The Clippers' conversion from NBA franchise to Doc Rivers Inc. can be traced to the summer night their new coach sat across from their freakishly athletic center at a trendy Japanese restaurant in West Hollywood.
Over albacore tuna and yellowtail sushi, Rivers laid out his plan for DeAndre Jordan to become his team's defensive captain.
The coach ticked off a handful of names: Dennis Rodman, Tyson Chandler, Ben Wallace. None were big scorers. All had won NBA titles by playing relentless defense.
"You can have a dramatic impact on the game," Rivers told Jordan, "without being a great scorer."
Rivers couldn't be sure how Jordan would take what he had to say. There had been reports that the Clippers had tried to include the unfocused big man as part of the deal that brought Rivers to Los Angeles in June for a first-round draft pick. Jordan had to wonder: Did the man sitting before him even want him here?
But the longer Rivers talked, and the more sushi they ate, the more Jordan was reassured. Rivers made Jordan feel as if the Clippers could not win a title without him playing a major role.
"From the moment that we first talked and had a face-to-face conversation," Jordan said, "I knew how genuine he was in believing in me."
It wasn't long before Rivers instilled a similar self-confidence in the rest of the Clippers, selling them on what he believed to be the optimal version of each player.
Forward Blake Griffin, known for his high-flying dunks, would take more midrange jumpers to diversify his offense. Star playmaker Chris Paul would look for his shot more often and be more aggressive. There was even a directive for rookie forward Reggie Bullock to "shoot the ball and defend like crazy."
From the Clippers' first pre-season practice, there was one message, one goal and one throaty voice presiding over it all. Rivers was remaking seemingly every aspect of his team to fit his championship vision. And his title-starved players were eager to listen.
"Doc's done a good job of letting everybody know, 'This is how it's going to be. This is what it is. You have to fall in line or you're not going to play,'" Griffin said. "When that's a real threat, that's when it works."
Doc's orders have elevated a team that has been a punch line for most of its 44-year existence, making it a more realistic title contender than the teams that lost early in the playoffs the last two years. As they head into the playoffs this weekend at Staples Center, the Clippers have won a second consecutive division title and set a franchise record for regular-season victories.
Rivers wants more, of course. A championship would give him something besides giant pictures of his best players to hang from the rafters inside the team's home arena.
"I just think, what's wrong with going for it?" said Rivers, 52. "And if you fail you fail, but damn it, I don't want any parameters of, 'Well, we still had a good year.' I just think let's go for it, let's see what happens and if we don't make it, let's go for it again. But let's get our heart broken or let's fall in love, one of the two."
As he observed Jordan at the dinner, Rivers' long-held perception of "this angry guy" softened considerably. Jordan's body language over the years told Rivers that the center was often upset that he wasn't a bigger part of the offense. Now Jordan appeared eager to adapt — to be part of a journey bigger than himself.
"That day made me feel really good about our team," Rivers said. "When I drove home from dinner that night, I was like, wow."
The one player he thought would be a problem was suddenly the least of his worries.
Quiet was hard to find around the Rivers' household when Doc was growing up.
His father, Grady Sr., was a voluble police lieutenant in the Chicago suburb of Maywood who instilled in his two sons many of his favorite mantras, such as "Finish the race" and "Trust everyone, but cut the cards." The elder Rivers would do whatever it took to watch his sons play basketball in high school, even if it meant sitting along the baseline with his police radio blaring during the quiet of a free throw.