Inside The NBA

April 15, 2001

Bouncing Back
Resilient Paul Pierce has lifted the Celtics into the playoff
hunt

During the nights in late October while the police were parked
outside his home, Celtics forward Paul Pierce would have dreams
in which three men were surrounding him, stabbing him over and
over as he helplessly cried out. "I had those dreams quite a
bit," says Pierce. "I would wake up and touch my scars." Then
he'd reassure himself that the nightmare--like the attack that
inspired it--was over.

In March the 6'7" Pierce averaged 30.3 points, lifted Boston
into playoff contention and was named NBA Player of the
Month--the first Celtic to be so honored since Larry Bird in
1986. The scars he carries make those feats seem more amazing
still. In the early morning of Sept. 25, 2000, Pierce was
chatting with two women during a private party at the Buzz Club
in downtown Boston when he was confronted by William Ragland,
who claimed to be a brother of one of the women. Pierce says he
turned to walk away. Then, according to the Suffolk County
prosecutor's office, Ragland and two friends, Tony Hurston and
Trevor Watson, allegedly went after Pierce, conking him with a
bottle. Pierce was then stabbed repeatedly in the torso, back
and neck, according to the prosecutor's office, which has
charged each of the men with armed assault with intent to
murder. All three have pleaded not guilty.

Pierce was conscious when his companions that evening, Celtics
center Tony Battie and Battie's brother, Derrick, rushed him to
New England Medical Center, a few blocks away. He underwent
emergency surgery to repair a collapsed lung, and when he
awakened, the doctors told him that his wounds had come within an
inch of killing him. "It's changed my life," Pierce says. "It
helped me grow up a lot faster and become closer with my family.
You never know when your time will come. I realize you can't take
the people around you for granted, including the fans--they helped
me pull through this."

While Bostonians have never fully accepted Antoine Walker, who
was booed after making a ball handling mistake in last Friday's
loss to the visiting Lakers, they have embraced Pierce as the new
embodiment of Celtic Pride. He solidified their support by
playing in a preseason game less than four weeks after the
attack. Having been elevated to co-captain alongside Walker,
Pierce was eager to set a good example for his teammates. In an
almost masochistic display of toughness, he absorbed five charges
during his second preseason game and was forced to the bench with
a sore sternum. "The coaches were amazed I kept taking those
charges," Pierce says. "I've surprised myself. I knew I would
come back, but I thought it would take a while for me to be in
the form I've been in this year."

Though he's forbidden to do any upper-body weight training
because of the scar tissue from his wounds, Pierce hasn't worn
down. Thanks to his amazing March he was averaging a career-high
25.3 points at week's end. He also ranked third in the league in
free throws attempted, behind Shaquille O'Neal and Jerry
Stackhouse. "As unlucky as we were in the '97 draft, when we lost
out on Tim Duncan in the lottery," says Celtics general manager
Chris Wallace, "we were just as lucky in '98 when Paul fell to us
at Number 10. He's one of the top three players in that draft,
along with Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki."

After coach Rick Pitino announced his resignation on Jan. 8, his
replacement, Jim O'Brien, trimmed the rotation from 11 men to
nine and surrounded Pierce and Walker with defensive-minded
players such as Bryant Stith and Eric Williams, freeing the
co-captains to run the offense. With that approach the Celtics
won five of seven games on the road in March to make a run at
the more talented Pacers for the final playoff spot in the East.
(At week's end Boston trailed Indiana by 1 1/2 games.) Though
Celtics fans don't like to give Walker credit--complaining that
the 6'9" power forward shoots more three-pointers (552 through
Sunday) than free throws (332)--he has established himself as a
team-minded player, willing to step aside and let Pierce lead
the way.

"They're two totally different players," says Williams. "Antoine
is finesse and spin; Paul is cutthroat. Paul knows when he's got
a player down, and when he does, he's going to go right at him."

Celtics sources say that O'Brien will probably be retained as
coach. It's a good bet that Wallace also will be kept on to
oversee a draft this June in which Boston could have as many as
three first-round picks. While chairman Paul Gaston has remained
silent on all management issues, he has let it be known that the
priority this summer is to sign Pierce to an extension before his
contract runs out after next season.

No matter where his career takes him, this season will mark a
turning point in Pierce's life. Though police no longer provide
around-the-clock protection, he has hired bodyguards to accompany
him when he does something as simple as shoot a game of pool in
Boston. The nightmares stopped months ago, but every morning he
awakens to the image of his scars in the bathroom mirror. "My
mother says the scars show character," Pierce says. "She's always
turning a negative into a positive. When I look at my scars, I
think about my mom, and it makes me smile."

The Fallout from Yugoslavia
Another Try For Reconciliation

In the late 1980s Yugoslavia appeared to be building an arsenal
of basketball talent that might have challenged the U.S. Dream
Teams in the Olympic Games the following decade. Those high hopes
crumbled with the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the resulting
wars involving the Serb government, Croatia, and Bosnia and
Herzegovina.

Now a reunification of sorts has been arranged by the NBA and the
international basketball federation (FIBA). Nine NBA players and
other professionals from the war-torn countries of the former
Yugoslavia will gather on June 29 in Treviso, Italy, to run a
four-day camp--called Basketball Without Borders--for 50 players
from their homelands between 12 and 14 years old. The adults will
renew old acquaintances with mixed feelings. Vlade Divac, a Serb,
recalls that the league's Croatian players tended to avoid him
after the Balkan wars began, in large part because the Serbs were
the aggressors.

"Now I hope everybody understands it was all stupid," says
Divac. "The war never should have happened. I'm looking at it
from a positive perspective, that we should be there to show we
respect each other and we don't want to hate each other like the
people back home."

