DOES WINNINGmatter anymore? When sports are considered more entertainment than competition;when seasons and playoffs stretch for so long in so naked a grab for revenuethat the off-season feels like a week; when players make so much money that onegame lost, one or two or three seasons lost, can't affect the way they live ...can winning a championship possibly have the same power? ¬∂ It's impossible toavoid thinking like this whenever you walk into a sports palace like Boston'sTD Banknorth Garden. With plush carpets and a spread fit for Nero in the lockerroom, 104 luxury suites with whispering waiters and state-of-the-art, high-defscoreboards, it's not like the old Garden, smelling as it did like piss, smokeor your grandfather's shoes. Each detail declares its high-tech worth; you findyourself constantly thinking, That must've cost a ton. It all smells likemoney.
Especiallytonight, opening night 2008. In minutes they'll be handing out the championshiprings and hoisting the 17th championship banner for the Boston Celtics, but...
I've paid my dues...
(No, please. NotWe Are the Champions.)
December 8, 2008
Time after time...
...much haschanged since the 16th went up in 1986. The league, remember, was the hot youngthing then. The commissioner, the dynamic stars, the young-turk execs, all wereriding a phenomenon, a game that could displace baseball and threaten footballin the national conversation. Then came the pop-culture breakout: MichaelJordan won his first title in 1991 with the Chicago Bulls, weptuncontrollably—charisma finding greatness finding humanity—and pro basketballhad its unstoppable Elvis.
...I've done mysentence
But committed nocrime.
As ticket pricesclimbed, though, so did the need for distraction, a sleight of hand to cover uphow few players like Jordan there really were. NBA arenas became an evengreater bombardment of spectacle after he quit: dancers, endless noise,pyrotechnics. Confirmation that the hoopla had consumed the hoops came in 2006,when the defending champion Miami Heat staged an over-the-top opening nightcelebration and lost to Chicago by 42 points. Now it looks as though even thevenerable Celtics, one of the greatest franchises in sports history, willlaunch their own bit of wretched excess with Queen's schlock anthem.
But thensomething odd occurs. As Freddie Mercury starts his shriek, old Celticsfaces—calm, composed as if they hear no music at all—march in, single file.There's John Havlicek holding the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy, trailed byBob Cousy, JoJo White, Tom Heinsohn, M.L. Carr, Satch Sanders and CedricMaxwell. "Like the ghosts of Celtics past had been summoned," guard RayAllen says later. And it's true: Each championship era is represented, and therepresentatives beam as they close in on the 31-year-old man at centercourt.
There stands PaulPierce. The Celtics forward, once the seeming embodiment of what Jordansneeringly called "New Jack players"—underachieving and self-involved,persona non grata with the national team after leading it to its implosion in2002, bearer of a contract that will pay him $18,077,903 this season—is hunchedover. He's a wreck. Havlicek hands him the trophy, and Pierce dips his headonto the legend's right shoulder. Pierce lifts his head, tears streaming downhis cheeks, and it suddenly becomes clear that we're witnessing a rare momentin modern sports: not market-tested, not spun, close to pure.
The greats circlePierce, hugging the captain who erased 10 years of questions by leading Bostonover its archrival, the Los Angeles Lakers, in the 2008 Finals, the man whowent head-to-head with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and outplayed them,revealing himself as a winner. It is a welcome. "For Havlicek to pass thatto him?" says Celtics forward Kevin Garnett. "That was a generationpassing it down, saying, 'You're finally one of us. You're a made person.'"Pierce raises the golden prize above his head and shakes it at the crowd:19,000 throats bellow. He glances at the trophy, shakes it again, cheeks shinyand wet, mouth gaping; the man can barely breathe. He sets the trophy down on atable and staggers off.
But it's notover. When Pierce walks back out minutes later to receive his ring, he's stillweeping, and he files down the line of league and team execs saying "Thankyou, thank you" to each. He hugs his coach, Doc Rivers, and general managerDanny Ainge and, after helping raise the banner, turns on his heel and burrowsinto the crowd. He finds his mother, the woman who raised him alone, and givesthe ring to her.
