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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Fairy tale continues for a true professional

Right about the time Paul Pierce was striding into the FleetCenter last night with hopes of erasing one of the most appalling moments in sports history, word filtered through that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would be sticking around for a while.

The news was hardly shocking. Although Brady recently expressed doubt that his negotiations with the Patriots would extend his happily-ever-after fairy tale with New England, we never doubted he was going anywhere.

Brady is all about winning, he's all about doing the right thing, and he is smart enough and mature enough not to get caught up in numbers. So what if Peyton Manning's contract is worth more than his? Boston's most popular sports icon said he didn't care about that. Nice, isn't it, when athletes actually back up what they say.

Of course, it's not like the Patriots are shortchanging him or anything. His new six-year, $60 million contract, complete with a $14.5 million signing bonus and a $12 million option bonus next spring, offers enough guaranteed cash that Brady can boast he's one of the highest-paid players in the league, but doesn't require his team to suffer a salary cap blow. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has developed as close a relationship with Brady as he had with Drew Bledsoe, took the extra steps to make sure he kept his franchise player close at hand.

Let's be honest. This salary stalemate could have gotten nasty. Brady has the clout, the charisma, and the talent to ask for the moon, the stars, and visitation rights with the sun. He could have made the lives of the Super Bowl champion Patriots miserable with just enough innuendo and cryptic, dissatisfied comments to create major headaches for the image-conscious franchise.

That's not Brady's style. He eschews controversy and is a master of saying nothing with a glittering smile on his face. Rarely has this young superstar blown his top about anything. The sudden bloodletting when his friend Lawyer Milloy was released is the only incident that comes to mind, and even then, Brady's critical comments of the organization were measured.

This is no accident. Brady has worked tirelessly to mold a persona that is user-friendly, marketable, and above all, palatable to his teammates. Remember, this is the guy who steadfastly refused to conduct interviews from the podium after replacing Drew Bledsoe because he didn't want his fellow players to think he was above them. Brady's goal has always been to become an elite athlete, while giving his teammates the impression he's just one of them.

"I've known Tom a short while," said new Patriots quarterback Doug Flutie last night, "and he's incredibly professional in the way he handles himself, in every aspect. He's never aloof. He's way up there in talent, but not attitude.

"And he's just so mentally sharp. He's on another level in terms of how he carries himself."

All us working stiffs out there see the gaudy numbers Brady has just earned and ask ourselves, who is worth that kind of money? Brady might be the closest thing to a sure bet in the NFL, and he's easily the safest bet in this town.

If you want to talk about clutch performances, then let's roll out Brady's lifetime record of 9-0 in the postseason. He's 48-14 lifetime as a starter, and whenever his team needs cooler heads to prevail, Brady is among the veterans who provide just that. Without him, the Patriots never would have won three Super Bowls.

That is what you call leadership. That is what you call poise under pressure.

You wish Paul Pierce would pay attention.

You wish Pierce would realize it's bad form to complain publicly about not getting enough shots. Hey, if you really feel that way, go to the coach, go to your general manager, go to your owners if you want, but do it within the confines of your organization. Doesn't he realize how petulant and self-absorbed it makes him sound?

You can be sure Brady was frustrated early in his career when his throws were limited and his long balls were about as frequent as an Antoine Walker free throw, but even as the doubters questioned his arm strength, Brady simply offered, "Hey, we're winning. That's all I care about."

Pierce cares, too. That is indisputable. He is a young, emotional, gifted basketball player, but he clearly doesn't get it. He professed surprise Friday that people were still talking about his mind-boggling meltdown in the waning seconds of regulation in Game 6. He must realize we will be talking about it for years to come, even if the Celtics hadn't played poorly in last night's Game 7 rout, because Pierce's actions were so unfathomable, so unforgivable, and so unequivocally unacceptable.

It's bad enough he blew his cool and leveled Jamaal Tinsley. Don't waste your time complaining about Tinsley's flop; that's his job. If the sneaker were on the other foot, we'd be applauding Pierce if he were able to goad the opposing team's best player into getting himself ejected.

The part that continues to gnaw at me is Pierce's shirt-waving farewell, and his bizarre postgame press conference. He said all the right things, but his actions smacked of stubbornness, sullenness, and, yes -- here's that word again -- immaturity.

Could you picture Brady doing any of it? Can you imagine the Patriots allowing Brady to appear at a press conference with that ridiculous contraption wrapped around his face in some sort of mock protest?

It would never happen, because Brady knows better. Paul Pierce should, too.

I know the cultures of pro basketball and pro football are different. There are only five basketball players out there at a time, which magnifies their successes and failures. I understand there is a level of self-expression in the NBA that simply isn't possible in the NFL.

But composure is a common denominator in sports. Those who possess it win games. Those who don't, create reputations that are difficult to shake. Asked about Pierce's antics before Game 7, co-owner Steve Pagliuca merely smiled and said, "Paul is developing."

Brady is the finished product. That's why Patriots officials are dancing in the streets. When corraled courtside at the FleetCenter last night, Jonathan Kraft said, "We are incredibly excited to have signed someone who has embodied our franchise. Tom is a great leader, on and off the field. We are excited he will be with us at least through 2010 -- or beyond."

Paul Pierce is locked up, too. He should be the Celtics' best player, their leader, their strongest link to the future, but until he learns to take responsibility for his actions, and think before he implodes, that will never happen.

The postseason mantra is the same in all sports: Win or go home. Pierce is going home.

Brady is the poster boy for that slogan. Here's hoping Pierce watches, and learns.

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