Former Notre Dame hoops standout David Rivers answers coaching call

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Five months and a foreign tour of Italy have passed since the first-year Division I college basketball head coach finalized the hire of his associate coach, but it all still feels like a dream.

Tunnel vision is something college basketball coaches tend to tumble into this time of year. Days can run 15, 16, 17 hours in length and there’s always two or three more tasks to accomplish before falling into a restless night’s sleep. But when Kennesaw (Ga.) State coach Jimmy Lallathin secures a moment when he doesn’t have a basketball thought racing through his head, however brief that time may be, he thinks about someone seated in the office just down the hall from his, shakes his head and smiles.

A native of southwest Ohio whose grandfather graduated from Notre Dame, Lallathin would make a yearly pilgrimage to the University of Dayton Arena. He would sit among Flyer faithful decked in red and blue and cheer for his team, his guys – Digger Phelps, LaPhonso Ellis, Monty Williams and his main man, former Irish All-American guard David Rivers.

These days, Lallathin will be in a staff meeting and sometimes just stare at the guy across the conference-room table, the guy who’s in his first year as a college assistant as Kennesaw State’s associate head coach.

Lallathin will think, "I hired David Rivers……David Rivers!"

“It’s still crazy to think about,” said the 36-year-old Lallathin, who got his coaching start as a counselor at the Notre Dame basketball summer camps. “I’ve been a fan of Notre Dame basketball since the third grade. I grew up idolizing David Rivers. I loved the Irish.

“The whole experience is just surreal.”

An international legend

Rivers ranks sixth on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list with 2,058 career points, fourth in assists (586), fourth in steals (201) and fourth in games started (116). He led the Irish in scoring, assists and steals in each of his four seasons. A four-time team most valuable player and first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988, Rivers never was able to fit his game to the NBA, but carved a stellar overseas career with successful stops in Greece, France, Italy and Turkey. In many ways, Rivers revolutionized the Euro game. His jersey is retired in France, where he was named a team captain for Antibes, ridiculously rare for a foreign player in his first year. In Greece, Rivers helped Olympiakos to its first Euro title and earned 1997 most valuable player honors, something that no American-born player had done in 50 years. He earned more individual accolades and won championships in Italy and Turkey.

By the time he finished playing in 2005, Rivers’ popularity in Europe rivaled that of Michael Jordan in his prime. During Kennesaw’s summer tour of Italy, locals begged and screamed to have their picture taken with Rivers.

“Basketball has been a great part of my life,” Rivers said.

When his playing days ended, Rivers remained involved in athletics as a teacher. For eight years, he served as partner and director for Village Camps S.A. Located in Nyon, Switzerland, the company works in tutoring, mentoring and coaching kids in nine countries. Rivers wanted to make a difference and Village Camps offered that opportunity.

Avenues also opened to explore college coaching, but Rivers declined to follow that path.

“I honestly shot down the idea many times,” he said. “I wanted to focus on the younger youth. But plans and things change. Like people say, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.’”

A roundabout way

Rivers landed simply by chance at Kennesaw State, a public school of 24,000 students in metropolitan Atlanta. Lallathin was recruiting early last spring in the northeast. He had served the previous three seasons as associate head coach at Kennesaw under Lewis Preston. The former Irish assistant took a leave of absence for personal reasons in January before leaving at season’s end. Lallathin was named his replacement in late March.

Needing someone to show him around a few high schools in New Jersey, Lallathin connected with a man named Dwight Robinson, who is a friend of Kennesaw State athletic director Vaughn Williams. Robinson, it turns out, also is friends with Rivers.

While in the car with Lallathin, Robinson fielded a phone call. Rivers was on the other end.

“Dwight hung up the phone and said that it was David Rivers,” Lallathin said. “I said, ‘Wait, THAT was David Rivers?’”

At the time, Rivers was thinking about getting into college coaching. Rivers wondered, through Williams, if he could talk with Lallathin, officially hired in March, who was assembling his staff at Kennesaw.

“If I didn’t and my grandfather found out about it, I’d be cut out of his will,” Lallathin said.

Lallathin needed only a few minutes to realize that Rivers was someone he had to hire. On April 22, he did.

“We talked and discovered that our values and vision were eerily similar,” Lallathin said. “Our ideas meshed so well. In college basketball, teaching is first. He can teach the game; he can relate to the guys.

“It makes me sleep easier at night knowing that I have David Rivers as my associate head coach.”

Against the odds – again

Why Kennesaw? Why not? For Rivers, it fits with the story of his life – from sidestepping the streets of Jersey City, N.J., to attending Notre Dame, to overcoming serious injuries sustained in a car accident that nearly claimed his life while in college to becoming a first-round NBA draft pick to carving out a stellar career overseas.

“They’re on the brink of making history and if you look at my history, it’s been nothing but making history,” Rivers said. “People have told me, ‘No, you can’t do that’ or ‘You won’t do that’ so many times.

“This is what Kennesaw State represents to me. All the things are here for us to be successful. I’m committed to helping this institution reach the heights that they’ve set.”

There are times when Lallathin looks at Rivers and still sees that blur of a guard wearing No. 4 and creating havoc on the floor as he once did for the Irish, but for many of the Owls, there is no frame of reference. Stories of Rivers’ days as one of the game’s most dominant guards are told by their mothers and fathers – if they even remember him.

“The players, they’ve all had to ‘Google’ me,” the 49-year-old Rivers joked. “I’m slightly still relevant. I want to give them all the knowledge that I have inside me.”

As for Rivers’ coaching style, he has no reservoir shortage from which to draw. To stress organization and structure, he’ll impart the words of his elementary school coach, Garden State legend Charlie Brown. Touching on work ethic and communication skills, there’s his high school coach at St. Anthony’s and Basketball Hall of Famer Bob Hurley. To “make sure all his I’s are dotted and all his T’s are crossed,” he’ll channel Phelps. To preach confidence and certainty about one’s self, he’ll quote Pat Riley.

“I’m not even going to mention all the lieutenants and generals I played for in Europe,” Rivers said. “All of these people have continued to the type of coach I am. I’m direct. I’m simple.

“My approach is very simple – you want this or want that, show me your best.”

Ready to roll

A summer foreign tour of Italy allowed Rivers to ease into his on-court coaching duties. It all starts for real Nov. 14 with Kennesaw State’s trip to the Carrier Dome to face perennial national power Syracuse. It’s the first of five in a row and eight of 11 on the road for the Owls.

Stepping back into that building will be like stepping back in time for Rivers, who played a memorable game on that same floor against the likes of Rafael Addison and Dwayne “Peal’ Washington. In 1986, he scored 14 points with four assists and just one turnover in 34 minutes in an 85-81 Irish victory.

Memories of those moments likely will rush him in such a way that Rivers will want to ditch his clipboard and suit and tie and hustle over to the scorer’s table to check in.

“It’s as if you take an old thoroughbred for a walk around the track,” Rivers said. “He’s going to want to get out and run. It’s going to be a challenge for me.”

Many more await this winter for a program that is 75-153 overall with just 20 wins over the last four seasons. Having adjusted to his new career path, Rivers knows his life is about to change next month once the season arrives. That’s when a seemingly never-ending cycle of practices and meetings and road trips and games and film study starts. Rivers cannot wait to help the Owls become not only better on the floor, but off of it.

“Coaching isn’t just about basketball, it’s about the whole person,” Rivers said. “I’m here. I’m teaching. I’m enjoying it. I feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose.”

Former Notre Dame guard David Rivers is in his first season as a college assistant coach at Kennesaw (Ga.) State University.Photo courtesy of Kennesaw State