Lorraine Hoseykisses her son. "You've waited your whole life for this," she says.
And maybe that'sit, why Pierce is carrying on in a way his family and friends have never seenbefore. Jason Crowe, his best friend for 17 years, had never seen him cry, notafter heartbreaking high school losses, not after one of their teammates wasmurdered, not even after Paul himself almost died.
So many of theimportant people in Pierce's life are here tonight: Uncle Mike, who raised thebasket in the driveway where he learned to play; his idol and half brotherSteve Hosey; the high school coaches who served as the father he never had.Even that man—the dad—he's here, too, though he's not, his absence the samemassive presence it has been since Pierce was very young.
This can't bereal, Pierce thinks as he makes his way to the bench. His teammates are on thecourt, shooting warmups, but he sinks into a chair. He blows out his cheeks."Get it together," Pierce says out loud, and then a fan yells, "Doit again, Paul!" and he drops his head into his hands. No: It happened. Itreally happened. When Pierce looks up, his eyes are red. He tugs on his rightknee brace. He rubs his hands into his face.
And that's whenyou know: yes. Winning can still matter, still trump coin, comfort and cheapfame. The next question is why.
TWICE IN hislife, men have left Paul Pierce in profound pain. It's too glib to say that'sthe reason he is a champion today, but being a victim has provided him a uniquefuel. He's also been given great ability, especially to probe other men forweaknesses and beat them in a very public way—victimizing them, no less—and thetricky part is figuring out which is more important, the ability or the fuel.Pierce doesn't give a lot of clues. He's about as easy to read as an EasterIsland monument. "There can be a fire going on all around him," Crowesays, "and if you look at his face? You won't know."
But Pierce maynot know either; pain can breed complications, a lifetime of inner conflict.That's why, though stunned to see him so emotional, those in his campunderstood. He is a basketball player, after all, whose ambivalence toward hissport can be summed up by the tattoo he commissioned two years ago for his leftforearm, the one depicting a knife plunging into a basketball and framed by thewords MY GIFT, MY CURSE. Pierce keeps that covered on the court with asweatband, but if you're looking—and he wants you to look—know that in whatshould be his season of supreme contentment, of peace at last, Pierce has aminiature version emblazoned on the side of his game sneakers, complete withthe initials MG/MC. Whenever he hits the court, Pierce is literally a walkingcontradiction.
So, yes, it makesperfect sense that in an era when stars bounce city to city, Pierce emerged inthe Celtics' shakiest era as their one constant. It makes sense that hiscollege coach, Roy Williams, can speak about Pierce's ferocious desire and thentalk of throwing him out of practice for wearing "that casual, careless,it-doesn't-mean-that-much kind of look." Or that Pierce, who early onundermined Rivers by snarling, "Why the hell'd you take me out of thegame?" for all of Boston to hear, revered Red Auerbach, treasuring eachfoul cigar the Celtics patriarch slipped him as if it were made of gold.
And that, ofcourse, may be the most delicious contradiction: Paul Pierce sitting with Red,beginning a career that now ranks as one of the greatest in the franchise'shistory. Because growing up in Los Angeles, Pierce hated the BostonCeltics.
For the longesttime his vision of the future was tinted purple-and-gold, and it wasn't just adream of basketball. It was the dream NBA life that a 14-year-old boy saw whenhe'd sneak into games at the Forum in Inglewood or see the players' sweet ridesparked outside the gym at Inglewood High, where they sometimes practiced andwhere Paul would become a star. Paul would worm his way into some of thosepractices, too, trying to glimpse the collective spark igniting thathigh-octane offense, the blinding passes. Magic, Kareem, Worthy: They werewinners, those men, deep-voiced and cocky. They had such a presence.
Pierce didn'thave that at home. As a kid growing up in Oakland, he had Steve Hosey andanother half brother, Jamal Hosey, eight and 14 years older, respectively, andfor a time they filled the dad role. Chubby and feisty, Paul hated to lose anygame. In kindergarten, he'd survey their awards and declare, "I'm going tohave more trophies than both of you guys put together."
