NOTRE DAME, Ind. – From instant-impact standout to near-fatal tragedy to the No. 3 scorer in Notre Dame basketball history upon graduation, David Rivers came full circle Saturday and landed in the program’s esteemed Ring of Honor.
Rivers, the 6-foot-0, 180-pound guard out of St. Anthony’s High School in Jersey City, N.J., led Digger Phelps’ last great run with the Irish, spearheading Notre Dame’s four straight NCAA tournament appearances and pacing each of his four teams in scoring from his rookie season in 1984-85 through his senior season in 1987-88, when he averaged 22 points a game.
Cited by Phelps as the best player he ever coached at Notre Dame – which includes greats such as Adrian Dantley, Kelly Tripucka, John Paxson and LaPhonso Ellis – Rivers spoke to the crowd during halftime of Notre Dame’s victory over Syracuse Saturday.
Allotted a finite number of minutes to offer a lifelong list of people to thank, Rivers apologized for spilling past his quota.
“I hear the music…I hear the music, but this is a once in a lifetime,” said Rivers as he thanked a litany of University dignitaries, family and long-time friends.
The story of David Rivers – the third youngest of 15 children -- almost came to a tragic conclusion prior to his junior season when he was thrown through the windshield of a van driven by former teammate Ken Barlow as Barlow tried to avoid a drunk driver.
A foot-and-a-half gash in his abdomen almost cost Rivers his life more than a decade after losing older brothers Joseph (auto accident) and Willie (murder).
“I knew I was going to die,” said Rivers during recovery.
He not only recovered, but played in all 32 games of his junior season, beginning three months after the accident.
“The doctor said it was a miracle he survived,” Phelps said.
But survive – and thrive – Rivers did. He led Notre Dame to a four-year record of 88-32, including Notre Dame’s Sweet 16 appearance in 1986-87 -- the season of his catastrophic injury and Notre Dame’s last Sweet 16 trip until Mike Brey’s third season with the Irish in 2002-03.
Rivers and his teammates added to the Notre Dame lore under Phelps of taking on and defeating the giants of the college game, including No. 1-ranked North Carolina on Feb. 1, 1987.
“He’s the most creative player I’ve ever had,” said Phelps during Rivers’ playing days with the Irish.
Rivers was a scorer and a distributer, the quintessential point guard with two-guard scoring/shooting skills.
In addition to ranking sixth on the all-time scoring list with 2,058 points – behind the legendary Austin Carr and Dantley, as well as Luke Harangody, Chris Thomas and Pat Garrity, who have since passed him – Rivers also sits fifth in assists, fourth in steals, seventh in field goals and eighth in free-throw percentage.
The No. 25 overall pick by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1988, Rivers spent three seasons in the NBA with the Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers. He played nine more years in France, Greece, Italy and Turkey.
Since averaging 22.0 points a game in his senior season, only Notre Dame’s Monty Williams, Garrity, Troy Murphy, and Harangody have averaged more, and none of them were tasked with running the offense as well as providing the lead scoring punch.
After thanking numerous Notre Dame dignitaries, first and foremost the late Notre Dame president Fr. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Rivers turned his attention to Phelps, sitting in press row.
“That man right there, Digger Phelps,” said an emotional Rivers as the camera panned to an even more emotional Phelps. “This man, right here, he was my father away from home. He was my mentor; he was my coach. My experience does not happen without this man and what he has done. I love you…I love you.”
As the music rose to a crescendo – indicating that Rivers really, really needed to wrap it up so the second half could commence – he turned to and approached the Notre Dame student body.
“You are the gatekeepers!” Rivers said. “Keep this place alive! Wake up every day as if you know where you’re going! You come from Notre Dame! You are the new gatekeepers! Keep this place alive! I love you!”
Rivers joins Carr, Dantley, Murphy, Harangody, Tom Hawkins and Phelps in Notre Dame’s men’s basketball Ring of Honor.