Thursday, March 9, 2006
Updated: March 10, 2:28 PM ET
The Truth comes out
By Bill Simmons
I still have the newspaper. In fact, I'm looking at it right now.
It's a yellowed edition of the Boston Globe from May 6, 2005. My father arrived in California that day, travelling cross-country to meet his granddaughter for the first time. He brought the Globe with him. On the front page of the sports section, there's a headline that reads, "Nearly tossed," accompanied by two smaller pictures of Paul Pierce knocking over Indiana's Jamaal Tinsley, and then a larger picture of Pierce frozen in place as Tinsley dropped to the floor.
In the right corner, Shira Springer's game story starts like this: "Ejected from Game 6 last night, Paul Pierce left the floor at Conseco Fieldhouse swinging his green jersey above his head, a gesture certainly intended to taunt the sellout crowd, and allegedly inspire his teammates. It was the final, disgraceful act in a sequence of events that nearly resulted in the Celtics' playoff elimination."
Underneath the pictures, on the bottom half of the page, Bob Ryan's column runs with the headline, "Selfish act could have been team's technical KO." You can practically see the spittle flying out Ryan's mouth as he writes the following words: "... last night we entered a hoop twilight zone in a game that featured the single most unforgivable, untimely, stupid, and flat-out selfish on-court act in the history of the Celtics."
In retrospect, it wasn't THAT bad. Protecting a lead at the end of regulation, Pierce objected to a hard foul by Tinsley and knocked him over, drawing a second technical and allowing the Pacers to eventually tie the game. Leaving the floor, he acted like an idiot (described above). In the post-game press conference, Pierce showed up with his head "bandaged" and joked that Tinsley's foul had broken his jaw -- bad judgment considering he had nearly blown the series. None of the three moments was particularly damaging, but added together, they were the culmination of everything wrong about the Paul Pierce Era. Once considered one of the NBA's brightest young stars, he had turned into just another moody, selfish, me-first gunner with an attitude, an unlikable player on every level. It was almost a chore to root for him. As my father said that day, "I don't care what we get for him, I just want him to go." Everyone felt that way.
Ten months later, almost to the day, I found that same sports section while cleaning up some clutter in my office. The timing was impeccable: Pierce was in the middle of the greatest hot streak of his career, averaging 34 points a game over a five-week span, even winning individual battles with Kobe, LeBron, Arenas and Iverson. He had broken a Celtics record by scoring 30 points or more in 13 of 14 games; not even Larry Bird ever pulled that off. What stood out was Pierce's unshakable consistency: His game kept thriving even after a 4-for-2 trade and two major injuries, and now he was keeping a depleted Celtics team competitive without overwhelming his teammates and hogging the ball. Even better, he was doing it with a smile on his face and saying all the right things. Even better, he had raised his crunch-time ability to Brady-like proportions.
On Friday, Pierce banked home a 3 to beat the Pacers. On Tuesday, he drilled consecutive 3s in Washington to beat the Wizards (including a buzzer-beater with a degree of difficulty of 9.9). On Wednesday, with the Celtics trailing Philly by four in the final two minutes, he nailed back-to-back 3s for the lead, then made two more free throws to ice the game. After the Philly game, when someone asked him if this was the best win yet, Pierce smiled and said, "Every win is the best win."
For diehard Celtics fans like me, Pierce's career season has been simply astounding to watch on a day-to-day basis -- like having a brooding, underachieving teenaged son who suddenly starts shaking everyone's hand, taking out the garbage, cleaning up his room and bringing home A's. I mean, you hope with these things, you keep your fingers crossed, you keep the faith, but you never actually expect it to happen. Had they traded him last summer to Portland for the No. 3 pick and expiring contracts, I would have been delighted. Now? I wouldn't trade him for anyone in the league other than LeBron and Wade. From the very first exhibition game last October, he's been an absolute joy to watch in every respect. I wouldn't change a single thing about him.
Of course, the Celtics fans are buzzing about this metamorphosis, mainly because it's so out of kilter with everything else that seems to happen to this team. The last two decades have been painful, almost a cruel shift of karma from the Russell/Cowens/Bird eras, between Lenny Bias, Reggie Lewis, Dave Gavitt, ML Carr, Dee Brown's knee, Kevin McHale's ankle, Larry Bird's back, the charmless FleetCenter, the Duncan Lottery, the Pitino Disaster, the Antoine Roller-Coaster Ride, the Potapenko trade, the Pierce stabbing, the Johnson-Brown-Forte draft debacle, the indefensible Vin Baker trade, the Mark Blount contract and, finally, Pierce's self-destruction last spring. Since Bird's retirement in 1992, only the overachieving 2002 and 2003 teams advanced past the first round of the playoffs, and that was because of good fortune (and an inferior conference) more than anything. Those teams were like Ellen Barkin in the late-'80s; maybe they got the job done, but you always had trouble watching them.
