Commentary

Pierce took the long road to greatness

Originally Published: June 14, 2008
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPN.com

Paul Pierce Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesBeing named Finals MVP is the crowning achievement of Paul Pierce's career.

He is not a tidy superstar. You cannot neatly wrap the career of Boston Celtics captain Paul Pierce, the newly minted NBA Finals Most Valuable Player and first-time champion, in a perfectly symmetrical box with a corresponding matching ribbon.

His path to greatness has been far too gnarly for that.

"You're right," he said, still gleefully gripping his championship hat in the wee hours Wednesday morning. "Life has so many hurdles. Some of them I've hopped over, and some of them I've tripped over. The key is to get back up and finish the race."

Pierce is the first MVP to survive a nightclub stabbing so severe that wounds a half inch closer to his lung would have been fatal. It has been eight years since he lay bleeding in former teammate Tony Battie's car, his friend imploring him to "Hang on, man, hang on!" as he raced toward a Boston hospital. Yet, as Banner 17 was secured just before midnight Tuesday with a clinching Game 6 thrashing of the Los Angeles Lakers, coach Doc Rivers found himself harking back to that incident.

"I was watching him hold that trophy, and I was thinking to myself, 'Paul Pierce was not just almost out the league. He was almost dead,'" Rivers said. "And now he is the Finals MVP. You tell me. Who else has had a turnaround like that?"

Pierce's skills were a constant; the bull strength and deceptive quickness and the devastatingly hard drive with the left hand and the 3-point range that improved as he became more seasoned and grew to discern the difference between a killer 3 and one that strangled his own team.

He was always capable of gaudy All-Star numbers, but he was a reluctant captain, alternately passionate and withdrawn, charming and raw with frustration. He lacked talent around him and, at times, maturity within.

As each season passed without playoff success, more pressure was heaped on No. 34. Pierce lurked in the shadows of a championship city bedazzled by quarterback Tom Brady, a dime novel hero with dimples and a blessed arm of uncanny accuracy, and David Ortiz, a charming baseball icon with a captivating smile, an imposing bat and a moniker -- Big Papi -- that was infinitely cuddly.

Pierce was not cuddly -- nor was he a champion. Boston alternately embraced and rejected him as his fortunes rose and fell with alarming frequency.

There was the shocking altercation in a Boston nightclub in September 2000 that left him with multiple stab wounds, fighting for his life. Pierce underwent surgery and was told by his physician that his life likely was spared by the heavy leather jacket he wore, which softened the blow of the knife.

Details of the attack were sketchy, and questions persisted. Why not call 911? Why did Pierce seem unwilling to prosecute? The case drifted away, prompting speculation the basketball star knew his assailants.

He was always capable of gaudy All-Star numbers, but he was a reluctant captain, alternately passionate and withdrawn, charming and raw with frustration. He lacked talent around him and, at times, maturity within.

In time, Celtics fans may have forgotten all about the attack, but the captain did not. The scars were permanent, along with the memories. The nightmares didn't help, either.

Even as he hoisted his first championship hardware Tuesday, Pierce conceded that his mind drifted back to that night gone horribly wrong.

"I think about it all the time," he confessed just hours after the last pieces of confetti finally had stopped floating from the Garden rafters. "You don't ever forget something like that. It changes you."

Magic Johnson, who played summer ball with Pierce in L.A., was troubled enough by the altercation to counsel "his little brother" about making better decisions off the court.

"I told Paul he was on the verge of greatness. But I also told him he had to leave the street behind," Magic said.

"I know how hard that is. When I drive my car through my hometown of East Lansing [Michigan], I know every cat on the block. I slow down and I wave, but they know I've got to keep on going. They understand.

"I told Paul, 'Your boys will understand, too. You don't have to cut them out completely. You can check in with them once in a while. But those choices will decide how far you go in this league.'"

Pierce's career seemed boundless when, in the 2002 Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey, he led Boston on an improbable fourth-quarter comeback with 19 points in the final frame.

The coaching staff of Team USA tabbed him as a regular in the 2002 World Championships, but by the time the team finished in a humiliating sixth place, coach George Karl had branded him as a selfish player who contributed greatly to the team's failure.