But when Paul waseight, Steve got a scholarship to play baseball at Fresno State, and Lorrainemoved to L.A. with her youngest son to be near her ailing mother. There shescouted out coaches and pastors who could make good role models, and made surePaul became more than just another kid to them. There was an uncle who kept himin line, and another to take him to play in the grown-men games on Saturdays atAthens Park. But Lorraine worked as a nurse and, though she made sure to driveher son to every practice, when extra shifts came open, she'd grab them, and atdinnertime Paul would be making noodles in an empty house. He was on his own.You could feel the longing.
George Piercenever lived with Lorraine. Paul was no more than six the last time he saw hisdad.
Cornelia Pierce,George's wife, answers the phone at their home. She's cordial but has littledesire to open old wounds. "I'm a strong woman," she says. "I'veprayed over it and I've accepted the whole situation; in fact, I watch many ofPaul's games. I feel that Paul is an innocent bystander, as well as I am. I'm aChristian woman, so I look at things from the positive side and I don't haveany regrets, or any attitude or anything. George and I have been married for 45years."
Paul and Lorrainemoved to Inglewood in 1988, and that year Jamal Hosey saw George Pierce onelast time. "I yelled at him, 'You know, you got a great kid! You at leastcould call him, you bum!'" Jamal says. "Then my wife pulled me, and Iwalked away."
SPRAWLED BENEATHthe jet paths of the L.A. airport, hardscrabble Inglewood didn't expect much ofPaul Pierce. When at 13 he announced that he wanted to be a garbageman, hismiddle-school teacher replied, "That's pretty good." But he was alsostudying those Lakers and playing ball every chance he got.
Briefly sent downto junior varsity in his sophomore year at Inglewood High, Pierce was theteam's star by season's end. The next year he was one of California's toprecruits, turning up for classes still sweaty from the 5:30 a.m. sessions runby assistant coach Scott Collins, a local policeman. "If it was making apass, getting a rebound, the last-second shot? Whatever it took to win, thatwas Paul Pierce in high school," says Inglewood High coach Patrick Roy."He was everywhere."
Pierce went offto Kansas in 1995 and led a talent-rich team that went 69--6 in his final twoseasons. Now that NBA dream life was close. He left school after his junioryear, sailed into the 1998 draft hearing talk that he could go as high as No.3, yet when the day came, Paul sat unpicked as future journeymen MichaelOlowokandi, Raef LaFrentz, Robert Traylor and Jason Williams skipped up to thepodium. The Celtics snapped him up at No. 10: more fuel for the furnace. Thatfall Pierce practiced jumpers while shouting out the names of every playertaken ahead of him.
"I've alwaysbeen the Rodney Dangerfield of this game," he says. "Maybe it was meantto be that way, but that always drove me. If somebody said, 'You're going to bethe Number 1 pick, you're going to have a great team around you all theseyears'? It would've been too easy."
It didn't takelong to prove himself. He and Antoine Walker became one of the league'stop-scoring tandems, and if the 6'7" Pierce was not your classicaerodynamic swingman, opponents still found his first step impossible to stop,his shot nearly unblockable. He rebounded, swatted away shots; by his secondseason Pierce was among the league leaders in steals. But most unusual,perhaps, was his sense of calm. Pierce never seemed rushed, no matter howfrenetic the pace. "One of the best tempo scorers I've ever seen," saysRivers. "He just puts the defender on a string all night. They're dropping,off-balance ... but he's always balanced."
After the gameshe could play too. Pierce liked bars and clubs; he was known to get togetherwith friends and have a time, and off-season nights in L.A. could stretch tilldawn. In his early college years it wasn't unusual for him and Crowe to bolt aclub at 3 a.m., grab a bite and then head to Manhattan Beach to sprint the sandhills. "Play basketball, chase girls and have fun," Crowe says."And do each with the same aggression."
