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Born This Way: Austin Rivers Is The Dime/2K Sports National High School Player Of The Year

You think you know, but you have no idea. Find out how Austin Rivers, the Dime/2K Sports National High School Player Of The Year, transformed from a regular, lovable kid to a cold-blooded basketball assassin, hated on for his dominance and swagger on the court.

Winter Park, Florida is a lush, close-knit community in the shadows of Orlando, where oversized mansions and brick-lined streets are shaded by majestic royal palms. It’s got a small town feel, where everyone knows and looks out for everyone. It’s the kind of place you’d swear was the inspiration behind the “Cheers” theme song. As Austin Rivers’ mother Kristin puts it, “I’ve lived in lots of cities around the country, but I’ll die in Winter Park.”

It’s plausible.

After all, Florida, according to the Harris Poll, is the second most popular place to live in the country, and Winter Park is just a seven-minute drive from Disney World. Fitting, albeit on a smaller scale, that Winter Park is home to a conspicuous character of its own.

“You can’t think of Winter Park and not think of Austin Rivers,” says Austin’s friend and Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) point guard Myck Kabongo, a Texas signee. “Austin is Winter Park. Everyone knows that.”

An amazingly fitting appointment for an 18-year-old kid who was born in Santa Monica, Calif., moved to New York then to San Antonio, before ending up in Winter Park in 1998. Such is the life of an ex-NBA player-turned-head-coach’s son.

“He’s had to move around a lot, but this is where he made his mark,” says Austin’s father and Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. “This is where he became who he is.”

Who Austin is, really is, isn’t just the 2011 Dime/2K Sports National High School Player of the Year. He’s not just a marketable face because he can hoop. Not even close. The true essence is very much an anomaly, a larger than life persona with a collective perception that is vastly misunderstood.

“People don’t get me,” says Austin. “They think I’m something that I’m not. Spoiled rich kid… Entitled… Living off of my dad… Cocky. I mean, I get it. It comes with the territory. At the same time, one of the hardest things in life to be is constantly misunderstood.”

A MENTALITY IS BORN

There wasn’t anything special about the light skinned five-year-old running around the court for the New York-based St. Luke’s All Stars, launching off-the-mark shots at the lowered goals and smiling. Win or lose, “Doc Rivers’ son,” as he was commonly referred to back in the day while his pops was playing for the Knicks, was just happy to be playing.

“I wasn’t very good,” says Austin. “Didn’t care about being the best.”

Then it happened. It took a few years, but it happened.

The scenario is typical; a handful of kids shoot until two guys make shots and those two are captains who pick teams. When he began to notice that his name was always being called last, if at all, Austin didn’t just want to earn the respect of being one of the first picks, he wanted it to be a consensus.

“I wanted to be the first pick hands down,” says Austin. “I wanted to be the guy who didn’t have to shoot to be a captain. That was truly the point that started my drive.”

Since then, adds Doc, “I’ve never one day had to push Austin to work on his game. If I had to do that, he didn’t love the game.”

Once Austin decided to put in the work to be great, it became an obsession. He piggybacked off of his older brother Jeremiah‘s intense work ethic, a point guard who recently concluded his senior season at Indiana after playing his first two years at Georgetown. If Jeremiah taught him a crossover, Austin would want to do it better. If Jeremiah made 15 straight jumpers, Austin wanted to make 30. Jeremiah would go and workout for four hours in the gym; Austin would try and go for five.

“You can’t come from a more competitive household,” says Doc. “We’re intense.”

From Jeremiah to Austin to baby brother Spencer, a rising sophomore on the Winter Park basketball team, to their sister Callie, who just finished up her senior volleyball season at Florida and now plays professionally in Puerto Rico, the Rivers clan is “a bunch of competitive psychos,” says Kristin. “No, really.”

By the time Austin was in the eighth grade at Lake Highland Prep (Orlando, Fla.), he was by far one of the best players in the school. Still, the coaches didn’t think he was ready to be a varsity player.

“That angered me so bad,” says Austin. “They made me play JV.”

He dominated, averaging 26 points a game and transferred to Winter Park the next year, where he averaged 15 points a game as a starter.

“That first year was when I realized that I was a good player,” says Austin. “I had some big games that year and it really elevated my drive, even from the high level it was already at. That’s when all the attention changed from normal to just insane.”

BONAFIDE SUPERSTAR

It’s Christmas morning 2010 and 12-year-old Mark Shehady is tearing through wrapping paper and gifts in his Pittsburgh home. His eyes widen when he sees the DVD of He Got Game, and he’s all smiles when he discovers the new color-coordinated outfits that are sure to combat the frigid wind chill. Instinctively, he scans the area under the Christmas tree until he zeroes in on a card with his name on the front. It’s from his older sister, Renee.

Mark rips it open and, unlike most kids his age, actually reads what’s inside. Suddenly tears spill out of his eyes. He’s more than happy. He’s beyond ecstatic. He’s going to see his favorite player. Not Kobe Bryant. Not LeBron James. He’s going to see Austin Rivers.

