“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
David Rivers – The man of the final
Everything pointed to a splendid future in the NBA for David Lee Rivers. He spent four brilliant years at the University of Notre Dame, where he was the fourth-best scorer all-time with 2,058 points and second in assists with 586. And he was picked by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 1988 NBA Draft. All this despite a car accident that could have put an end not only to his career, but to his life, two years earlier.
After several operations, Rivers, who was born on January 20, 1965, in Jersey City, New Jersey, managed to overcome every single obstacle. The fact that he was selected by one of the best teams in the NBA did have a bad side though: he would have strong competition. At his position was none other than Magic Johnson, which meant that Rivers would not play many minutes. But under Pat Riley’s command, he practiced alongside the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Orlando Woolridge, A.C. Green, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, Jeff Lamp and Mychal Thompson. Rivers finished the season with 1.9 points and 2.3 assists. A little frustrated, he decided to switch teams but stayed in the same city. He signed for the Los Angeles Clippers, where he managed to improve his figures the following season, though not by a lot: 4.2 points and 3.0 assists. Between injuries and rehabilitation, he chose another team, Tulsa of the Continental Basketball Association, and he got his confidence back with 16.1 points and 7.6 assists per game. He even improved his averages in La Crosse, another CBA team, with 20.3 points and 11.8 assists. But it was not what he wanted, nor what he deserved.
Europe, his new kingdom
In one of those decisions that can change one’s life, Rivers took an offer from Antibes of France. In that country, he discovered another kind of basketball, another culture, another lifestyle. He adapted easily and quickly to it because his qualities allowed him to be a team leader. Soon enough he was the idol of the fans. In his first season in Europe, in 1992-93, he averaged 16.9 points and 6.6 assists, but he got better the following campaign. Antibes won the French League title and he was MVP with 22.4 points and 7.0 assists. The big clubs of Europe started noticing David Rivers.
The fastest team to act with a more concrete offer was Olympiacos Piraeus of Greece. In his first season in Greece, Rivers won the 1995-96 domestic league title with decent numbers, 13.6 points and 4.3 assists. But the fact that Panathinaikos that year became the first Greek team to win the EuroLeague was a sting that created an urge for an answer among the Reds. The 1996-97 season would see veteran coach Dusan Ivkovic put together a strong roster, but the start of the campaign didn’t look too promising.
In the EuroLeague, Olympiacos finished fifth with a 5-5 record in the same group with Fortitudo, Estudiantes, Cibona, ALBA Berlin and Charleroi. The Reds lost twice to ALBA and once to Estudiantes, Cibona and Fortitudo. The team was only saved by the competition system: all 24 teams continued, mixing up the first three teams in each group with the last three of the other. In the second phase, Olympiacos got better playing against Olimpia Milano, CSKA Moscow and Maccabi Tel Aviv. It won 4 games and lost 2 for a total record of 9-7 to finish third in the group and advance to the playoffs. But its opponent in that playoff, Partizan Belgrade, had the home-court advantage for having taken second place in its own group.
In Belgrade, despite a great game by Predrag Drobnjak of Partizan, with 19 points and 14 rebounds, Olympiacos won 81-71. However, the Reds went home and lost the second game, 61-60. The series was decided in the third game, once more with the legendary Hala Pionir packed by more than 7,000 fans. Olympiacos, led by Rivers with 21 points and 5 assists, won 74-69.
In the quarterfinals, it would come to a showdown against Olympiacos’s archrival and the defending EuroLeague champion, Panathinaikos. At home, in front of 15,000 fans, Olympiacos won 65-57 with 12 points by Rivers. The advantage was not too large, but in the second game, we got to see one of the biggest shows ever by a team in a derby of this magnitude. Against 18,000 Panathinaikos fans, Olympiacos won 49-69. Rivers played 40 minutes and had good numbers: 2 of 6 two-pointers, 2 of 2 triples and 7 of 7 free throws for 17 points plus 5 assists. Olympiacos had advanced to the Final Four, where it would join Olimpija Ljubljana, ASVEL Villeurbanne and FC Barcelona.
