All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
– William Shakespeare
Perfect characters are such because of their imperfections. There aren’t a lot of people who enjoy a silver spoon story of the perfectly gifted flawlessly achieving every goal in life.
The best characters are complex and flawed. Authors go out of their way to add relatable warts to draw us in. Do it the right away, and we can feel the character’s emotions. We can empathize with their struggle. We can share the joy in their victory.
That’s why it’s hard to find a more perfect character in the NBA’s story than Paul Pierce. From beginning to end, nearly every detail of his career was crafted so beautifully it’s as if each sprung divinely from a playwright’s pen to maximize the dramatic effect.
A PLOT TWIST
Like most good stories, his begins benignly. He was a McDonald’s All American out of high school. He went to a basketball powerhouse in Kansas. After three years (the norm at the time), he left school early in 1998 and was expected to be no worse than a top-five pick.
The top five pick slipped to sixth.
The Celtics were so enamored with Dirk Nowitzki that we wouldn’t be here right now if this was where they picked. They took great pains to hide their interest and keep any word of Nowitzki’s existence from the media. It was the pre-YouTube era, and their plan seemed to be falling into place. What they didn’t know is the Dallas Mavericks had the same idea.
Dallas selected ninth.
By the time the Boston Celtics were on the clock, the best player on the board was a lifelong Lakers fan from Inglewood, California. The kid who’d snuck into games at the Fabulous Forum to watch Showtime and boo the Boston Celtics was suddenly shaking David Stern’s hand with a green hat on his head.
“Inside, my body cringed,” Pierce said of draft night. “I was like ‘a Celtic? C’mon.’ Rick Pitino running you into the dirt, Celtics I hated growing up.”
Initially, the stage wasn’t even his in Boston. That belonged to Pitino, the college star lured back to the NBA to help save the franchise. It was a team rocked by two deaths and a tank job that didn’t accomplish its goal of landing Tim Duncan. Pitino was supposed to end a title drought that lasted more than a decade… more than twice as long as any other in team history.
They had a lot of work to do.
Pierce did very well in his first two years, but the team didn’t. The pressure was mounting on Pitino and the Celtics to show some results.
On September 25, 2000, just before the beginning of his third season, Paul Pierce walked into the Buzz Club on Stuart street with teammate Tony Battie and a few others.
A fight broke out.
A bottle was smashed on his head. He was stabbed 11 times in the face, neck, and back.
Two things helped keep Pierce alive. His leather jacket, which helped minimize the damage just enough, and the quick-thinking Battie who rushed him to the Tufts Medical Center just blocks away.
If this had happened at a different club, or had Pierce made a different choice in wardrobe, he very well might have died that night. Instead, he made it into surgery. A punctured lung was repaired. The wounds were stitched. And just one month later, Pierce was on the floor for opening night.
Pierce was the only Celtics to make it through all 82 games that season. Pitino left halfway through the year, leaving Pierce to pick up the pieces of another failed rebuild.
These next few years are a very important part of the Paul Pierce story. Between 2002 and 2006 Pierce slid perilously close to becoming a Boston sports villain.
Pierce made his first All Star team in 2002. He led the NBA in total points and was third in points per game. He helped get the Celtics to the Conference Finals and led a miracle comeback against Jason Kidd’s New Jersey Nets in the third game of a series they’d ultimately lose.
Pierce was riding high enough to be selected to represent Team USA in the 2002 World Championships. He played well enough to cruise through the first few games.
And then things fell apart. Team USA didn’t even medal and Pierce took the brunt of the blame, especially from head coach George Karl.
“When we got beat and were told to be humble and take our losses like warriors, he decided to jump out there and fight the negativity. And because I was the head man, I had to call him out on it.
“None of us wanted to play those last two games. None of us wanted to watch film. But you’ve got to do that. And Paul just pushed the line, pushed the line. His reaction to the negativity, to a crisis, was that we all have to protect ourselves, our own egos.”
Pierce had just committed the cardinal sin of leading a USA Basketball to a non-medal finish in international play. He would return to Boston with a rich new contract but a reputation of a selfish, petulant star. He was “part of the problem” in a wild new era of NBA basketball.
It should be noted that this was at the same time hip hop and the NBA got married. In 2001, Reebok and Nike released iconic hip hop-themed commercials. Allen Iverson dribbled behind Jadakiss to sell us A5’s while Pierce appeared in the Nike Freestyle commercial. Hip Hop culture was thrust into everyone’s faces and it caused a significant divide between younger fans and NBA “lifers.”
Many young players were branded as thugs. The NBA instituted a dress code. Many people’s view of NBA stars, Pierce included, was tainted.