“I couldn’t believe it! My gift was to see Austin Rivers!” says Mark. “I’d been a fan for almost two years, just watching him on YouTube. I love to watch him on the computer!”

Mark, Renee and their parents, Wade and Lisa, all hopped a plane to Florida in early February to watch Austin play two games; the last of which was his senior night. After the game, a 78-36 win over Brooksville Nature Coast, Mark got a chance to meet his idol.

“It was just unreal,” says Mark. “I was actually talking to Austin Rivers! He talked to me, signed my ball, took pictures… It was one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Adds Austin: “I sign a lot of autographs, but this was just different. It was really special to me. I had a ball talking to him. I’ll always remember him.”

Every year, in every class, there are a handful of guys who are supposed to be THE guy. The guy who recruiting gurus overhype. The YouTube sensation who is overloaded with so much attention that it makes him think he’s a celebrity. The difference with Austin is that he actually is, for all intents and purposes, a celebrity.

Blame it on him being Doc’s son. Blame it on his on-court swag or that he’s going to Duke or that, on any given night, Austin is a legitimate threat to drop 50. As one Eastern Conference NBA scout puts it, “He’s a guy you come to see go for 30, and he ends up scoring 40. That kid never disappoints.”

Adults stand in 30-minute lines after games just to shake his hand. Teenagers send the bravest one in the clique to ask him for a group picture, and young girls cry when he signs their shirts. He gets weekly fan mail at Winter Park High, requesting everything from his wristbands to his socks, and his Twitter following is at 32,000 and counting. That’s more than any player in the next three classes … by a lot.

To hear Doc tell it, “Austin’s no longer ‘Doc Rivers’ Kid,’ now I’m ‘Austin Rivers’ Father!’ I love it.”

Doc got a taste of that this season when the Celtics got back to the airport in Boston at 1 a.m. after playing the Sacramento Kings.

“The luggage guy walked over to me and I’m thinking he wants to meet me or something like that,” recalls Doc. “But he said, ‘Hey man, how’s Austin doing?’ It was a great moment for me.”

“Baby bro is a rock star!” says Jeremiah. “It never ceases to amaze me how much attention he gets. I think it’s great.”

Thing is, that level of attention causes haters to come in droves.

“They love to hate,” says Jeremiah. “I mean really hate! It’s just his swag.”

Dec. 9, 2010, and Austin stands against the cement wall inside of the Winter Park gym decked out in his black Wildcats warm-up and a “Duke” embroidered keychain necklace, bobbing his head to music blasting through his silver and gold Beats by Dre headphones. Just as he’s beginning to zone-out, mentally preparing for his impending game against Cypress Creek, Austin is interrupted by something he knows all too well – the camera.

He smiles and nods.

When the cameraman asks him what he’s got in store for tonight’s game, Austin grins and says, “I will have 40. Guaranteed. I will have 40 tonight.”

By the time the final horn sounds, Austin had dropped 43 points in just three quarters and the Wildcats won 93-73. That video went viral and, not only did it pick up more than a quarter of a million views, it also earned Austin the “cocky” label.

“That’s a big misconception about me,” says Austin. “I’m so not cocky. I definitely play with a swag, and I play thinking that no one can stop me. Coach K (Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski) always tells me that to be a great player you’ve got to have an ego. But as a person, so not cocky.”

Don’t let the explanation fool you, Austin absolutely gets it.

Truth is, he knows he can’t be stopped. He’s got to know it. It makes him who he is. A 6-4, 190-pound scoring guard with sick handles, quickness, NBA range, athleticism, hops and a killer instinct. Combine Dwyane Wade‘s athleticism with a killer stroke and add in Kobe Bryant’s attack mentality and you have a look into Austin’s game.

Austin isn’t a nightmare matchup, he’s the nightmare matchup.

Certainly, that’s relative, but it’s hard to argue with a kid averaging close to 30 points, with just 16 shot attempts, and six rebounds a game. As The Inc. CEO and hip-hop/R&B producer Irv Gotti told me while watching Austin at the City of Palms Classic (Ft. Myers, Fla.) in December, “Once Austin catches the ball… You’re dead!”

The bigger the stage, the more dead you are.

“Over the last three years, we’ve played on national television 10 times,” says Winter Park coach David Bailey. “In those games, Austin’s averaged 35 points per game. That’s unreal!”

Whether it was effortlessly scoring a modest 24 points on Chaminade College Prep (St. Louis, Mo.) All-American guard Bradley Beal, a Florida signee, to win the prestigious Nike Super Showcase last July, or dropping 40-plus 16 times, more than any player in the country, last summer for Each 1 Teach 1 against the stiffest AAU competition in the country, Austin somehow managed to live up to and eclipse the already unfair hype.

It’s just another reason, as Hargrave Military Academy (Chatham, Va.) guard P.J. Hairston puts it, “He’s got a reason to be cocky!”

“He’s that good,” adds Hairston, a North Carolina signee. “He’s just hard to guard because, honestly, he can do whatever he wants out there. Off the court, you’ve just got to know him. Austin’s just cool. Just regular. But definitely not cocky.”