As noble as Divac's intentions may be, it's not going to be that
easy. "I can't forget what has happened," says Pacers center Zan
Tabak, a 30-year-old Croatian. "Too many people from my country
died. I don't want to make it sound like I dislike Divac or
[Peja] Stojakovic [another Serb], but this is not about me going
over there to make friendships with them. This camp is something
we are doing for the kids. I don't think our people can ever live
together the way we lived before. But with this camp we are
trying to help the next generation live without hate."

Curse of the Nets
$55 Million in Injured Players

The Nets are headed for the lottery for the sixth time in seven
years, but don't accuse them of being the Eastern Conference
version of the Clippers. Unlike Donald Sterling's troubled team,
New Jersey is willing to spend. However, because of bad moves and
a horrible run of injuries, its salary-cap obligations include
$55.4 million for 10 players who were not available to them last
week. The team was laying out more for disabled bodies than eight
other clubs were spending on their entire rosters.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Nets president Rod
Thorn, whose hopes of making the playoffs have been dashed by two
broken legs and five surgeries. Last month starting point guard
Stephon Marbury (left pinky surgery) and Rookie of the Year
candidate Kenyon Martin (fractured fibia) were shut down for the
rest of the season, ensuring that for the fifth time in six years
the Nets will be ranked among the top five in games lost to
injuries and illness. "Each week it's been like waiting to see
who's going to be kicked off Survivor," says center Evan
Eschmeyer.

Some trace the curse of the Nets to their 1976 trade of Julius
Erving to the 76ers. Since then the team has endured the 1986
drug suspension of Micheal Ray Richardson and the 1993 death of
star guard Drazen Petrovic in a car accident in Germany. The
payroll is still encumbered by the $13.75 million salary of
Jayson Williams, who was forced into retirement by the broken
right tibia and kneecap he suffered two seasons ago. In a case
of insult truly being added to injury, the league denied the
team salary-cap injury exceptions for Williams and for guard
Kerry Kittles (knee surgery) last summer. "We were never going
to get the exception for Williams because the NBA doctors
believed he was coming back," Thorn says. "But I'm disappointed
about Kittles." The exception would have allowed New Jersey to
replace Kittles with a player earning $2.9 million this season.

Next year's team may not include forward Keith Van Horn, who
missed the season's first 32 games with a broken left leg; he
could be traded to fill some of the Nets' many needs, including a
shooting guard and a center. Thorn does not sound likely to deal
his most valuable commodity, Marbury, who made his first All-Star
team this year. A few guys are unlikely to be traded, says Thorn,
"and Stephon is in that group." Van Horn? "He's in that group,
but not to the extent that Marbury is."

Outside the Box Score
Getting the Jump on Marion

Knowing the book on explosive Suns forward Shawn Marion helped
Jermaine O'Neal and the Pacers hold on for an 85-81 victory over
Phoenix on April 3. Marion had grabbed his own rebound and was
going back up for a layup when O'Neal blocked his shot with 1:14
left and the Pacers leading 83-81. "He's a quick jumper," said
O'Neal, who has set an Indiana record for blocks this season,
with 209 at week's end. "He never fakes; he just jumps over
everybody. I knew he was going to put it right back up, and I was
able to time my jump."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL BAPTIST/NBA ENTERTAINMENT After a scary September and a scintillating March, Pierce has found a spot in Celtics fans' hearts. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Not all of the former Yugoslav players are as excited as Divac (right) about their reunion. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (PIATKOWSKI) COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Now sidelined with a bum finger, Marbury may be the ill-fated Nets' only clear-cut keeper.

Scout's TAKE

On the 76ers' acquisition of center Dikembe Mutombo:

"Losing Theo Ratliff and Toni Kukoc in the trade for Mutombo
changed the Sixers' chemistry, but it didn't set them back. They
were a quickness team; now they're more of a power team. While
Iverson has been in and out of the lineup with injuries, they've
tried to establish Mutombo on the offensive end, and he's made a
couple of moves lately that have shocked the hell out of me,
like a turnaround jump shot from the baseline that I'd never
seen him take before. They may go to him more in the playoffs
than people think."

Personal Choice
Clippers guard Eric Piatkowski

"When I was going to high school in Rapid City, S.Dak., I was
6'6", the same as I am now, and it seemed like the jerseys in the
50s were the only ones big enough to fit me. I'm glad I've kept
the number, because it's so different; usually you see guards
like me wearing numbers in the 30s or smaller. I've even put it
on my license plate--it's a Nebraska plate with a 52 right in the
middle."

Around The Rim

With each passing week more and more people around the league
believe that Michael Jordan is indeed trying to come back next
season. "He is coming back, I know that for a fact," says one of
the league's most respected scouts, who does not work for
Washington. "The Wizards are going to win with him, too." ...

Remember when $6 million was the price tag for building a
bionic man? Heat point guard Tim Hardaway is on the verge of
earning that much just by making good on the weight-incentive
clauses in his contract. The money has been well spent, too:
Hardaway has missed only one game because of illness or injury
this season. "He's always at 195 pounds and seven percent [body
fat], and his conditioning has been great," says Miami coach Pat
Riley....

The NBA and its future network partners might be wise to
consider building some scheduling flexibility into the new TV
deal, which begins in 2002-03. Two years ago the Kings were the
league's hot, attractive team, and the networks ignored them.
This season the Mavericks are among the NBA's most entertaining
teams, and yet at week's end they had appeared only once each on
NBC and Turner.... Under the category of Life's Not Fair: The
Mavericks' NCAA office pool was won by billionaire owner Mark
Cuban.

For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
cnnsi.com/basketball.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)