The next two seasons saw more frustration, dwindling playoff success, another coaching change, and the lowest point of Pierce’s Celtics career.
The Doc Rivers-led Celtics went 45-37, winning the division and earning the third seed in the playoffs and a date with the Indiana Pacers in the first round.
In the waning minutes of Game Six, with the Celtics down three games to two, Pierce was hit in the face by Jamaal Tinsley. There was no call, and Pierce swung his arm, sending Tinsley to the floor. Pierce picked up his second technical foul, and was ejected from the game. On his way off the floor, Pierce took his jersey off, and swung it over his head as he left.
After the game, he showed up to the postgame news conference looking like this.
The Celtics won the game but lost the series. More importantly, Pierce lost a lot of fans in Boston.
This could have been the end of the Paul Pierce story. Hell, it almost was. The Celtics nearly traded him for Chris Paul on draft night that June.
But they couldn’t.
Pierce was going to come back, even though there were very loud calls to trade him away. Everyone knew something had to change.
The way you feel about Paul Pierce right now… that thing that will make you misty eyed when his number 34 is raised to the rafters today… is only possible because of the events of 2005. The Paul Pierce story isn’t what it is unless Pierce so publicly hit bottom, and so brilliantly returned to form.
“I just had to go home and grow up,” acknowledged Pierce. “It was a difficult situation. It was time to grow up, stop pouting, go out there and help these young guys out and things will work out. And that was my mind-set after the first year with Doc. So that was my attitude after that and I think that helped out my relationship with Doc and them wanting to keep me around because they saw the change in my attitude. Trying to get better as a Celtic regardless of the losing that was going on here.”
Redemption is powerful. When you see a glimmer of light in someone who’s in a dark place, you begin to root for salvation.
For Pierce it began with a conversation with Rivers in which he re-dedicated himself to the team. He returned to have his best season in 2005-06, but the team was still bad. He missed most of the following year due to injury and, frustrated, he again questioned his future in Boston.
This time, though, Danny Ainge’s plan was to build a winner around Pierce. While bad lottery luck cost Ainge his first option, drafting Kevin Durant, he took the fifth pick and flipped it for Ray Allen. He then got Kevin Garnett in a blockbuster trade, and Paul Pierce suddenly… Finally… was on a contender.
Pierce, more than anyone else, sacrificed his game for the greater good. He still won games with his signature right-elbow step back jumper, but he also let Garnett and Allen do their things. He took over when needed and ceded the spotlight if it was right.
There was just one thing left to do.
Serendipty (noun): The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
In June, 1998, a young Lakers fan from Inglewood, California became, to his chagrin, a Boston Celtic.
Ten years later, in June 2008, the lifelong Celtic had one more obstacle to clear so he could finish writing his perfect NBA story.
The Los Angeles Lakers.
Beating the Lakers is a rite of passage for every Celtics legend. The moment Pierce crossed this threshold, he transformed.
He wasn’t that petulant kid anymore. He wasn’t the guy who torpedoed Team USA or the childish star in a bandage.
As Paul Pierce stood on a rickety table at center court, pumping the Finals MVP trophy over his head while staffers held his stage desperately trying to keep it steady, Pierce became a Celtics legend.
“When I first got to the Celtics I didn’t know what to think. My initial thought was like no, not the Celtics. That’s because I hated them, I hated that they beat the Lakers a couple of times. And as I got more and more engulfed in the history of what the Celtics were about, what the pride was all about, I fell in love with it. It was like this is what basketball should be about for every franchise.”
Maybe it’s appropriate that the rest of Pierce’s story isn’t perfect either. Why should it have been? His career certainly wasn’t.
We know about the missed opportunities for more titles. We know that Pierce ultimately had to leave. We know we all had to move on. Looking back on Pierce’s story arc, going out on top in Boston didn’t make sense.
This is how it had to be.
His leaving is what gave us that one last moment, when Pierce came back to Boston one last time as a Clipper to hit one last shot.
That last Garden roar was, like Pierce, imperfectly perfect.
The cap was placed back on the pen. The cover of the book closed. And we knew, this was the end of the story.
When Shaquille O’Neal, awed by a 42-point performance in Los Angeles, dubbed Pierce “The Truth,” he had no idea how accurate the nickname would be.
Truth can be painful. Truth can be tragic. It can be difficult, and even in its best moments it might not be everything you want it to be.
Truth may be good or bad or insensitive but it is the purest thing in the world. Truth is powerful and, even when inelegant, it is graceful in the clarity it brings.
Truth, for all its flaws, guides us to what is right.
For that, truth is beautiful.
And that’s what Paul Pierce’s game was. All of it.
He is The Truth.
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