Faced with the potential of the fifth Rebuilding Era in 15 years, stuck with an unlikable nucleus, an overmatched coach and an unhappy superstar that nobody liked, your typical Celtics fan approached this season with the same expression of a whipped boyfriend heading into a chick flick. And then Pierce showed up with a smile on his face, kept saying all the right things, kept giving everything he had. Around December, I started getting e-mails from season-ticket holders who just wanted to tell me, "I don't care that we're blowing close games, it's been worth the money just to watch Pierce every night." When the Internet started buzzing with rumors that he would be traded, Pierce came out and said, unequivocally, that he didn't want to leave, that he wanted to retire as a Celtic. And he kept on killing himself and carrying his team, night after night.
As the trade deadline approached, other teams kept calling and calling, hoping Danny Ainge would be dumb enough to give up Pierce. Well, why would you trade a star player in his prime who wanted to play for you? What kind of message did that send to your fans? Where was the logic in that? Danny kept saying no. When the rumors kept popping up, he finally went on the record and said, "Look, we're not trading Paul Pierce. It's not happening." Pierce would remain a Celtic.
And every Celtic fan breathed a sigh of relief.
For the past five weeks, he's been the best player in the league. Nobody has played at a higher level, nobody has made basketball seem so easy, and nobody has been saddled with a worse supporting cast (not even Kobe). During an improbable 8-4 stretch over the past 12 games, Pierce practically pulled a Jimmy Chitwood playing alongside two veterans with bad knees (Wally Szczerbiak and Raef LaFrentz), two young starters with barely any experience (Delonte West and Ryan Gomes), two fringe youngsters who shouldn't be playing in an NBA nine-man rotation (Tony Allen and Orien Greene), one guy who shouldn't play basketball professionally for a living (Brian Scalabrine), one kid who was in high school last year (Gerald Green), and someone once described as "the human Ebola virus" (Michael Olowokandi). He's also saddled with a coach who has now played the Wizards three times this season without doubling Gilbert Arenas on Washington's final possession of those games, someone who had so much trouble sticking with a nine-man rotation that his general manager proactively sought a 4-for-2 trade to help him out. (Don't get me started.)
What usually happens when an NBA star is stuck in this situation? They pout. They start looking for their own stats. They wonder aloud if their team is truly "committed to winning." After a tough loss, they have an expression that says, "Hey, it wasn't my fault. I didn't ask to play with these crappy guys." Eventually, they push to play somewhere else, and only because they want to be paid like a franchise player without the responsibility of carrying a franchise. That's why McGrady left Orlando. That's why Carter left Toronto. That's why Davis left New Orleans. That's why KG will push to leave Minnesota this summer. The list goes on. In fact, one of the illuminating subplots of LeBron's career has been Cleveland's steady sense of panic about surrounding him with a worthy supporting cast, with the implication being, "We need to get this done, and we need to get this done immediately, or else he might leave for a better team."
But that's been the beautiful thing about Pierce this season: He wants to be a Celtic. He wants to be in Boston when things turn around. He feels like this is his team, for better or worse, that it's his personal responsibility to lead them. For nine straight months, he never said anything otherwise. When they needed him so desperately these last few weeks, he raised his game a notch; now it's reached the point where everyone expects him to come through in close games, where it's surprising when he doesn't come through. You can't attain a higher level as a basketball player.
What does this mean for the Celtics? They're becoming relevant in Boston again. That's the short-term effect. Between Pierce's outrageous play and the emergence of Gomes and West -- two of the most likable youngsters in the league, pure basketball players who never stop plugging away -- there hasn't been a Celtics team this endearing since Reggie Lewis' last season in '93. Whether they miraculously sneak into the playoffs or not, Ainge's rebuilding plan will be shelved this summer, and only because you can't waste Pierce's prime when he's playing this well. That's the long-term effect: With a boatload of draft picks and two appealing young talents (Jefferson and Green), Ainge has enough assets to overpay for an All-Star -- whether it's KG, Jermaine O'Neal, Chris Bosh or whoever -- then compete with Pierce, Delonte, Gomes, Perk, Wally, All-Star X, Free Agent Signing X and whatever assets remain after that trade. If he decides on proceeding in any other direction, he's a moron. And I don't think Danny Ainge is a moron. Even if he is the same guy who paid $15 million for Brian Scalabrine. Either way, Paul Pierce singlehandedly saved competitive basketball in Boston for this season and the next two.
