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Moment of truth

Pierce realized he had to grow to become a champ

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Staff / June 5, 2008

A year ago, maybe on this same day, Paul Pierce was home in Southern California, playing ball at UCLA, talking with another disgruntled superstar named Kobe Bryant. They made a small wager concerning who would be traded first.

Tonight they'll face off in Game 1 of the most-hyped, tradition-steeped championship series in the history of the National Basketball Association.

"I pretty much thought it was over," said Pierce. "I thought I was going to be a Los Angeles Clipper. I thought I was going to be anywhere but the Celtics."

Anywhere but here. Anywhere but the NBA Finals . . . maybe even the temple of doom that is the Clippers.

Pierce said he could write a book about what it took to arrive at this moment.

"It's a hell of a journey, man," he said. "You don't really understand it until you get close to where you want. There's times you want to give up and times you want to move on and you get so much satisfaction out of staying and sticking with it and seeing things turn around after all the things you go through. That's gratification for me. Those are the things I think about these days."

It's all good these days. We see him score 41 in his Game 7 tour de force against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Then we see him take over in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in the din of the Palace at Auburn Hills. We see him standing alongside John Havlicek, a Celtic captain from an earlier time, holding a conference championship silver ball, chanting "Beat LA!" And we wonder how Paul Pierce became a leader, almost overnight, at the end of his 10th season in Boston.

"It's about maturing," he acknowledged. "That's all it is. When I look back at all the dumb stuff I did - that's me, but hey, I was a young player, you're still learning the NBA. That's what helps you grow, learning from your mistakes."

All the dumb stuff.

He can talk about it now. He knows it's a long list. Walking around with a scowl on his face was dumb. Trying to do too much at the end of games by himself was dumb. Getting stabbed and almost killed in a Boston nightclub wasn't dumb, but it taught him a lesson about the road rules for star athletes.

It was dumb to get on the bad side of Team USA coaches George Karl and Gregg Popovich when our lads finished an embarrassing sixth at the Worlds in 2002. And the Paul Pierce of 2008 might not wear hideous fake bandage he strapped on his head for a press conference when the Celtics were beaten by the Pacers in the 2005 playoffs. Then there was that unfortunate statement he made to the Globe's Jackie MacMullan in March of 2007: "I'm the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks."

There are still flashes of petulance. Pierce was tagged with a fourth-quarter technical foul for throwing his headband in the Atlanta series. He also was fined $25,000 by the NBA for flashing a gang sign toward the Hawks bench. It seemed like a bump on the road to maturity.

"The guys that know me know exactly what I was doing," Pierce said. "Just because it was the playoffs and there's cameras on me, I got unfair justice."

But it was a gang symbol, right?

"It can be. But anything can be a gang gesture. This [he flashes V for 'victory' or 'peace'] can be a gang gesture and it actually is. It's whatever you interpret it as. I interpret it as something different, where a gang member is going to interpret it as a gang symbol."

Composure and maturity washed over Pierce and his teammates when they reached the conference finals.

"I think we kind of figured it out against Detroit," he said.

After two arduous seven-game sets against inferior teams, the Celtics finally learned how to play together and win on the road in the postseason. Pierce figured out how to be a leader.

"He took charge in Detroit before that last game," said veteran P.J. Brown, who has seen Pierce from both ends of the scorer's table. "Paul stood up and said, 'We're not coming back to Boston. We're going to get this done here.' He said what he had to say."

Pierce took over the game in the fourth quarter, obliterating Detroit's 10-point lead in minutes.

He also kept his cool when the Celtics trailed in the third quarter and Bennett Salvatore made one of the worst calls in league history. Salvatore tagged Pierce with an offensive foul on a play in which Pierce did nothing except drain a 3-pointer while Richard Hamilton crashed into him. Stripped of a potential 4-point play, Pierce did not overreact. He hardly reacted at all. He kept his head and went back to the business of cutting the heart out of Motown.

