He had just gotten to the concourse where a gaggle of about 40 reporters was waiting for him when a fan yelled out, "Love you, Doc!"
The coach who led the Celtics to the 2008 NBA championship returned to Boston on Wednesday night for the first time since taking over the Los Angeles Clippers, and the fans welcomed him back without any bitterness over his departure. Rivers received a spontaneous cheer when he walked out onto the court during warm-ups, a bigger one when he was introduced before the opening tip and another after a video between the first two periods.
"Coming to this building from the other side is surreal," Rivers told reporters before the game, listing a few of the people he was happy to see again. "For nine years, they were my family. ... It's going to be emotional in that building."
Rivers took over a team that was on its way to the bottom, losing a franchise-record 18 games in a row in his third season while trying to position itself for the lottery. But that summer, despite drawing the No. 5 pick in the draft, general manager Danny Ainge acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, teaming them with Paul Pierce in a New Big Three that won the NBA title in their first year together.
The Celtics returned to the NBA Finals two years later, but then Allen left for Miami and with Pierce and Garnett getting older Ainge decided it was time to start over. Rivers was traded to the Clippers for a 2015 first-round draft choice, and the two remaining stars were sent to the Brooklyn Nets for a package of players and picks.
"It would have been real hard to go through the whole re-build thing again," Rivers said. "I was thinking at the time it was time to go. It was just time."
If there were any hard feelings, they weren't visible at Wednesday night's game, which the Clippers won 96-88.
"I was basically useless for the first 18 minutes of the game, I thought," an emotional Rivers said after the game. "It was nice. It didn't surprise me. You've got to live here to understand that. (It is) an amazing fan base, it really is. And I just want everything to go well for them."
Rivers waved to acknowledge the cheering fans during warm-ups, and walked toward the Celtics bench to greet a few familiar faces at the scoring table. Between the first and second periods, a video was shown on the scoreboard that showed clips of him facing Ainge as players, posing with Red Auerbach and getting drenched with orange Gatorade after winning the 2008 championship.
It ended with the words, "Thank you, Doc!"
Many of the Clippers applauded, as did the Celtics assistant coaches and training staff and the few players, including Jeff Green, who played for Rivers.
"I'm an emotional guy," Rivers said beforehand. "I just hope I can coach tonight."
The game wraps up a reunion week of sorts for both Rivers and the Celtics. On Tuesday night, the Celtics played the Nets in Brooklyn and faced Pierce and Garnett for the first time; Rivers' Clippers face the Nets on Thursday night.
Asked which was harder, Rivers said, "Oh, it's harder coming back here."
"Playing against them, I see two guys that I love in a Brooklyn uniform," he said. "Coming back here, that's special to me. I get to walk under a banner that I helped get and see the fans and a lot of my friends. This day and half has been a lot of fun, but it's also been emotional, too."