It didn't let upwhen Pierce moved to Boston. "He was competitive in everything: a game ofH-O-R-S-E, a game of cards, an evening out," says Orlando Magic forwardTony Battie, a former Celtics teammate. "We'd get together and hang prettyrough and party pretty hard, but he would be the first one in the gym in themorning, talking smack. You'd get in at 9 o'clock and think you're early, butPaul was there at 7:30. He'd out-party you, then get his lift in while you werestill sleeping off the night before."
On Sunday night,Sept. 24, 2000, Pierce had just returned home from dinner with Steve Hosey inBoston when Battie called. Paul hung up and told his brother he'd be back soon.Steve was in town from California; the two would be playing in a golftournament the next day. Hosey went to his room, began sorting through theclothes he'd wear on the course, when a voice shot through his head: You're notgolfing tomorrow.
Hosey shrugged itoff. The feeling rolled through him again. He looked out the window, checkingfor snow or rain: nothing. He got into bed, turned off the light. Twentyminutes later he sat up, unable to shake the sense that something was wrong.Such a thing had never happened before, so he got on his knees to pray. Hedidn't know why.
Then the phonerang.
IT WAS just past1 a.m. on Sept. 25 when Pierce, along with Battie and Battie's brother,Derrick, arrived at Boston's Buzz Club. What happened next took mere minutes:The Batties veered off for the men's room, Pierce strolled through the poolroom. When he leaned down to talk to two women, a man stepped forward and said,"That's my sister." Pierce said, "No disrespect," and tried tobackpedal. "Next thing you know," he says, "all hell breaksloose."
A champagnebottle crashed against the side of his head, and a swarm of men descended,punching, stabbing, windmilling blows from all angles. At least two bladesflashed. One sliced three times into Pierce's abdomen, with one jab slicing hisdiaphragm, puncturing a lung and plunging to within a half-inch of hisheart.
By the time theBatties emerged from the men's room, security guards had dragged Pierce to astairwell. Blood streamed from six gashes on his face. He noticed his shirt waswet, peeled it back and saw his wounds, put his hands on them "to hold theblood," he says. He had been stabbed five times between his shoulderblades, too. He didn't know that, though, until the Batties had gotten him intotheir car and were weaving through traffic to get him to a nearby hospital. Inthe emergency room, Pierce kept asking, "Am I going to live?"
He wasextraordinarily lucky. The surgeons were able to operate using minimallyinvasive instruments and didn't have to open up Pierce's chest. But for theonce-mighty Celtics it still felt like another bewildering blow; the suddendeaths of Len Bias in 1986 and Reggie Lewis in '93 had crippled efforts torebuild in the post--Larry Bird era. The Red Sox had their Curse of theBambino, but Celtics stars were finding it hard to stay alive.
Pierce stayedjust four days in the hospital and was back playing three weeks later, but someof the wounds weren't physical. Once an outgoing, almost clownish presence,Pierce kept to himself at home; the Celtics arranged for a 24-hour guard there.He talked with fewer and fewer friends and family members as the months woreon. "It really messed me up in the head," he says. "I saw a shrink,a psychiatrist, a couple of times and I was like, 'You know what, man? I don'twant to talk to you no more; this is bothering me.' I didn't feelcomfortable."
A year after thestabbing, Pierce went to a tattoo parlor in Venice Beach and tried to reclaimhis body his way: with a massive ink job across his back, over the fivepurplish wounds. It was his own design—the hands of God holding his heart, withwings and a halo and the words CHOSEN ONE unrolling below. Pierce removes hisshirt, steps under a spotlight in his living room, points. "When they weregoing over all my scars, some of the marks right here?" Pierce says."They were hurting still."
But when, inSeptember 2002, it came time for the trial, Pierce was not the star witness theprosecution had hoped for. By the time Pierce took the stand, two key witnesseshad already recanted their grand-jury testimony. Pierce had identified one ofthe three defendants—William Ragland, Trevor Watson and Anthony Hurston—whilein the hospital, and ID'd another two weeks later, both through photographs.But at the trial assistant district attorney John Pappas lost confidence thatPierce could provide a positive identification of his assailants on the witnessstand. So Pappas didn't ask.
