MILWAUKEE (AP) -Doc Rivers first wanted to hear more about Marquette University's student work-study program in South Africa, because he was thinking about taking his family there to visit.
Then, Rivers wanted to find out more about the teachings of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spoke at the school in 2003.
Marquette administrator Stephanie Russell was happy to oblige the Boston Celtics coach - and current university trustee - during a lunch break from a board meeting last September. Little did she know that she would wind up giving Rivers a word that would become the motto for a team destined to contend for a championship: ubuntu.
``He was really excited about this word,'' Russell recalled Wednesday. ``We were kind of unpacking this word, 'What does this mean?' It really did not occur to me that it had anything to do with his own professional life or the team.''
Rivers made ubuntu, which roughly translates to ``I am, because we are'' in English, the Celtics' team motto this season. And it seems to be working: Boston made it to the NBA finals and holds a 2-1 series advantage over the Los Angeles Lakers despite losing Tuesday night.
Russell, Marquette's executive director for university mission and identity, became familiar with the concept of ubuntu (pronounced Ooh-BOON-too) during a speech Tutu gave at the school's 2003 ``spirit week'' celebration.
Tutu used it to express his vision of racial unity as South Africa continued its transition to a post-apartheid society, Russell said.
Rivers was riveted. He wrote down his e-mail address on a napkin and asked Russell to send him more information.
She did, then was surprised months later when a friend sent her a story from the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in which Rivers talked about how a word he heard from someone at Marquette had become the team's motto.
``It's a way of life and a way of being,'' Rivers said in a recent news conference. ``And I thought for this team, that was very, very important. I thought they needed something to remind them how important team and sacrifice is.''
Rivers said the message was particularly poignant this year, as he tried to manage the egos of the team's so-called ``big three'' stars: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
``A person is a person through other people,'' Rivers said. ``I thought for the Big Three, that part of ubuntu was as important as any. Because as good as you are, you can only be great or get what you want through other people.''
It all came as a surprise to Russell, who attended Marquette with Rivers in the 1980s but only met him a few times.
``I remember him as being just a very kind, unpretentious, generous person,'' Russell said. ``So it doesn't surprise me that he takes something like this and shares it in such a way that it makes a difference for a much bigger group of people. It was just a really great surprise.''
And a new use for a word with deep meaning in South Africa.
``If you're a white South African, to say it to someone that you either personally or institutionally have oppressed for decades - that 'I am because we are' - is a pretty radical statement,'' Russell said.
And she believes ubuntu could, and should, have deep meaning to Americans.
``The fact that 40 percent of the children in Milwaukee live below the poverty line would matter to me in a completely different way if I lived with ubuntu at the center of who I am,'' Russell said. ``So really, that's a human value that surpasses any kind of cultural context.''
But is Rivers trivializing a serious ideal by using it in a sports context?
``I suppose there's a risk of that, depending on who the interpreter is,'' Russell said. ``In the hands of Doc Rivers, I think it's safe. ... While he is clearly a fabulous coach, his world also seems bigger than basketball, which is probably why something like ubuntu is so well-kept in his hands.''
Of course, ubuntu also has been adapted for commercial purposes; it's the name of a computer operating system. But perhaps through Rivers' popularization of ubuntu, he can teach basketball fans a life lesson.
``We need to matter to each other, in how we play, how we work and how we live,'' Russell said.
Meanwhile, she has been watching the finals and rooting for the Celtics.
``I'm deeply invested in the Celtics now,'' Russell said. ``And I liked the Celtics before because of Doc, but now it's grown in fun and engagement and it's been great to see him succeed.''
So, does she get some of the credit if Boston wins the title?
``None whatsoever. No. The credit is purely Doc's and the team's,'' Russell said. ``And the credit for ubuntu is the South African people.''

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