David Rivers’ NBA career didn’t exactly pan out. But the mere fact he made it there was a near-miracle in and of itself.
by Jeff Pearlman / @jeffpearlman
David Rivers should be dead.
He should have been dead a long time ago; lifeless and pulse-less in an Indiana cornfield. We should be speaking of him in the way we do Len Bias and Hank Gathers; of Reggie Lewis and Malik Sealy. The talk should be of lost youth and vacated promise; of “What could have been…” and “What never was…”
That’s how we treat deceased athletes, especially those entering their primes. We mourn their lives, of course, but what we really mourn are the unfilled gaps of wasted potential; the greatness that never occurred; selfishly, the gifts we were never presented.
That was David Rivers in the early morning hours of August 24, 1986—a man about to enter his prime; a man about to leave the earth.
Hell, he’ll tell you himself. Cliché dictates accident victims describe the experience with words like “blurry” and “hazy,” yet Rivers, at the time Notre Dame’s star PG, speaks of nothing of the sort. The trauma is as fresh and raw today, at age 48, as it was in the moment. In an odd sense, even more so. It is the wound that never heals. “I was using my hand,” he says, “to keep my guts in. Literally, I was using my hand…”
But wait. Hold on. There is an 82.3 percent chance that, if you’re reading this article in SLAM, you probably never saw David Rivers on the basketball court. His last American game, after all, took place more than two decades ago, and that was as a backup with the lowly Los Angeles Clippers. Without the intro, his name likely means nothing; just another player in short shorts from a grainy yesteryear era.
This, to understate, is terribly unfortunate.
Before superstars like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury came along and made the undersized, lightning-quick, shoot-first point guard an NBA fashion staple (admittedly, one now out of vogue), Rivers was, well, an undersized, lightning-quick, shoot-first point guard. A 6-foot slasher from Jersey City, NJ, he was, in 1986, one of college basketball’s most electrifying players. He averaged 16.7 points and 4.9 assists as a sophomore, taking a low-key Irish basketball program and carrying it to a 23-6 record and a birth in the NCAA Tournament. His face was about to grace the cover of Inside Sports’ college basketball preview issue; a new breed of short, quick point guards who could shoot, score and pass with equal aplomb. “David Rivers could flat out play,” says Tony Campbell, a fellow New Jersey product who would go on to star at Ohio State. “People forget that he was in the discussion for the best player in the country. You couldn’t really stop him.”
And yet …
It was a hot, dark, muggy Indiana night.
Much like the ones that preceded and the ones that would follow. Rivers and Kenny Barlow, a recently graduated Notre Dame senior who was drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers, had just finished up their shifts at Port-a-Pit Barbecue, a catering company in Elkhart, IN, that offered a few of the Irish players summer work. The two were returning to their apartment on the outskirts of town when, while trying to avoid an oncoming car on Route 30, a two-lane country road, Barlow swerved his Chevy van hard to the right. The vehicle went off the road, flew through the air, slammed into an embankment, rolled multiple times and, ultimately, came to a halt some 89 feet from the road. Rivers, who had not been wearing a seatbelt, was launched through the windshield and sent 20 or so feet through the air. By the time he landed in a nearby cornfield, his stomach, sliced 15-inches apart from shattered glass, was oozing innards. “The body is an amazing thing,” says Rivers. “Just amazing. I felt no pain, and when Kenny found me, I was talking to him the way I’m talking to you now. I knew I was cut from side to side, and I knew my organs were in my hands. I was trying to keep the gash closed.”
Barlow, who suffered only minor cuts on his legs, covered his friend’s bloodied torso in a shirt, then ran to a nearby house to call for help. And Rivers, well, he sat. And sat. And sat. Alone. For 20 minutes, he thought about life, death and how it all works sorta mysteriously. “I wasn’t afraid to die,” he says. “The idea didn’t even bother me. I was peaceful. My only regret was not being able to say goodbye to certain people. Otherwise, I was ready.”
You are reading this article, reading recent quotes. That means David Rivers didn’t die.
Oh, he came close. The incision missed his heart by two inches, and he lost three pints of blood. “I asked the doctors how many stitches I needed,” Rivers said, “and they told me there were too many to count.” An ambulance rushed him to Elkhart General Hospital while Digger Phelps, Notre Dame’s coach, contacted his family members. John Heisler, the school’s associate sports information director, issued a statement the next day—“David suffered a clean cut about a foot long. The doctors said he was pretty lucky it didn’t hit any major organs.”