It wasn't a totalflip, says former Boston federal prosecutor Paul Kelly, now the NHL Players'Association head, but "anybody with a sense of the system—lawyers, policeofficers, court officials—we all knew somebody either got to these witnesses orfear overtook them and, frankly, Paul Pierce."
Pierce laughs atthe idea, pointing to the six-year contract extension he agreed to as heawaited the start of the trial. "If I was scared," he says, "whywould I re-sign with Boston?" He says that he simply couldn't be sure themen in court were the same ones who stabbed him. The club was dark, the attackfast and furious. The jury acquitted all three men on the charge of armedassault with intent to murder; Ragland was convicted of assault and battery bymeans of a dangerous weapon and sentenced to a seven-to-10-year prison term,Watson was convicted of assault and battery and sentenced to one year, andHurston was acquitted of all charges. Pierce declined to make a victim-impactstatement at sentencing. He was alive. He just wanted it all to go away.
Still, one memoryremains vivid. In the days and weeks after the stabbing, Pierce wondered if thegruesome news might finally be enough to flush his father out. Each day Paulwould sift through the messages and supportive letters from strangers, fans,friends. "I'm here: I could've died," Pierce says. "And to neverget a phone call or a letter from him? That really hurt me for a long time. Iwas like, Man, he didn't even reach out or nothing. That hurt me to where Iwas, like, If he dies? I don't even care."
AND THAT NBAdream life: Where was that, anyway? Winning titles like Magic's Lakers? Piercehad three straight losing seasons in Boston, and his own slick-haired coach,Rick Pitino, scurried back to college a failure. Hitting clubs? Being famous?It had nearly killed him, and it laid bare in nightmarish relief the flip sideof being a pro athlete, what Pierce calls his "curse." Riches andadulation, of course, he had figured on. But with it came a new responsibilityto care for family and friends, "all the stress that comes with you finallyhaving money," he says. Pierce was sure his stabbing had grown out of"the jealousy, the envy" that comes with celebrity.
All that waspuzzling enough, but now, after his best season yet, after Pierce had led theCeltics to the 2002 Eastern Conference finals, even his game was being calledinto question.
It's not thatPierce didn't work. He'd show up to practice at all hours, even on off days.One night during the 2001--02 season then Celtics coach Jim O'Brien looked downfrom his office and saw Pierce on a treadmill, "and I don't mean jogging: Imean sprints," O'Brien says. "He's completely drenched. I said, 'Whatthe hell you doing?' And he said, 'There are no days off.' That's who PaulPierce is."
It's not that helacked toughness, either.No one could scoff when Shaquille O'Neal dubbed Piercethe Truth. New Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck knew that in 2002, when he saw Pierceplay on after the Phoenix Suns' Amaré Stoudemire knocked out two of his teethand the bloody pieces slid across the Garden floor and stopped at Grousbeck'sfeet.
But whenmeasuring greatness, it all came down to the word win. Celtics great KevinMcHale sniffed that Pierce "couldn't carry Larry Bird's jock," andafter Pierce led the U.S. to a sixth-place finish at the 2002 worldchampionships—with coach George Karl benching him against Argentina and sittinghim in the fourth quarter of the final game against Spain—the notion gainedcurrency. Suddenly Pierce was tagged as selfish.
"Paul and I?It was obvious at the end that we were battling," Karl says. He'll say onlythat Pierce wasn't always "committed" to areas beyond scoring andtended to force "his personality on the game. And when that happens, thegame has a way of slapping you."
The slaps keptcoming. In 2003 Pierce had his first playoff triple double in the second roundagainst New Jersey and led Boston in postseason assists and scoring. But theCelts lost to the Nets, and when Ainge took over as general manager that May,he unloaded Walker. "He didn't think highly of me and Antoine at all, and Iknew this," Pierce says. "So I'm already thinking, He's not feeling mygame; I don't need to try to build a relationship because he already doesn'tlike me and just traded Antoine. Maybe I'm next."