Only one question remains: Why?
Why did Pierce mature into a superstar? What changed from last May? How can someone who was so woefully out of synch pull it all together?
Until recently, the cynical view was that some guys are better off being The Guy on hopeless teams. Remove the pressure, remove the competition for shots, remove the media attention ... and some guys are better off. Other guys need the pressure, the competition and the media attention or they lose interest. That's just how the league works. And I would concede all of those points.
But Pierce is more of a hoops junkie than people realize, the kind of guy who watches old games on ESPN Classic, watches all the NBA-related "Sports Century" shows, watches Chuck and Kenny on TNT and everything else. I think he has spent more time thinking about his particular place, both in the current league and in a historical context, than anyone realizes. More than anything, that probably led to some of his problems during his first bout with stardom back in 2002, culminating in his heroic performance in Game 3 of the Nets series (the famous comeback from 25 down). After that happened, he probably thought, "All right, I'm here. I made it. I knew this would happen. I'm one of the greats!" And then he started acting like a complete ass.
Delving a little deeper, when Pierce was nearly murdered by gangbangers in September 2000, he improbably returned for Opening Night, then threw himself into the season without really dealing with what happened to him. The following summer, after Pitino's departure, he signed a max contract, got himself into phenomenal shape and ended up having a career year (leading to the Celts coming within two games of the 2002 Finals). From there, he went right to the World Championships, in which the entire team disgraced themselves on and off the court -- with Pierce leading the way -- then jumped right into another NBA season. So he never came to grips with his near-death experience; if anything, he probably repressed all of his emotions about the whole thing. Acting petulantly on the court (the scowling, chest-pounding, whining and ref-baiting was insufferable), acting like a prima donna behind the scenes, partying way too much for anyone's liking, in retrospect, he almost seemed like a guy crying out for help.
(The famous Pierce story from this stretch: a team employee came up to him once at a club and started talking to him, followed by Pierce cutting him off and telling the guy, "If you're not (expletive), and you can't get me (expletive), I don't want to talk to you." Again, this was not a happy guy.)
And this just kept going on and going on, without anyone truly calling him on it -- because this is the NBA and all, and it's OK for guys to act like complete jerks with little to no repercussions -- and everything crested in that Indiana series last spring. It would have kept going on and going on, too, except for one thing: The Celtics had had enough. Not only did they shop him around, the Portland deal probably would have happened had Pierce not found out and proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, "I'm not playing for the Trail Blazers." End of discussion.
So maybe that was the key moment for him, knowing that the Celtics were ready to dump him. Maybe he just matured in his late 20's like so many of us do. Maybe enough time passed since the stabbing and he stopped being bitter about it. Maybe he caught an old Celtics game from the Bird Era on Classic, noticed the Garden swaying and thought to himself, "It used to mean something to be a Celtic; I can do something about this." Maybe he was partying too much and calmed down. Maybe it was something much simpler, like a "What's wrong with you?" phone call from his mother. I even thought about calling him to find out the answer, but it's almost more fun not knowing. I don't want to know.
But I do know this ...
For the most part, it sucks to be a sports fan. It's a one-way street. Tickets cost too much. Jerseys cost too much. Executives and owners screw up our teams. Players let us down again and again. Just this week, the top sports stories were the shocking revelations from the Bonds/steroids scandal, the NFL labor agreement, and Kirby Puckett's untimely death (as well as the obligatory number of "Just remember, he was a bad guy after he played!" stories). It's a culture where bottomfeeders like Jose Canseco never seem to go away, where entire TV shows are built around sportswriters screaming at one another, where an abject failure of a human being like Bill Romanowski can crack the New York Times Bestseller list. Everything is out of whack. Even in the NBA, an egocentric gunner like Kobe Bryant receives 10 times as much attention as the great Tim Duncan, who's currently limping around on one leg because that's what champions do. I don't know what's happened to sports. I really don't.
And out of this abyss comes Paul Pierce. Playing out of his mind. Saying all the right things. Coming through in the clutch. Doing everything with a smile on his face. He's going to retire as a Celtic some day ... and only because he wouldn't accept anything less. Sounds like the makings of a fantastic "Sports Century and Beyond" show some day. In the meantime, in the words of Roddy Piper, Pierce will continue to chew gum and kick ass -- Milwaukee you're next -- and Celtics fans will keep watching and caring and hoping and marveling at what happened here. That's the great thing about sports: You never know.
As for that old newspaper I found, the one from last May? I threw it out. No sense holding onto the past.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day, Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.