Later, he elaborated. “According to the doctors, the cut just missed vital organs by an inch here and an inch there,” Heisler said. “It was pretty awful when they first got to him. His guts were literally spilled out on the table, but fortunately, it ended up being just a severe tissue wound. They had to clean out a lot of gravel, grass and dirt, though.”
Rivers spent eight days in the hospital (it was supposed to be closer to a month), then began a horrific rehabilitation regiment of swimming, biking, running—and absolutely no basketball. There was talk he would never be the same; that fast and quick can’t be nearly as quick and fast after such bodily trauma. Yet those who doubted Rivers’ resolve didn’t understand Rivers’ resolve.
Growing up in the crime-ridden Marion Gardens housing projects in Jersey City, Rivers was one of 15 children born to Willie Joseph and Mamie Rivers. His mother worked as a maid at Jersey City’s Turnpike Motel, his father in a lighting factory. Rivers ran with gang members in his youth, but his eyes opened wide at age 9, when his older brother Willie Jr was stabbed and killed. This was less than two months after another brother, Joseph, died in a car accident. “We all have moments when we realize there are different ways our lives can go, and we have to make the right decisions,” he says. “That’s when I started figuring it out.”
Instead of enrolling in one of Jersey City’s crime-ridden high schools, Rivers chose St. Anthony, the fabled Catholic school whose team was run by legendary coach Bob Hurley. He paid tuition by holding a series of odd jobs, ranging from mopping a church floor to working as a runner on Wall Street. In his three years as the varsity starting PG, Rivers compiled a 75-10 record and won two state championships. “David was a poor kid but he knew right from wrong,” Hurley once told Sports Illustrated. “He may have wanted for material things, but he never wanted for love in his family. His character, integrity and work ethic are very solid.”
Rivers was widely recruited but picked Notre Dame based on its academics and the opportunity to contribute immediately. The move to South Bend was initially awkward; he’d never been away from home for a prolonged period, and the largely white and Catholic student body didn’t know what to make of the Baptist kid with the Jersey accent and mini-fro. Then, he began playing for the Irish, and everything clicked.
“I really loved being a part of that program,” he says. “We worked for everything we earned, and the players had a close bond. It was a very special time for me. Very special.”
On June 28, 1988, David Rivers, decked out in his nicest dark suit, headed to New York City’s Felt Forum for the NBA Draft. It had been nearly two years since his near-death experience, and he was—most believed—the same player he had been before the nightmare. As a senior, Rivers averaged 22 points and 5.6 assists in South Bend, and nary a game passed without two or three (or 10) scouts dotting the stands. It wasn’t a matter of if he would be drafted, merely a debate over when.
Yet as the event progressed, Rivers’ mood darkened. He knew Kansas star Danny Manning would go first; knew that Rik Smits and Charles Smith and Chris Morris and Mitch Richmond would have their names called early. But Jeff Grayer? Eric Leckner? Randolph Keys? By the third hour, the only two players left in the arena were Rivers and St. John’s Shelton Jones—who probably didn’t belong there to begin with. “It was disappointing,” Rivers says. “I can’t lie about that.”
Finally, with the 25th and final pick of the first round, the Lakers took a shot. “We liked David a lot,” says Jerry West, the team’s general manager at the time. “Not great size, but a lot of ability and heart.”
By most accounts (including his own), Rivers tore up the Los Angeles Summer League, and, once the season began, emerged as one of the team’s better practice players. “He was very intense,” says Mychal Thompson, a forward with the team. “A lot of natural skill.” Yet coach Pat Riley believed in a tight rotation, and Los Angeles’ three guards (Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper) weren’t surrendering playing time. Hence, come season’s end, Rivers was left unprotected, and the first-year Minnesota Timberwolves selected him in the expansion draft. Rivers, picked up by the Clippers after being waived by the TWolves, played two more nondescript NBA seasons…then vanished.
Only he didn’t, not even close. Rivers spent a cup of coffee in the CBA, then began a fruitful, decade-long odyssey playing—and dominating—overseas. He captured France National League titles in ’94 and ’95, then won the Greece National League in ’96 (and became the first American voted European Player of the Year). He won multiple titles in Italy and Turkey and earned more than enough to support his family. “He’s a legend over there,” says Campbell. “It’s pretty amazing.”
“Sometimes you just put your head down, work hard and hope the best comes of it,” says Rivers, who now works as the president of Rivers Capital Investment. “My NBA career wasn’t what I hoped for, but I can’t complain. I’ve lived the dream.”
Photos 1, 3 and 4 courtesy of Notre Dame Media Relations Office; 2 and 5 courtesy of NBAE/Getty.