Pierce wanted toplay for the U.S. again at the 2004 Olympics, but his reputation was intatters. Roy Williams, an assistant on the U.S. staff for those Games, triedfor two years to convince his colleagues that everyone had gotten Pierce wrong."I was the only guy bringing his name up," Williams says, "and itwasn't getting anywhere."
His sell wasn'tmade any easier by Pierce's demeanor. The stabbing, the trial, the losses, theselfish label—all of it combined to drive Pierce further into a shell. Therewere times, Battie says, when he'd see his friend sink into "his own zone,his own little space" where no one was welcome. Paul stopped callingeveryone in the family except Lorraine; his mother would implore him to phonehis brothers, and Paul would say yes. But six more months could pass without acall.
After thestabbing, Pierce was warming up for a game against the Golden State Warriors inOakland when someone from the stands called, "Hey Paul! I'm Billy!"Pierce glanced up. It was his half brother Billy Pierce. And Billy is certainthat he heard Paul call back, "My brother?" Then George and Cornelia'sson came down courtside. The two men had never met. Billy told Paul that he hadcalled the hospital when Paul was convalescing. He asked if they could speakafter the game.
Paul says thepregame meeting "could've happened," but he doesn't remember. MaybeBilly misheard, or Paul was distracted or inclined back then to write offanyone named Pierce. But when the horn sounded at game's end, Paul ran into thelocker room without looking back. Billy says he wants no money. He has a goodlife as a truck driver, and his kids' favorite player is Paul Pierce.
"I'm the onlychild," Billy says. "I had a sister who passed away as a baby, and thewhole time Paul was in Oakland, I was like, I wish I could see my brother. But... bad situation, I guess.
"I love mybrother. I would love to know my brother. If he doesn't want to know me? O.K. Iwould wish at least he and our father can sit down and have some closure.Because I have kids, by two different mothers, and one thing I have learned? Iwill not allow my kids to grow up the way me and Paul grew up—not knowing eachother."
DOC RIVERS tookover as Boston coach in 2004, and for half of that season he and Pierceclashed. The Celtics were rebuilding and had used three first-round picks tobring in Al Jefferson, Delonte West and Tony Allen. Rivers wanted Pierce totrust his young teammates more and stop playing his ponderous isolation game.Trust? With a championship looking ever more distant, Pierce didn't trust Aingeto get the winning players the team needed and didn't trust Rivers's approach.Boston's first-round playoff loss to Indiana in 2005 put another dent inPierce's image. After getting ejected from Game 6 for throwing a retaliatoryelbow with 12.9 seconds left in regulation, he peeled off his jersey and walkedoff the court at Conseco Fieldhouse waving it. Auerbach, the Celtics' eminence,called the display "embarrassing." It came as no shock to hear, ondraft night two months later, that Ainge was close to dealing Pierce for therights to rookie guard Chris Paul.
When that dealfell through, it looked like star and team would be stuck in one of those badNBA marriages. But during the two awful seasons following 2005, Pierce nevertuned the coach out. Rivers kept waiting for Pierce's supposed selfishness tokick in, but "even though it wasn't working—and he was fighting it—he wasstill trying to do [what was needed]," Rivers says. "That's not aselfish person."
The team won just24 games in 2006--07, and late in the season Pierce told a Boston reporter,"I'm the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks."Yet such foot-stomping had become more exception than rule; Ainge, Rivers, hisbrothers Jamal and Steve had noticed that, as Pierce says, "my spiritsreally changed." He had been seeing a woman named Julie Landrum since '05,and Pierce credits her with teaching him to think more positively and"keeping me happy." Out for nearly half the '06--07 season withinjuries, Pierce watched Boston lose a record 18 straight. He realized that, at29, he was as far as ever from winning a title, and his first impulse was topublicly demand a trade. Landrum talked him out of it.
Instead, in amidseason meeting with Ainge, Grousbeck and managing partner Stephen Pagliuca,Pierce calmly ran through the options: trading him to a veteran team,rebuilding around young talent. Grousbeck insisted he wanted Pierce to retire aCeltic and would pay to build a winner. "I believed them this time,"Pierce says. "I thought, All right. I finally heard it from the horse'smouth."
