Randy Wittman was growing into a big deal his senior season at Indiana University. He evolved into the team’s leading scorer in the 1982-83 after an injury to star Ted Kitchel midway through the season. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year. Wittman did enough that he was selected 22nd overall in the 1983 draft by the then-Washington Bullets. They traded him to the Atlanta Hawks for Tom McMillen and a second-round pick in the 1984 draft, which was used to select Tony Costner.
Five hours north of Bloomington, Doc Rivers was playing point guard for Marquette University in Milwaukee. He had heard of Wittman — and played with Kitchel on the United States team sent to the FIBA World Championships in 1982 — but didn’t know much about him. Nine picks after Wittman, the Hawks drafted Rivers. They landed in Atlanta together, Wittman steeped in the tradition of Indiana basketball as few others could be after growing up in Indianapolis and playing for Bob Knight, Rivers out of Chicago and Marquette.
“I remember saying, ‘Who is this country bumpkin?’” Rivers said Thursday. “First time I met him, I think he had tobacco in his mouth, talked out of the side of his mouth, had a spittoon …”
At this point, Rivers cannot maintain the bit and begins to laugh in his blue Los Angeles Clippers T-shirt.
“That’s half-true, by the way,” Rivers said.
Friday night, Rivers will walk into Verizon Center as the coach of the flourishing Clippers to face his pal Wittman. They have won nine consecutive games, shoving the high-end debacle of last season spurred by former owner Donald Sterling behind them. The Wizards have won back-to-back games in cardiac-challenging fashion. They are a crisp 15-6.
Rivers and Wittman were together in Atlanta for five seasons. Rivers said he and Wittman got along because Rivers knew he could not shoot, so he would pass to Wittman. In reality, there was more depth than that.
“I think because we both came from basketball trees,” Rivers said. “I don’t know why we clicked, but we did. We had a great synergy on the floor and it extended off the floor.
“I appreciated him pretty much right away.”
Rivers believed Wittman would be a coach. He wasn’t interested. Instead, he wanted to play as many seasons as possible before becoming a broadcaster — which is what he did before stepping into coaching in 1999 with the Orlando Magic.
Wittman was an NBA assistant by 1992, latching on with the hometown Pacers. Rivers still had five seasons remaining to play. Rivers would not have predicted the duo’s current circumstance.
“It’s funny how it all works out,” Rivers said.
When they meet Friday night, Rivers will be managing one of the league’s high-powered rosters. He has arguably the best point guard in Chris Paul. Strongman Blake Griffin scored 45 points Monday night. Center DeAndre Jordan, built as if someone had a clay mold and just pulled the arms and legs in perpetuity, leads the league in rebounding and is second in blocked shots.
Los Angeles is third in scoring and tied for 10th in field-goal percentage defense. In the fortified Western Conference, the Clippers are among the favorites to survive what will be an unforgiving playoff gauntlet.
“Them and Golden State are playing as well as anybody,” Wittman said. “They’re probably playing their best basketball of the year. They’re a team with multiple weapons that can score a lot of points, so we’re going to be tested defensively.”
The Wizards have excelled against most of those tests this season. They are tied for third in field-goal percentage defense. They are seventh in points allowed per game despite having that average bloat because of Monday night’s 133-132 double overtime win against the Boston Celtics.
A pursuit for the Wizards’ defense is to squash first options for their opponents. Wittman felt they did that Wednesday night beating the Orlando Magic 91-89 on Bradley Beal’s tip-in at the buzzer. That concept will be more difficult against the multifaceted Clippers, whose third-leading scorer, the shifty and unpredictable Jamal Crawford, comes off the bench.
“You’ve got to not let a team beat you the way they want to beat you,” Wittman said. “You’ve got to try to make them beat you a different way. Sometimes, they do do that. I thought [Wednesday night] we took away areas that they’re good in. We tried to make them do different things.
“That’s kind of your philosophy in everybody you play.”
Friday night, he’ll be trying to do that to an old friend.