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Pierce’s game is city slick

Celtics star may be best ever from LA

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 31, 2010

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The legacy of Paul Pierce as a Celtics great has grown with every All-Star appearance, team record, and playoff win. And Pierce’s role in Boston’s unlikely march to a second NBA Finals in three years also cements his status as a Los Angeles-area legend.

Pierce played at Inglewood High School, just minutes from the Forum, and his career for the Sentinels was stellar, earning him a scholarship to the University of Kansas. While his numbers were impressive and the Sentinels won a division title during his tenure, Pierce left Inglewood as one of the handful of standout players from the area.

Leaving Kansas fifth at the school in scoring in just three seasons added to Pierce’s résumé, but his reputation has grown exponentially as his NBA accomplishments have multiplied, and being on the verge of a second NBA Finals appearance against his hometown Lakers has added to his legend.

There have been some great players from the Los Angeles area, including Marques Johnson, Gail Goodrich, Byron Scott, Reggie Theus, and Paul Westphal, and Pierce has joined that group. He is on the verge of the 20,000-point mark. An eight-time All-Star and the 2008 NBA Finals MVP, he could be poised to join the Mount Rushmore of Celtic greats.

That arguably makes him the best player ever to emerge from the Los Angeles area.

“Paul, based on what he has accomplished, just the eight-time All-Star would have to make him one of the top three or four guys to come out of this area,’’ said Johnson, who starred at Crenshaw High, UCLA, and with the Milwaukee Bucks. “The fact he has led a team to a championship, he’s threatening to etch his name on the top of that list. It’s hard for me to give it up, I give it up begrudgingly, but when you look at his total body of work, you have to.’’

Johnson has a special connection with Pierce, whom he first saw while coaching his son, Kris, at the Inglewood YMCA. Kris went on to play at UCLA and helped the Bruins to a national championship as a freshman. Marques watched a pre-teen Pierce back down older opponents for his customary elbow jumpers.

“Paul was killing, and I am thinking he was a pretty solid 14-year-old,’’ Johnson said. “And when I asked his coach how old he was, he was like, ‘12 or 13,’ and he was a year or two younger than the rest of the guys. And it was like, ‘OK, this kid here is special.’ And I watched him play at UCLA against pros when he was about 15 or 16 and he was able to do things real effortlessly. When a kid looks like he belongs and excels and dominates at times, you know he was a special player. And we’ve always known he was a special player. I am really, really proud of the way his career has taken off.’’

While the Los Angeles area has produced unquestionable talent, it has not always resulted in NBA success. Johnson was the third overall pick in the 1977 draft and played 10 years before injuries ended his career. He never reached an NBA Finals. And the same can be said for Inglewood High alumnus Theus, who tallied 19,000 points but played in just 17 playoff games. Pierce has played in 94.

Scott helped the Lakers win three titles but mostly as a third or fourth option. Los Angeles has been devoid of great players who have had great team success, until Pierce.

“Any time you see one of your hometown guys doing the things that he does, especially for me because he’s an Inglewood High guy, it’s great,’’ Theus said. “No matter how great you are, there is no guarantee that you are going to win a championship.’’

Because of this lack of overall team success, Los Angeles has not been considered a hotbed for basketball talent similar to cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington. Perhaps the greatest player ever to hail from the city never played an NBA game. Raymond Lewis was the California player of the year at Verbum Dei High School in 1970 and ’71 and averaged 38.9 points per game while a freshman at Cal State-Los Angeles.

He was the 18th pick in the 1973 draft by the 76ers but was told to take some time to mature during training camp and never made an NBA appearance.

He spent the next 20 years as a schoolyard legend and still holds the unofficial title as the greatest Los Angeles-area player.

Another star-crossed legend was John Williams, who was one of the first Los Angeles-area players to leave Southern California for college, playing for Dale Brown at LSU. A serious knee injury and weight problems prevented Williams from fulfilling his NBA potential, after he was drafted 12th overall by the Bullets in 1986.

“To me [it begins] with the Raymond Lewis era,’’ said Stevie Thompson, a standout at Crenshaw High and Syracuse University in the early 1990s. “I saw him play when I was a young buck, but his legend goes on. When you come out of the inner city and you are one of their best players coming out of high school, people think you should be the LeBron James of the NBA. The pressure that comes from these inner cities, and sometimes people from a small city comes and passes him up.’’

Pierce has gained the ultimate respect from his Los Angeles counterparts for his accomplishments. He will return to his hometown Thursday for Game 1 of the NBA Finals as arguably the city’s greatest basketball product.

“In terms of what he’s done as a pro, I would say there’s none better,’’ Thompson said. “There have been guys who have won championships, but I am not sure if there has been one who has won it as the No. 1 guy. When it comes down to the fourth quarter, he’s going to get the ball. So I would have to say Pierce is the best.’’

Johnson admires not only Pierce’s team accomplishments but his overall game, and he saw hints of that player as a developed 12-year-old 20 years ago.

“That’s why I respect him as a player. He does things efficiently,’’ Johnson said. “There’s not a lot of dunks. Not a lot of flair, not a lot of double clutches. It’s just pull-up jumpers, just real efficient moves. It’s a sign of a guy who has put in a lot of work on his game. I think we are living vicariously through Paul, whatever he does, we back in LA are proud of him. He represents us.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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