Proof came onlywhen Ainge engineered the trades, in June and July 2007, for perennialAll-Stars Garnett and Allen. This is your opportunity, Pierce thought. Don'tlet it go to waste. Any fear that he wouldn't be able to share the ball, thestage, dissolved. "First day of camp, you knew: He wanted to win sobad," Rivers says.
When GeorgePierce returns the call, he speaks briefly, says he has watched his son play onTV. He has just one photograph, taken when Paul was four or five. Georgeremembers that he was supposed to pick Paul up once, but he had to work anddidn't show. George says he's had his ups and downs, and "some things thatshouldn't have happened did." It's not clear if he's talking about hisrelationship with Lorraine or Paul or the fact that he never spoke to his sonagain.
"Why don'tyou do this," George says. "Why don't you get ahold of him and have himcall me?"
The Celticsbolted to a 30--4 start, and anyone could see that Garnett and Allen had freedPierce. He had carried the scoring load for so long that his all-around gamenow came as a revelation. With Garnett's presence enabling him to gamble on thedefensive end, and Allen's outside shooting providing a payoff for his passes,Pierce took the fewest shots of his career and had the season of his life. Heaveraged 19.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.26 steals. He made theAll-Star team for the sixth time. He began changing minds.
"What I sawwas commitment," Karl says. "If the game said, 'Be a defender'? He wasa defender. If the game said, 'Be a rebounder'? He was a rebounder. If the gamesaid, 'Be an orchestrator'? He was an orchestrator. He made his career scoringpoints, but last year? What the game asked him to do, he did."
Pierce missed hisfirst game of the season on April 4, when Landrum, now his fiancée, gave birthto their daughter, Prianna Lee. He cut the umbilical cord, changed diapers andcame back even more motivated. Boston struggled to eliminate the Atlanta Hawksin the first round of the playoffs, and the pressure mounted as Cleveland camenext. Pierce and Garnett shared the scoring burden as the Celtics and theCavaliers split the first six games, but the plan for Game 7, Garnett says,was: Get the ball to Paul Pierce and get the hell out of the way.
Pierce didn'twait. He stole the ball from LeBron James on Cleveland's first possession,setting the tone. The two traded impossible baskets all afternoon—James scoring45, Pierce 41—but it was Pierce's dive to beat James to the tip of a jump ballwith one minute left that sparked visions of Bird's 1987 pickoff againstDetroit. It was Pierce's killer free throws with 7.9 seconds left—the first onebouncing high off the back of the rim like Don Nelson's prayer in 1969—thatsent James home.
Then, in thedeciding Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons, Piercescored 12 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter at Auburn Hills, and Bostoncame back to win, and the whole time he looked more alive than anyone had everseen him. Pierce grabbed Rivers in a hug at series' end. "Thanks forsticking with me," he said.
Pierce'sperformance in the Celtics' dismantling of the Lakers in the Finals sealed thetransformation. In Game 1 he left the court with a knee injury, but he returnedto hit two three-pointers and give Boston the lead for good. In Game 2 he ledthe Celtics in scoring and held off L.A.'s desperate comeback with two key freethrows and a block on Sasha Vujacic's three-pointer. With Boston down 18 at thehalf of Game 4, Pierce demanded that Rivers let him guard Bryant, then doggedthe Lakers guard relentlessly, blocked one of his jumpers and held him to6-of-15 shooting, and the Celtics fought all the way back to win and take a3--1 series lead.
Pierce, theFinals MVP, would outplay Bryant again in the next game and Boston would win insix, but the championship—and Pierce's legacy—was secured in Game 4. GeorgeKarl is 57 and has seen the greatest, from Russell to Jordan, produce the kindof basketball that can make a coach swoon. He was in the building for theCelts' miraculous comeback and saw it up close.
"Probably thebest half of basketball I can remember one player playing," Karl says.