[+] EnlargeAllen/Garnett/Pierce
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesPierce sacrificed parts of his game to mesh with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.
And so it went. Pierce was an All-Star in 2003 but a laughingstock in 2004, when he was ejected from a playoff game against Indiana and showed up at the postgame news conference with a preposterous wrap taped around his jaw to tweak the officials for what he decreed a non-call. He was vilified for his childish behavior, dismissed as a failed leader. Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, a Pierce fan, bluntly decried his captain's actions as "embarrassing."

"What bothered me most about 2004 was not the tantrum," said Celtics boss Danny Ainge. "That was frustration boiling over. What I didn't like was how our team collapsed in the fourth quarter, how we gave them steals and wide open 3-point shots. We didn't respond to adversity.

"Paul was our best player, and he had to bear the weight of the whole franchise on his shoulders."

Pierce declared it might be time for him to move on. On draft night, the Celtics submitted two full-page ads to The Boston Globe newspaper: one prominently featuring Pierce and the other with him airbrushed out completely. Ainge worked the phones and came perilously close to dealing his All-Star for the draft rights to rookie point guard Chris Paul.

The deal died. The Celtics ad featuring Pierce ran. The Truth returned and promised the franchise he would begin anew. His front office asked him to consider curtailing his nightlife and suggested offseason work in Boston instead of Las Vegas.

Last summer, when Ainge texted Pierce to inform him he had acquired Ray Allen, his captain responded immediately with enthusiasm. Weeks later, when Ainge texted Pierce again to tell him there was a chance they would be trading for Kevin Garnett as well, there was no response.

"He wouldn't answer my calls or my text messages," Ainge said. "Honestly, I think he didn't want to be let down. There had been so many disappointments already."

Garnett came. James Posey followed. Then it was P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell, and suddenly, the Celtics were the best team in the NBA and Pierce's status had been elevated significantly.

"Everyone says Paul is a better player now," Ainge said. "Paul was always a great player. It's his spirit that has changed. His enthusiasm is higher. His commitment to defense has been unbelievable. He was taking so many charges in the Cleveland series his teammates finally told him to cut it out because they needed him to stay healthy for 14 more games."

The Celtics dispatched the Lakers -- Pierce's hometown boys who kept him mesmerized in front of his mother's tiny black-and-white television in Inglewood, Calif. as a child -- with shocking ease.

Pierce was the reason. He played with poise and grit and patience. He injured his knee early in the series, but that did nothing to hamper him from establishing himself as virtually unguardable throughout the Finals. He -- not Kobe Bryant -- was the redoubtable star, the sure thing. He was the one who balanced sharing the ball with scoring at critical junctures. In the final game, Pierce had recorded nine assists by halftime.

Perhaps even more gratifying, Pierce served as the model defensively, clogging passing lanes and bodying overmatched Lakers offensive players, including Kobe.

In the wake of his performance, Pierce was elevated into an elite circle of Celtics, joining Russell, Cousy, Bird and Havlicek as one of the all-time great clutch players.

Even so, his magical postseason was not without missteps. His "menacing gesture" toward the Atlanta Hawks bench after a Game 3 first-round loss was interpreted by some to be a gang gesture, igniting a nationwide firestorm. Pierce professed his innocence, yet it created unnecessary and unwanted controversy at a critical time. It also cost him $25,000 in fines levied by the NBA.

"Paul isn't perfect," Ainge said. "He's going to make mistakes."

"He's still learning," Rivers said. "We are all. He made a decision to make some changes. He had to change his lifestyle, his attitude, his approach. And to his credit, he's done all those things."

Pierce has become a father and a new champion in 2008. Both have earned him new respect and an enriched legacy.

"To get to this point, you've got to make sacrifices," Pierce said. "I learned that the hard way. But you know what? It's sweeter because of it. No one gave me anything."

The body of Pierce's work will never be flawless. The box will have dings and the ribbon will be frayed, but the reward inside remains intact: a championship ring with No. 34's name on it.

Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPN.com.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist