L.A.'s greatest player: Paul Pierce
He grew up in Inglewood and even Angelenos can't deny his career accomplishments
LOS ANGELES -- He is our greatest basketball product, a kid who grew up in the shadows of the Forum in Inglewood and dreamed of playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. His nickname is "The Truth," and truth be told, Paul Pierce never wanted to be a Boston Celtic, but here he is on the verge of winning another championship for our most hated rivals, this time in our backyard -- his backyard.
It could be argued, quite easily, actually, that Pierce is the greatest basketball player to grow up in Los Angeles. As storied as this city's basketball history might be, our greatest legends -- John Wooden, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and more recently Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant -- all grew up thousands of miles away.
Sure, you can make arguments for Reggie Miller, Gail Goodrich and Byron Scott. Make strong cases for Paul Westphal, Baron Davis and Gilbert Arenas. And you could even go to bat for Reggie Theus, Dennis Johnson and Michael Cooper. But make no mistake about it, if Pierce leads the Celtics to their 18th championship, he will easily go down as the greatest basketball player Los Angeles has ever produced and he will have made his everlasting mark in the history books by breaking the heart of the city he grew up in.
"I didn't want to be a Boston Celtic, but I am a Boston Celtic, and I've enjoyed every moment of it," Pierce said before the Finals began. "I've had a chance to learn the history, been around the great players. It's so much fun when you're in Boston and you see the [John] Havliceks come around, you see [Bob] Cousy, [Cedric] Maxwell; I'm around [Tommy] Heinsohn all the time. Just soaking up the history of the Boston Celtics has been the best thing that's happened to me as a player."
If you had told Pierce when he was 12 years old that he one day would be wearing a Celtics uniform and turning into a Lakers killer, he would have thought you were crazy. That's partly because Pierce, 32, never really thought back then that he'd be playing basketball. Around that age, he wanted to be a baseball player, swinging for the fences at Dodger Stadium. But when he switched sports, he always envisioned himself wearing the purple and gold and driving up the court like Magic Johnson did right up Manchester Boulevard at the Forum.
"I mean, who thinks things like that are going to happen?" Pierce said. "You have dreams, and I'm one of the few that accomplished my dream of going to the NBA. I had dreams of wearing a Laker uniform at that age, but I'm able to be in the NBA, continue on with the rivalry that I grew up watching and the rivalry that got me interested in basketball. I mean, it's a dream come true."
Pierce was hardly a basketball prodigy growing up in Inglewood. He was cut from Inglewood High's varsity basketball team his freshman and sophomore years, and seriously thought about transferring before spending extra time in the gym and becoming the star of the team by the end of his junior year. By the end of his senior year in 1995, he was named to the McDonald's All-American team along with his future teammate Kevin Garnett.
He left Los Angeles after high school to attend the University of Kansas and play for Roy Williams, averaging 16.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in his three seasons as a Jayhawk. He would forgo his senior year to go to the NBA, where he was taken by the Celtics with the 10th pick in the 1998 NBA draft.
The moment he put on that green hat, Pierce ceased being a Lakers fan and immediately became a Celtic. He instantly went from hating Boston to dedicating himself to making the C's champions again. The kid who grew up cheering for Magic and the Lakers to destroy Larry Bird and the Celtics had joined the "dark side." Even now, 12 years after he was drafted and two years removed from beating the Lakers in the Finals, Pierce still feels strange being on the other side of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.
"Just being from here and raised here as a Lakers fan, to come back here as a Boston player, it's a little weird doing it, but it is what it is," he said. "I'm happy to be a part of this tradition. This is what got me into basketball, basically watching the Celtics versus Magic and the Lakers when I was a kid, and now to be a part of it is special."
Pierce's view on the series is a stark contrast to that of Bryant, who also grew up as a Lakers fan (albeit in Italy instead of Inglewood). Before the Finals began, Bryant was asked about being a part of the storied rivalry, and he said, "I'm playing in it. I don't give a damn about it. That's for other people to get excited about. I get excited about winning." As driven as Bryant is to win a title and avenge losing to the Celtics in the Finals two years ago, there have been time in this series when it has seemed Pierce wants it more (stripping a rebound from Bryant at the end of Game 4) and understands the greater meaning of these rivalry games more than his counterpart.
"Just to be a part of history, not a lot of players can say that," Pierce said. "You know, I'm soaking this all in. Once again, being able to help continue the rivalry of the Celtics and Lakers for another year, and knowing that when you go back and watch these tapes that I will be on them. It's indescribable. I don't think it's going to soak in until my career is all said and done and I can really, really look back at it."
Pierce has a house in Los Angeles and spends much of his offseason in the city he still calls home. In fact, he saw Phil Jackson outside his place last year after the Lakers had won the championship. While he was walking his dog across the street to the park, he saw Jackson and congratulated him on winning his 10th championship, to which Jackson replied he hoped he would see Pierce and the Celtics in the Finals this season.
"It was accidental; if I saw him walking, I wouldn't have crossed the street probably," Pierce said. "I don't know, it was just like we bumped into each other, and I congratulated him on the win. I didn't want to run into Phil, I know that. They just won the championship. We don't like that around here, not in Boston Celtic nation."
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Pierce has become the undisputed captain of "Boston Celtic nation" over the past decade. His name is attached to 16 Celtics records, and he is behind only Bird and Havlicek as the third leading scorer in franchise history. He is so much a part of the fabric of the team now that he couldn't help but go out of his way to knock Lakers fans before the Finals started while calling Celtics fans more knowledgeable. "The fans at home cheer for us; the fans here don't," Pierce said. "I mean, I'm not at enough Lakers games to really tell you how their fans are. I'm more biased knowing that our fans are a little bit more knowledgeable to the game. I think a lot of celebrities come here to get out of the house to watch a game, to see the other celebrities. But then you've got your fans to mix with them. It's an interesting crowd, whereas I think our fans really come to watch the actual game."
As much as Pierce relishes playing the role of instigator in this series, screaming to the crowd at Staples Center that the series wouldn't be returning to Los Angeles after the Celtics stole Game 2, he can't erase his place in Los Angeles basketball history. While he might be one win away from once again breaking the hearts of his hometown and his childhood team, no one can deny doing so will also make him the greatest basketball player ever raised in LA. Pierce, however, is more worried about his place in Celtics history as he prepares to win his second championship in three years.
"It's going to mean everything for my career, because a lot of guys have won one but not many have won a couple," he said. "If you look at the great players in Celtic history, the great teams, they've all won a couple championships at least. So I want to be able to be mentioned up there with the great Celtics of all time, cement my name in history with the group by winning more than one championship."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com