Paul Pierce: The Greatest Story Never Told

By: 03.02.11  •  17 Comments
Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce

It has been 13 years since professional basketball first said hello to Paul Pierce, and luckily, the face of the game’s most decorated franchise hasn’t changed. Living for this moment, Pierce goes to work every night and succeeds in the shadow of irony: an underappreciated star who doubles as the greatest scorer in Celtics’ history. For the world, that should be enough.

From Dime #62:

“I only bowl when there are chandeliers in the building,” the evening’s suit-clad emcee notes. “It’s just a rule that I set for myself a long time ago.”

Luckily, there are chandeliers in this building, so bright that it’s a wonder these lanes aren’t producing more ugly gutter balls from vision loss. There are God-knows-how-large projector screens resting just above the bowling pins in case anyone gets bored. Foxwoods Resort Casino’s High Rollers Luxury Lanes & Lounge in Mashantucket, Conn., is a candy land of ridiculous indulgences. Plush? It’s more than that; it reeks of success, a mix of perfume, budding flowers and new sofas.

“I don’t need no warm-ups,” snaps a grinning Kevin Garnett to no one in particular, but loud enough to not be drowned out by “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” blasting in the background.

The emcee comes right back, joking that Garnett’s Celtic teammate – and some of the evening’s bowling competition – Paul Pierce, was out at three that afternoon rolling practicing rounds.

“Don’t sell me out now!” cracks the sultan of the night, the reason why everyone is here on a Friday night in the first place: to promote The Truth Fund, Pierce’s charity to help stop child obesity. Frantically, Pierce stabs down at the nearest rack – forgetting the ceremonial first ball deserves a proper introduction – sets his fingers and sends one down the alley, past a line of nine reporters and towards the pins.

It’s a strike.

*** *** ***

“He is the greatest individual scoring machine in Celtic history.”

One night in April of 2003, legendary Celtics writer Bob Ryan first claimed that about a then 26-year-old Pierce after watching him decimate the Indiana Pacers with 40 points in a playoff game, watched him meander to the rim or stop short for jumpers, watched the Truth work over the defense the same way he always has. It’s an art for Pierce, albeit an underappreciated one for an eight-time All-Star who proclaimed a few years ago, “I think I’m the best player in the world.” But in fact, in the years since Ryan first made the proclamation – which was repeated recently again by Ryan and by Hall of Famer John Havlicek – the now 33-year-old Pierce’s continued machine-like excellence only enhanced the argument.

“In terms stylistically, the guy could get the ball in the basket more efficiently and in more different ways than any Celtic has ever done,” says Ryan of Pierce. “John Havlicek ran without the ball. He wasn’t a one-on-one player. Larry [Bird] had guys that could guard him and make him take shots that he didn’t want to take and at times, keep him from getting the ball. That was a fact. Pierce, you don’t have any recollections of that. If he wants the ball, he gets the ball. He gets it. You can clear out with him very confidently. He can get at the very least a reasonable shot, at the best, a great shot for him. If he doesn’t, he has a chance to get to the free throw line because that’s his other option, which he is great at. What more do you want?”

Two nights before his Truth Fund charity event, Paul Pierce wasn’t bowling at Foxwoods. He was in Madison Square Garden. Still, he was doing what he’s always doing: Winning.

The Celtics’ captain disassembled Broadway’s newfound hype and reaffirmed himself as one of the game’s ultimate closers, hitting a step-back jump shot over Amar’e Stoudemire just before the buzzer to beat the New York Knicks. “I was nervous. I’m always nervous,” Pierce admitted later to reporters about his game-closing duties. Yet once the shot fell, he bounded around on a victory lap, sucking in the boos careening down at him. After the game was over, he gave a few bows to the still-shocked fans.

Should we be surprised?

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Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce (illustration. Joel Kimmel)

In the city that brought us the Boston Massacre and Brady, and Larry Legend and the Freedom Trail, Paul Pierce is a survivor. Thirteen seasons, over 20,000 points and one championship in and the Truth still can’t be handled. Nothing has ever stopped him. Not record-setting losing streaks (18 straight in 2007), not coaching changes (Rick Pitino to Jim O’Brien to John Carroll to Doc Rivers), not a bad reputation (egotistical, actor), not even an encounter with death.

He thrives in hard times.