"I didn't let it frustrate me like probably in the past," he said. "I probably would have lost my poise, lost my cool, got a technical. But it would have been selfish of me and taking away from the team. So I just wanted to brush it off ."

He won't get drawn into any Pierce vs. Kobe themes.

"I don't get caught up in the matchups, trying to outduel somebody," said Pierce. "It's a team game, playing defense, doing what I can to help my ball club. It's not about going mano a mano with Kobe . . . Throughout the course of the game I'm going to find myself guarding him and he'll find himself guarding me. I'm not saying you can stop a player of Kobe's caliber. But you can make him work and make things a lot tougher on him. He's finally going to face one of the better defenses in the NBA."

From the beginning

Pierce grew up in Inglewood, Calif., in the shadow of Interstate 105 and sometimes saw Magic Johnson driving to work down Manchester Boulevard. He'd sneak into the Forum to see Laker games - "You've got to act like a little kid who ain't never had nothing," he said. "I did that a few times." - but couldn't score a free pass for the playoffs.

"That was hard," he remembered. "Security was up a little bit."

His game in the early years?

"I was a pudgy, little off guard standing outside shooting threes."

He was also stubborn and hard-working and his game improved considerably toward the end of his career at Inglewood High. Pierce was California Player of the Year and a McDonald's All-American as a senior. He chose Kansas because it was a basketball mecca and a place where a kid from the city could stay out of trouble. When he opted for the NBA draft after his junior year, he got his first taste of NBA disappointment.

Pierce thought he was going to be the second pick in the draft. He was not. He slid to 10th. Sitting there with his mom (Lorraine Hosey) all embarrassed in the Green Room in Vancouver, he was picked after Michael Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, college teammate Raef LaFrentz, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Robert Traylor, Jason Williams, Larry Hughes, and Dirk Nowitzki.

Much like Tom Brady, Pierce has never forgotten the slight. In his early years, Pierce regularly engaged in a solo shooting drill in which he would rotate from the perimeter, left to right, swishing a 3-pointer and hollering the name of each man drafted ahead of him.

Dropping to 10th wasn't the only problem. There was also Boston.

"I thought, 'Damn, not the Celtics! Then I thought, damn, not Rick Pitino.' "

He was worried about Pitino because he'd heard all the stories about players passing out in rigorous training camp drills. The Celtic bias was just part of where he grew up.

"Nobody west of the Mississippi liked the Celtics. Everybody wanted to see Magic Johnson and Showtime. The Celtics were the blue-collar team. They had the hard workers who'd grind it out. It was easy to grab on to the Lakers because of the style they played . . . I hated Danny Ainge. I think everybody hated Danny. He'd always get in other players' faces. But the guy was fiery and he helped the Celtics. I love the guy now."

All these years later it's hard to remember Pierce came to a Celtic team that already had a young superstar named Antoine Walker. 'Toine had played only two years in the league when Pierce was drafted, but he'd earned star status with a 22-point, 10-rebound per game sophomore season. Walker, was the man for the 36-46 nonplayoff Celtics.

Pierce immediately established himself as a force, but stayed in Walker's shadow for three full seasons in which the Celtics were consistently bad. There was a miraculous run to the conference finals in the spring of 2002, and by that time Pierce had assumed his rightful place as the best Celtic of his time.

A 22-year-old Pierce made headlines for the wrong reasons when he was assaulted in the Buzz Club Sept. 25, 2000. He was jumped by three men, suffered multiple stab wounds to the neck, face, and back and almost died. Doctors speculated Pierce's leather jacket may have saved his life.

"You've got to watch your back," Pierce said after the stabbing. "We are targets as basketball players. I'm more aware of where I'm going and who I'm with. People know who you are and are jealous of you and things like this happen."

He didn't have any tattoos back in those days. Pointing to his scars he said, "These are my tattoos now and they are here for life."

