they all have been affected by this," Rivers said. "I'm glad I went down. ... Before Game 7 you're thinking I should be up in the office but what I did today for me was far more important than this stuff because they need it. They really do. They need it more than even our players right now. They really need somebody. They're just as important as me and our players. They need the same support. What I witnessed today, you realize this thing has touched a lot of people. The people that didn't do anything are being harmed by this. I wish we could find the right solution but I don't have it."
During the meeting Rivers told the employees that he would be there for them and try to be their voice publicly, as he had been for his players. He gave them his e-mail address and told them to contact him if they needed anything. Rivers was hired to be the coach of the Clippers last year, but in the aftermath of Sterling's lifetime ban, he has become the face and voice of a franchise in desperate need of direction.
"I don't know if I'm doing a good job. I just know I'm doing my job," Rivers said. "The last time I met them was before the season and we talked about our goals as a group, about being a championship team and a championship organization. It may take a year or two years or three years but let's be both. You can't be a championship team and not a championship organization. They felt like they've been knocked back down and we have to start all over again and I told them, 'Yeah, you're right. You do.' There's no quick solution to this. There's no banner we're going to hang and everybody's going to be good. We have to redo it and I told them I want to be there for them as much as I can, but it's hard."