In the 1998 NBA Draft, Boston’s front office beamed about a skinny kid from Germany named Dirk Nowitzki. Instead, they ended up with Pierce, who fell to pick No. 10 for no good reason at all. In September of 2000, Pierce was ambushed and stabbed nearly a dozen times across the face, back and chest in a Boston nightclub, coming a half-inch away from death. Yet, he came back just a few weeks later to score 28 points on opening night. In 2002 at the World Championships, he clashed repeatedly with the coaching staff and was singled out as the problem in a dysfunctional sixth-place finish. The next season, Pierce averaged nearly 26 points a game and had statistically, the best playoff run of his career. In 2007, Boston won only 24 times as Pierce missed 34 games, almost all of them overshadowed by trade rumors. The very next year, the Celtics won it all behind Pierce, the Finals MVP.

“In some ways, he may even look forward to it,” says Patrick Roy, Pierce’s coach at Inglewood (Calif.) High School. “Looking for that challenge, looking for that adversity where he can overcome and succeed.”

“You are going to have your ups and your downs,” says Pierce. “Some people are fortunate to play on good teams their whole career. Some aren’t. But at the end of the day, you have to look at yourself in the mirror also, to want to be a leader, to want to lead that team.”

He’s been tagged as everything from malcontent to selfish to assassin to champion. “I just try to give the game what it needs,” is how he puts it. Yet the man is still breathing, still competing, still climbing towards the Gardens’ 21 retired numbers.

This is the teen from Inglewood who used to peel out of bed and workout at 5:30 in the morning for a shot like this. This is a Laker at heart turned Celtic soul.

“I got four years left, and that might be it,” Pierce told the Boston Globe this summer. “I’m playing for a lot – myself, my team, memories. I have a lot of pride.”

Kobe is electrifying. LeBron is otherworldly. Dwight Howard is monstrous. But how can one describe Pierce? He is a mystery to even those poor souls assigned to guard him. “Ah, I don’t know,” Phoenix guard Mickael Pietrus struggles. “He, ah…I don’t know. He seems slow…but is quick. I don’t know.” Boston’s head coach Doc Rivers calls Pierce a chameleon.

He’s not really a shooter, but can go through hot stretches. Just last season, he shot over 41 percent from behind the arc. He’s not exactly a jolting athlete. But talk about his hops with Chris Bosh, who shriveled up in pain under the basket after Pierce slammed one on him last winter. Pierce does nothing fantastically, but everything deadly. Rivers says he is the ultimate utility man. Believes Ryan, “He has every weapon.”

Pierce plays at a tempo that’s impossible to duplicate. He moves with an ungraspable rhythm, confusing defenders with his body language until he has them on his hip, reacting instead of attacking. Pietrus confesses the 13-year NBA veteran gets everyone with the same moves over and over again.

“You never catch him going too fast,” adds Cleveland guard Daniel Gibson. “You never catch anybody speeding him up. He always does exactly what he wants to do. And that’s tough to guard.”

Call it a survival tactic. His high school coach believes deception is a huge part of Pierce’s success.

“A lot of people look at him and they might think that he is slow,” admits Roy. “But his first step is so incredibly fast, I think he’s able to allude a lot of people into thinking that he’s slow.”

It all comes together to create one of the best one-on-one players of the modern era. As other wing players came and went – Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter – Pierce remained consistent.

“As you get older, you start to develop other interests and you have kids and some things that you did before, you kind of let fall to the wayside,” explains Pierce’s teammate Ray Allen. “And then your game slips a little bit. And then you have to go to different ways to play or you don’t shoot certain shots or make certain moves.”

Yet, that never happened to Pierce. As the years went on, former teammate James Posey saw Pierce study harder. Tony Allen, another former teammate, didn’t start running sprints and lifting weights before practice until he started noticing the Captain do it. If anyone has the right to be selfish, it’s Pierce, he says, because of what he puts into this. Even Boston’s general manager Danny Ainge once admitted that Larry Bird never worked this hard.

“Coming into the Draft I was known as a scorer,” recalls Pierce. “Throughout the course of my career, I’ve worked on a lot of things on both sides of the ball. Even coming into this season, I just try to pride myself on being the best overall player that I can be.”

It also doesn’t hurt that his game always surfaces when it’s least welcomed. Pierce scored 22 first-half points in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, annoying Orlando so soundly with his timely playmaking that Dwight Howard eventually clotheslined him with a series-altering flagrant foul.

“It was hilarious,” says Ryan. “He was frustrating the whole team with his bullshit.”

His step-back jump shot, the one that he beat Miami with at the buzzer in Game 3 of their first round playoff series last year, is normally difficult for players moving to their strong side. But Pierce can make it. His defender on that game-winner, Dorell Wright, still doesn’t understand it. In between laughs, Wright recalls, “He just said, ‘That’s my spot. I make that shot all the time.'”

But besides the work, there’s luck. Pierce is lucky to still be in Boston. He’s lucky that he never had a serious injury on the court.

