Digger Phelps is disgusted. The Notre Dame coach can’t believe his eyes. A freshman guard has just botched a practice play by rushing the ball up the floor and losing his own dribble. So pointless an error! “What’s the hurry?” roars Phelps at the kid. “You got David Rivers next to you. David Rivers! David Rivers!”
Yes, David Rivers, 23, the 6′ senior point guard who leads the Irish with 22 points and five assists a game, and plays basketball with intelligence and supernal grace. “He’s the most creative player I’ve ever had,” says Phelps, Notre Dame’s coach for 17 years. “He’s the boss on the floor. He’s always got my green light to do anything he wants—that’s how much I respect him.”
Phelps isn’t alone in that feeling. Come June, Rivers is a certain first-round pick in the National Basketball Association draft, and he’s the smart-money pick for the John Wooden Award for the college player of the year. Even more remarkable than his talent is the fact that he’s playing at all; little more than 19 months ago, David Rivers nearly died.
It happened on Aug. 24, 1986, at 1 a.m. Rivers and teammate Ken Barlow were driving back to the Notre Dame campus from their summer jobs as kitchen workers at a catering firm. On Route 30, just outside Elkhart, Ind., Barlow swerved to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming car that had veered into his lane. His Chevy van flipped, tossing Rivers through the windshield. Barlow escaped with minor injuries, but the shattered glass ripped a 15-inch gash in Rivers’ abdomen. As he lay in the grass, trying to hold in his intestines, he prepared himself for the worst. “I knew I was going to die,” he says slowly and thoughtfully. “It was a very cold and dark feeling. I wasn’t scared, just disappointed that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to my teammates or parents.”
It took half an hour to get Rivers to a hospital, and three hours of emergency surgery and several pints of blood to save his life. “The doctor said it was a miracle he survived,” says Phelps. Perhaps that miracle was abetted by the support of Rivers’ parents, Willie James and Mamie, who drove all night from Jersey City, N.J., to be with the third youngest of their 15 children. “David gets his strength from his mom and dad,” says Phelps.
The family has needed strength in abundance; over the years the Rivers clan has been sorely tested by hardship and heartache. Mamie is a motel maid and Willie James a factory worker, and they don’t earn much. “Sometimes we didn’t get enough to eat,” says David. “But one thing I never had to worry about was friends because I had so many brothers and sisters.”
David’s early years were spent in the crime-ridden Marion Gardens housing project in Jersey City. When he was 9, two of his older brothers were killed. Joseph, 20, lost his life in a traffic accident; then, about a month later, David’s idol, 19-year-old Willie, was murdered. “A guy who was supposed to be his friend pulled out a knife and stabbed him,” says Rivers. Soon afterward, the family moved to a house in a safer neighborhood, but David was haunted. “There were evil thoughts in my mind,” he says. “I wanted to hurt whoever killed Willie.”
Those dark feelings frightened Rivers, he says—scared him straight. Before, though not a member himself, he had hung out with friends in gangs. Now he became almost desperate to stay out of trouble. He mopped the floor in church and worked endless part-time jobs to earn tuition for St. Anthony’s, a Catholic high school. He also found basketball. “He was intrigued by the game, the nuances, the creativity,” says his high school coach, Bob Hurley. And he was goaded by the memory of Willie. “I loved Willie and I still think about him,” says David.
Just as he refused to be shattered by his brother’s death, he would not surrender 12 years later to the injury that nearly cost him his own life. Eight days after the accident on Route 30, a week earlier than doctors had predicted, he left the hospital to begin a grueling rehabilitation program, working out two hours a day to the Rocky sound track. Twelve weeks later he was playing basketball again. By the end of the season, he was averaging 15 points a game and was voted Most Courageous Athlete by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. He also gained priceless insight. “I learned a lot from that accident,” he says. “Just walking down the street or calling my folks suddenly took on a lot more importance.”
After graduation this May—a psychology major, he has a C average now—David’s looking forward to a pro contract. (“I’m gonna take care of my father and mother first,” he says.) And from preliminary indications, that shouldn’t be any problem. “I’m real high on the kid,” says George Irvine, head scout of the Indiana Pacers. “We really like his character and his leadership abilities. His size and slight build are his only weaknesses.”
Phelps, for one, isn’t worried about Rivers’ slight build. “David will face any challenge in life and win,” he says. After his one-on-one with his own mortality on Route 30, no obstacle seems insurmountable.
—By Jack Friedman, with Bill Shaw in South Bend, Ind.