PAUL PIERCE knewthat many observers figured he would spend the off-season celebrating in Vegas,getting fat and happy with last summer's win. And yes, he did his share ofpartying. But despite Rivers's orders not to come back to town till campopened, Pierce returned a month early, nine pounds lighter, his body moretoned. "He came in the first day," Garnett says, "and the manlooked like he was on steroids or something. You know what I'm saying? He'scommitted. He was telling me, 'I'm ready.'"
The night beforethe opener, Pierce drove the seven minutes from his house to the team's emptytraining center and spent an hour drilling alone. "My time to zone in andsee the game the way I picture it," he says. "My way." Then he wentto dinner with the dozen or so people he had flown in for the ceremony, andSteve Hosey saw him hovering over his baby and fiancée, and edged over to hughim and tell Paul how he couldn't feel prouder of the journey he had made.
But it wasn'tover. Pierce has proven himself, and he's enough of a player to pound his chestabout it; when people asked this summer about Kobe, he would say, "I thinkI'm the best player in the world." But somewhere along the way, he feltthis ... shift. A championship had always been the goal, the way to quietcritics and tell the thugs they'd only made him stronger and, maybe, show thatman what he had missed out on. But in the months after, Pierce found that heenjoyed how others—his brothers, cousins and uncles—enjoyed his success morethan he did. He found himself feeling that his time in the delivery room,seeing his daughter born, was better than winning it all. "It wasunreal," he whispers. It made him decide some things.
"I don't wantto be the dad that my father was," Pierce says. "I want to see my childgrow. Who knows if I would've made it if he had been involved? Who knows if Iwould've been that much better? Who knows? But I'm sure his influence wouldn'thave hurt those times I fell off my bike or didn't have nobody to rebound forme. I want to be there for my daughter—when she falls, to pick her up. When sheneeds help with homework."
For the firsttime, too, Pierce feels ready to reach out to his father. "I want to atleast contact him and talk to him," he says. "I think now, as a man, Ican swallow whatever his reason was to not be there. Right now, I feel liketalking to him and asking him, Why?"
Told that GeorgePierce had asked him to call, Pierce pauses, says, "Oh, yeah? Did hereally?" Offered the number, he says, "Sure ... I do want it. Ido," and then he repeats the digits back, slowly, to make certain he'sgotten them right. Then he takes Billy's number.
When Piercearrived at the Garden for the opener, he carried with him one of Auerbach'scigars. He placed it in his locker, where he plans to leave it until theseason's last day, when he'll smoke it after Boston wins title number 18. Thenhe walked out and received the trophy crying and gave a speech to thank thepeople who raised him, and all the coaches and relatives and friends cried,too. It made the long wait seem right. "Because we know he can appreciateit," Steve said moments later. "Sometimes young guys can't. But he can;he's there. It's the right time. It doesn't get any better than this."
But down on thefloor, the ceremonies were over and LeBron James and the Cavaliers were tryingto spoil everything. Emotions spent, Pierce and the Celtics trailed by seven atthe half, and who would've blamed them for losing? Then Pierce snapped his teamto life, starting the third period with a three-pointer, hitting another toanswer a James jumper, scoring 11 to spark a 24--13 run that put Boston up forgood. The Truth had beaten King James again: That's how the sports shows wouldplay it.
But somethingabout the comeback, the whole night, resisted the usual reductive hokum.Nicknames are kids' stuff, really, and aren't much good at summing upcomplicated struggle. The truth? He swallowed his tears and got to work. PaulPierce got through another hard night, and he's had enough of those to becalled a man at last. Some would call that winning, too.
Pierce's ambivalence toward his sport can be summed upby one tattoo: a knife in a basketball and the words MY GIFT, MY CURSE.
"For Havlicek to pass that trophy to him,"says Garnett, "that was a generation saying, 'You're finally ONE OFUS.'"
A blade punctured a lung and plunged very near to hisheart. In the ER, Pierce kept asking, "AM I GOING TO LIVE?"
"I could've died," Pierce says. "To neverget a call or a letter from my father, THAT REALLY HURT ME for a longtime."
Pierce has proved himself and is enough of a player topound his chest about it: "I think I'M THE BEST PLAYER in theworld."
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