“And not only that,” says Ray Allen, “you have to be on a team that is conducive and catering to what you bring to the table. So it’s never something that you can determine. I think guys are lucky if you can play for a long period of time.”

Page 3
Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce (photo. Aram Boghosian)

Gibson says Pierce has the best footwork off the dribble of any player in the League. During their six years as teammates in Boston, Pierce used to force Tony Allen to guard him every day. Check me, Pierce used to tell him. If you go against me in practice, there’s nothing that will surprise you when you guard LeBron James or Joe Johnson. Tony Allen says, “He’s the most confident person in the world.”

Yet Pierce has never been considered a true superstar. Despite the championship, the Finals MVP, the game-winners and the 12-straight seasons averaging at least 18 points a game, he can’t get his due. Maybe that’s because he plays in Boston, which always seemed more interested in the heart, grit and attitude of a player rather than their style. “Flashy players,” says Gibson, “are the guys who normally get a lot of the attention.”

Or perhaps it was Pierce’s own fault. Boston doesn’t take kindly to athletes who fail to win or chuck threes and gloat or toss up “gang signs” in a playoff game or argue a no-call by showing up to the postgame podium with bandages wrapped around their face or get ejected from a playoff game and leave swinging their jersey like a helicopter or sulk during the midst of a last-place season.

During his younger years, Pierce did all of that.

“I’m sure there are going to be people who are not going to give Pierce his due because he is connected with a whole other world that they don’t like in basketball,” says Ryan, “which is unfortunate for him with those people because he is a truly great Celtic.”

Rivers always warns that to be considered a great team in Boston, you have to win multiple championships. The Celtics still believe they are owed one ring, whether from Kevin Garnett’s 2009 injury or last year’s 13-point Game 7 meltdown. As the best team in the East, with 47 All-Star appearances amongst their core and a predatory defensive mentality, Boston has all the credentials to add that eighteenth banner. But how long can they play like this? Can Garnett’s knee hold up? Will Shaquille O’Neal make a difference?

“It’s going to be a long hold-your-breath, cross-your-fingers, hope-everyone-stays-healthy, hope-they-can-maintain-and-be-ready-to-go in April type of season,” says Ryan. “Because if the playoffs started tonight, they would kick ass right to the Finals.”

Eventually, it’ll all come back to Pierce and how much he has left. It’s the Captain’s team, just as it has always been since he took his Draft snubbing and fanatically outplayed those picked before him; since former Celtic Antoine Walker surprisingly divulged that it was Pierce’s team way back when hardly any believed him; since Pierce complained in 2006 that he was just a great player on a horrible team; since he finally smelled the scent of true victory in 2008. He’s living in the moment for a team without a clue how long it will last, led by a player who’s hoping his game can survive a little longer.

“We are just finding ways to grind it out, man,” says Pierce. “We don’t have healthy bodies and you don’t know who is going to be out there night in and night out, so we gotta win differently it seems like every night. That’s the way it’s going to be. We aren’t making excuses. We just gotta find a way.”

No one really wants to talk about it, but Paul Pierce is on the cusp whether you realize it or not. This season, this moment, could be his defining act.

“We’ve got the Mount Rushmore here,” says Ryan. “We have the four faces. Nobody can argue the four Mount Rushmore faces here: Cousy, Russell, Bird, Havlicek.”

A second championship would force Pierce into that company. Some will argue Pierce is merely a good ballplayer and not a defining one. But to stand by that, they must overlook a playing lifetime that is quickly coming full circle, a career not necessarily in its twilight, but without a need to prove much else. Complete.

Go to Boston, wind around the endless maze of streets, down past the Holocaust Memorial and on to a frenzied Causeway Street and into the TD Garden and you will see Paul Pierce in the same realm as always. There he is slithering into the lane and finding Shaquille O’Neal with a left-handed pass for a dunk. Another time, Indiana guard T.J. Ford switches onto Pierce 20 feet from the hoop and is consistently kept so off-balance that Pierce backs him down under the rim for an easy layup. At the end of the night, it all adds up to another Boston win and the most unassuming 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds possible – a triple-double capper on Pierce’s NBA Player of the Week averages of 21.7 points, 8.7 assists and 8.3 rebounds.

“Paul discovered a long time ago the kind of player he wants to be,” Indiana coach and Pierce’s former coach in Boston, Jim O’Brien, said afterwards. “He wanted to be one of the best in the world and he is. Nothing he does surprises me.”

Philosopher Carl Jung once hypothesized that we process knowledge visually. Our eyes can direct our brain. The deeper the feelings of a visual experience, the more we can believe them. That’s Pierce’s problem. His game’s imagery is not always appealing and hasn’t always helped his popularity. But that should never stop anyone from appreciating Pierce for what he is.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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