- Justin Verrier, NBA
- 0 Shares
Long before he led "Beat L.A." chants, Paul Pierce, living in the shadow of the Forum in Inglewood (Calif.), bled purple and gold.
Watching from his uncle's floor, he would immerse himself in Los Angeles' runs to the Finals in the '80s. On the playgrounds, he and his friends would try to imitate the Showtime style. And when glimpses of pro players passing by in their luxury cars weren't enough, he would sneak past Forum workers, just to catch a glimpse of his idol, Magic Johnson.
"I had dreams of wearing a Laker uniform at that age," Pierce told reporters before the Finals.
Like any good Laker lover, he also held a certain distaste for the city that he would call home for all 12 of his seasons in the NBA, and the team with which he has a chance on Tuesday to win his second title in three seasons. "When I was a kid, I hated the Celtics," he said.
But even then, the staunch Los Angeles supporter still had a slight affinity toward the green and white.
Long before Pierce would etch himself into Boston lore in Celtics green, Pierce would don the colors for the Inglewood High Sentinels, for whom he would become a school legend.
It was also the right combination to keep him out of the colors often worn in the streets.
In middle school, Pierce and his mother moved from Oakland to Inglewood, a place wrought by so much gang violence even the hardest hip-hop artists took note. "Inglewood, Inglewood, always up to no good," Tupac famously rhymed in "California Love."
But Pierce spent most of his time working on his game, beating on the hoop in his driveway and perfecting his jumper on the courts around the corner from the Forum.
"He was kind of a chubby little kid," former Inglewood policeman and Sentinels assistant coach Scott Collins told ESPN.com in 2008. "His moves weren't as defined, but he could always shoot the ball."
In high school, Pierce and his friends would pack into his beat-up Datsun -- some having to crouch in the hatch just to fit -- at 5:30 every morning and drive to school, where Collins would be waiting to open up the gym.
The "morning sessions," as they called them, were rough and physical, and the aftermath wasn't pretty, either.
"When you look at it, it was kind of nasty because you went to class all sweaty at the time," Pierce said in 2008.
But for Pierce, it was worth it. It was what he needed to do to get himself out of Inglewood and in line to become the next name in lights at the "Fabulous Forum." It was his escape.
"Who wants to wake up at 5:30 to go to the gym? I know nowadays I don't," Pierce said. "But then you were a kid who had dreams and tried to develop a work ethic."
The hard work didn't exactly lead to instant success. At the start of his sophomore season, Pierce, 5-foot-8 but still carrying a little too much weight, was left off the varsity roster.
"I cried because I didn't think I was good enough," Pierce told USA Today. "I had one brother (Jamal Hosey) get a scholarship to play college basketball and another brother (Steve Hosey) get a baseball scholarship. I was down on myself trying to live up to my brothers."
But he would soon get a shot to prove himself.
With several players traveling during the holiday season, Pierce was invited to sit on the varsity bench. But he didn't sit long. With Inglewood down by double digits in the third quarter, Pierce checked in and scored 21 points to lead the Sentinels to victory.
He would never be sent down to the J.V. squad.
"After he played well in the second game, then the third game and then the fourth, I realized I made a mistake," his high school coach, Patrick Roy, said.
McDonald's All-American and state player-of-the-year honors would eventually follow, as would a scholarship to play for Roy Williams at Kansas and, later, a spot in the first round of the 1998 NBA draft.
But while he made his mark on the pros for the team he spent much of his youth rooting against, Pierce hasn't forgotten about L.A.
He owns a home there and still does charity work within the community, including taking over Magic Johnson's celebrity all-star game along with fellow Los Angeles native Baron Davis.
And every once and a while, he still can catch a glimpse of a Lakers legend strolling by.
Soon after the Celtics were ousted from the 2009 playoffs by the Orlando Magic, Pierce was walking his dog in his neighborhood when he saw Lakers coach Phil Jackson stopped at a stop sign in his convertible.
"I just said congratulations to him," Pierce told reporters before the 2010 Finals. "I think he probably mentioned something [like] 'See you in the Finals next year.'"
The off-hand comment proved prophetic.
Now, 16 years after cheering against Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson & Co., as they marched into the Forum for a potential series-clinching Game 6 in the 1984 Finals, Pierce heads back to his hometown looking to lift the Celtics to their 18th title.
And he wouldn't want it any other way.
"Just to tell you, I didn't want to be a Boston Celtic," he said, "but I am a Boston Celtic, and I've enjoyed every moment of it."
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor at ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.
1hEthan Sherwood Strauss
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com