Still, the head-bobbing after a deep three, the sly smirk after crossing a defender up, the split-second pause and cold stare after violently throwing down an embarrassing dunk over an opposing player who knows he shouldn’t have jumped in the first place, it all contributes to the persona. It all contributes to the genuine hate.

Whether it’s a mother turned swearing sailor or a father or uncle who wants to constantly remind Austin, with as many four-letter words as they can muster up, that he’s overrated, he gets the type of hate that requires a police escort to all away games.

“It gets crazy,” says Austin. “People go too far. When I’m out there playing to the crowd, I’m just having fun. That’s who I am for two hours or so. The rest of the day I’m chill and laid back. I’m very low-key.”

Adds Kristin: “When I see him out there playing to the crowd, I say to myself, ‘Who is that kid?'”

Austin likens it to pop sensation Beyoncé, famously known for her onstage alter ego “Sasha Fierce,” a lively, outgoing, larger-than-life entertainer. Once offstage, Beyoncé is back to being her quiet and shy self.

“It’s the same thing, I just don’t have a nickname for my alter ego on the court,” says Austin.

“If I didn’t know Austin and I came to watch him play, I’d think he was a jerk,” adds Austin’s Each 1 Teach 1 AAU coach Therion Joseph. “He’s not though. He’s just a crazy competitor. It’s like Mike Tyson; if his mom got in the ring with him he’d knock her ass out! That’s Austin’s mindset. He’s gonna do whatever it takes to win. Off the court, he’s the nicest kid you’ll ever meet.”

Trying to get the cliché “what do you do away from the court” angle from Austin was cheesy and forced. Hoops always intertwines. And for the 22 hours of the day that he’s not playing in a game, some might think Austin is sort of dull for an 18-year-old basketball celebrity.

He prefers Redbox to the movie theatre, he watches YouTube clips of NBA stars the way people watch “Jersey Shore” and he’d rather hand wash his souped-up black Dodge Avenger than hit the mall. As for the party scene…

“Not my scene at all,” says Austin. “I’m not an overly exciting person. I’m just chill. Just laid back. I don’t do what everyone deems cool. I’m me. I’ve had a lot of success by just being me.”

Austin’s list of accomplishments reads like the bio of three All-Americans: Morgan Wootten Player of the Year, Naismith Player of the Year, PARADE Player of the Year, Gatorade Florida Player of the Year, won the Nike Super Showcase, AAU National title, back-to-back state titles, etc.

Even more impressive is how he celebrates said accomplishments.

“Austin won the state title on Saturday night and he called me Sunday morning,” says Joseph. “First thing he said was, ‘Coach let’s go work out. I’ve got to get better!'”

NEXT UP

Austin walks across the polished hardwood court inside of Duke’s jam-packed Cameron Indoor Stadium on Oct. 15, 2010, to a deafening standing ovation only rivaled by the salute the Cameron Crazies gave Coach K ten minutes later. It’s Countdown to Craziness, Duke’s version of Midnight Madness, and just 15 days ago Austin officially became a part of one of the most hated teams in all of sports.

“That’s why Duke is the perfect place for Austin,” says Joseph. “You’re not indifferent about Duke. You love them or hate them. That’s how most people are with Austin.”

Adds Austin: “I love that. The whole stadium’s rooting against you and you go in there and kill them! Now they can’t say anything. Now they’re stuck.”

Austin was originally committed to Florida as a sophomore, then decommitted after his junior season. In the end, he picked Duke over North Carolina and Kansas.

“We talked it over and felt like he should go through the process because he didn’t do that before,” says Doc. “It was the one choice that he would get to make. After picking a college, you don’t really pick anything else.”

“When we took our first trip to Duke, I knew he’d be there,” adds Kristin. “Everything about that school is special. Everything.”

Austin took a special liking to the crazed coeds with near flawless SAT scores.

“The fans were a big reason I picked Duke,” says Austin. “I mean, think about it. The fans have your back no matter what, and at the same time they have their own swag. These are future doctors and lawyers and millionaires, and they’ll wait in tents for weeks to see you. It’s amazing. They make it home.”

Before he’s even matriculated, the popular question is how long he’ll stay “home.” Mock drafts already project Austin to be a top-five pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Good luck finding any sane player in the world that would pass that up.

“It’s not a definite that I’m leaving after one year,” says Austin. “I’m not even focusing on that. Make no mistake about it; I plan to win a national title at Duke. And that takes even more drive.”

Adds Doc: “I tell Austin all the time, ‘Right now, all you are is a really good high school basketball player.”

And so it’s fitting that he’s got his self-made slogan, “M.O.A.M.” (Man On A Mission) – a slogan he’s in the process of copyrighting – tatted on his left wrist. The part that gets lost is that the mission is bigger than basketball. It’s one that resonates with the masses.

“I’m setting out to accomplish major things,” says Austin. “In basketball, in life, in everything that I do, I want to get better and better. So when I say I’m on a mission, it encompasses a lot. The mission is something everyone can relate to. The mission starts everyday.”

And now it can’t be misunderstood.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JayJayESPNRise.

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