Two rhapsodies in Rome
The main feature of great players is playing better when it matters the most. David Rivers made that assertion ring true in Rome in 1997. In the semifinal against Union Olimpija – which had Rasho Nesterovic, Marko Milic, Arriel McDonald, Vladimir Stepania, Roman Horvat, Marko Tusek, Jaka Daneu and the rest – Rivers scored 28 points, his season high, for a 74-65 win. In the other semifinal, Barcelona defeated ASVEL 77-70 with Sasha Djordjevic as its best scorer with 16 points.
The big final was played on April 24, 1997, at the Olympic Arena in Rome. It was a much-anticipated final between the two favorites, a battle that was to be marked by the individual duel between Djordjevic and Rivers, the best two guards in Europe at that moment. Halfway through the season, Djordjevic had left Portland of the NBA and joined Barcelona, becoming an immediate star and the leader of the team. He formed a great duo with forward Arturas Karnisovas.
After a bad start to the game, falling behind 9-2, Olympiacos rallied behind 10 points from Rivers for an 18-18 tie. Once the Reds stepped ahead, there was no turning back. They won 73-58 with Rivers as MVP. He scored 27 points, grabbed 6 boards, dished 3 assists and had 3 steals in 39 minutes. Dragan Tarlac, the other hero of the Greek team, had 11 points and 14 rebounds. On the other side, Djordjevic scored only 6 points, very far from the 13.9 points he had been averaging up to that game. It wasn’t the first duel between the two guards. In the 1993-94 Korac Cup quarterfinals, when Djordjevic played for Olimpia Milano and Rivers for Antibes, the Italian team won the first game 98-85 but the individual duel was a tie, 23 points for each. In the second game, Antibes won 95-88, but Djordjevic finished with 31 points and Rivers had 20.
Many years after the Rome duel, Djordjevic told me from Milano about Rivers:
“I knew him since he was at Notre Dame. One summer a group of friends that included Jure Zdovc, Slavko Kotnik and Vlada Dragutinovic played against him, Ken Barlow, Tim Kempton. Right then and there, I already saw what was confirmed later in European basketball: he was a great player. He was one of the best, if not the best, American guards that ever played in Europe. His game was like poetry. He had explosive legs, fast hands and ideas, solutions. He had talent in every part of his body.”
Vassilis Skountis, the prestigious Greek journalist, remembers that there were many doubts about Rivers’ contribution, but after the “two rhapsodies in Rome” everything changed. In 23 games in Europe, Rivers averaged 37.9 minutes of play. After the win in Rome, Olympiacos won the double crown in Greece, the league and the cup. Rivers was MVP of the season and the best player of the year according to FIBA. He was 32 years old, but for Ivkovic he was the key man, the extension of his hand on the court. Rivers was pure security for his coaches: a scoring guard, typical of the American school. He had it all: court vision, excellent technique, a good shot, leadership qualities and, most of all, speed – both in his head and in his body – on the court. There is a video of him racing coast-to-coast in 3 seconds!
Trophies in Italy and Turkey
After achieving glory with Olympiacos, Rivers accepted an offer from Teamsystem Bologna, which was trying to build a great team and had attracted Dominique Wilkins from Panathinaikos, as well. Both veterans helped the team win the Italian Cup in the final against Benetton Treviso, 73-55. Wilkins scored 21 points, but the MVP was Carlton Myers. Rivers’ next destination would be Tofas Bursa of Turkey, where in two seasons he won two league crowns and one cup. In 2000-01, he was back with Olympiacos and at 37 years old still scored 10.3 points and dished 2.3 assists.
In May of 2009, Rivers received a well-deserved tribute in Piraeus. He received his red jersey with number 15 and, most of all, the love of the fans who did not forget what he did for the club. David Rivers was one of the best and most successful Americans who ever played in Europe. He was champion in all four countries where he played, and in three he also won the national cup. He was MVP of the season in France and Greece, as well as MVP of the Final Four, and he played in the FIBA all-star game in 1997 and 1998. That was more than enough to make up for a frustrated career in the NBA, where it was not because of his abilities that he did not triumph, but for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.