Today he has body art, plus a nifty nickname he got from Shaquille O'Neal. Paul Pierce is "The Truth." Boston's Pavlovian Garden crowd gets supercharged when the big board runs the famous scene from "A Few Good Men" and Jack Nicholson shouts, "You can't handle the truth."

Conflict abounds

For a lot of years the Truth seemed to be the one who couldn't "handle the truth." The Celtics were a sub-.500 team in six of Pierce's first nine seasons. Once-proud Boston was the hoop Hub of bad teams and bad luck and Pierce was the poster child for a franchise that bordered on irrelevancy. Pierce didn't like Pitino. Then he didn't like Doc Rivers. It was obvious. Pierce would stand apart from his teammates and coach during timeouts.

He didn't care much for his supporting cast. He was surrounded by the Ricky Davises of the world; teamed with kids right out of high school who didn't know how to play. Pierce put himself above his teammates and his coach.

"Me and Doc definitely bumped heads from the beginning," he said. "There were screaming matches, rebellion. I didn't think it was going to work between me and him. Doc would say, 'Paul, your body language and your attitude says a lot for the guys around you. I know you're not happy not winning games. But you have to know how if affects the rest of the guys. When your body language is low and you're not getting extra shots, it rubs off on the other guys.'

"I thought he was an iso [isolation] player," said Rivers. "I thought he could score a ton of points, but he'd be a 39 percent shooter and that's basically what he was. You would never win. I don't think any team wins with a guy just standing around holding the ball. I kept telling him, 'Who wants to play with that?' "

The Celtics tried to trade Pierce for Chris Paul the night of the 2005 NBA draft, but could not close the deal.

"I just had to go home and grow up," acknowledged Pierce. "It was a difficult situation. It was time to grow up, stop pouting, go out there and help these young guys out and things will work out. And that was my mind-set after the first year with Doc. So that was my attitude after that and I think that helped out my relationship with Doc and them wanting to keep me around because they saw the change in my attitude. Trying to get better as a Celtic regardless of the losing that was going on here."

At the end of 2007, Boston had 24 wins, no top lottery pick, and an aging star who wanted to get out of town.

Ainge didn't budge.

"We had to go in one direction or the other," said Ainge. "It was either go with Paul, or go young and start over. There was discussion. We decided we wanted to win with him here, rather than trade him and see someone else win with him. Our intention was to explore what we could do with Paul. I talked with him about it. I was sympathetic to the frustration he had, but I thought he dealt with it pretty well."

It sounded like baloney. Right up until Ainge acquired Ray Allen, then Kevin Garnett.

All aboard

From the beginning, there was nothing to sell. Everybody was buying.

"We all talked about everything," remembered Pierce.

"At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is winning the ballgame. Who cares who gets the last shot or who scores the most points? Who cares who gets the credit? If we win, we're all winners. We've all done so much in our careers, but we haven't won a championship. Once we were all in, that was it.

"A lot of people didn't think I could adjust to this and I was like, 'This is going to be easy for me because I got somebody that I can pass the ball to now.' Before it was hard for me to trust an 18-year-old rookie coming out of high school. You know what I mean? - I'm surrounded by players like that. So it's hard for me to trust them, but when you put me with Ray and Kevin and [James] Posey and Eddie [House] in the corner, it's easy. I'm going to give it up without a thought. I knew this whole thing would work because of all of us being unselfish."

"It's like he got let out of jail," said John Carroll, who was coach of the Celtics for a few months in 2004.

In a town where tradition matters, Paul Pierce is the link to Celtic past, good and bad. He played with Walker, who played with Dee Brown, who played with Larry Bird, who played with Dave Cowens, who played with Havlicek, who played with Bill Russell. Pierce played for Pitino and smelled Red's cigar smoke at practice. He has seen just about everything in his 10 years with the Celtics.

Everything but the raising of a championship banner.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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