Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant met again on the court last night, with Kobe and the Lakers getting the best of Celtics again, in Boston. The two stars both had solid efforts, but in the end it was the bigs of the Lakers that made the differenece in overtime.
Both players hit scoring milestones for their respective franchises in recent weeks, with each surpassing a living legend, Shaq and Bird respectively, in the process. Both too are aging wing players approaching, if not ensconced in, the twilight of their careers. Pierce and Kobe are both leaders of their teams, on the stat sheet as well as in the locker room. Each took the critical shots down the stretch last night, as they do most nights. Each is the face of their storied franchise, in its current form.
Relax, this is not a "Pierce is better than Kobe" post. Kobe operates on a higher basketball plane than Pierce. Kobe is a household name all over the world, and Pierce isn't even the most famous "Paul" in the NBA. (See: Chris, LAC) Kobe's comps are the greatest athletes to ever play the game. He will be in every discussion of the ten best players in NBA History if he never played another game. Paul Pierce will be in every discussion of the ten best player in Boston Celtics history. Pierce's legend is provincial. Just the way we like it in Boston. This is not a "Pierce is better than Kobe" post. Promise.
This is not a commentary on what makes the two stars similar, but what makes them different. It is one (biased) fan's look at how each player's path shaped who they became and how each achieved the ultimate goal, winning the NBA Finals.
Kobe is the son of a former NBA player. He went to a private high school, where he won the state championship as a senior. Kobe was drafted out of high school to one of the most storied franchises in all of sports, which the same year signed the most dominant player in the history of the sport in Shaq. After two years, the Lakers cleared out the guards (Eddie Jones and Nick Van Exel) that were starting in front of him, hired a Hall of Fame coach with six titles in Phil Jackson, and was tasting champagne just months after being able to buy a beer. Kobe has been winning championships since high school, he won on draft day, and continued winning for his entire career. All of that winning was not enough for Kobe.
Paul Pierce is from Inglewood. He went to public school. He went to college. Pierce was drafted by one of the most storied franchises in all of sports which, at the time, was in one of the darkest periods in its history. The Boston Celtics were bad and Pierce had to deal with being a good player on a bad team early on. Beginning in his fourth year in the league, Pierce started dragging his under talented teams to the playoffs, with a particularly special run in 2002 that found the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. Each doomed effort ended the same, with Pierce heading into the offseason a loser. Pierce did his share of grumbling, but stayed committed, signing an extension with the Celtics in 2006. The franchise rewarded Pierce's patience a year later by trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Pierce paid the franchise back by sacrificing his own numbers in order to make it work with two other stars. All of that losing had been too much for Pierce.
Early in Kobe's career he was the golden boy. He did McDonald's commercials, Sprite commercials, and signed a shoe deal with Adidas. (Yes, Adidas! Remember these?) Kobe played nice with Shaq early on, and the big brother/little brother duo won three straight championships at the dawn of the new millennium. By the end of the 2004 season, after being swept by the Detroit Pistons in the Finals, the Lakers shipped Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat. Kobe could no longer coexist with Shaq, and he forced the Lakers to choose. Winning wasn't enough, Kobe had to win on his terms. And win he did. Kobe has since made three more trips to the Finals, winning twice. There was the rape accusation in Colorado, and the recent divorce from his wife. And even at his advanced age, Kobe refuses to take a back seat for a chance to win more rings, even if it would bring Dwight Howard to LA.
Early in Pierce's career he ran into trouble. Pierce was the victim of a brutal stabbing in Boston and reportedly refused to cooperate with the police in the investigation. Pierce was going out and partying on a regular basis. There was the 2002 World Championships disaster, the bandaged face disaster, and few "poor me" comments along the way. Later in his career Pierce settled down his nightlife, got into shape, got married and had a child. Pierce took a step back from being the "man," after learning that winning by himself was never going to work.
Pierce will never be on Kobe's level in terms of physical abilities, talent, or championship rings for that matter. But when I look at how both players came through the league, I appreciate that Pierce had to learn how to lose before he was able to win. I can relate to a young man acting immaturely, frustrated by losing, growing up and figuring out how to be a professional, making peace with it, and being rewarded for his commitment.
There is more than one way to win a championship, and maybe the "Kobe System" is how you win five, but I have a lot more respect for how Paul Pierce came to win his.