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A Fan’s Notes on Paul Pierce
May 19, 2015Posted by on
As a kid in junior high and high school, I was a basketball fanatic. College, pros, high school, didn’t matter. Late summers and early falls were for consuming glossy-covered pre-season hoop publications like Athlon and Lindy’s, and less aesthetically attractive magazine covers like Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, I was source agnostic. Growing up in the not-so-fertile basketball world of Des Moines, Iowa, I was partial towards the hoop prospects my state produced and none had me as giddy as Raef LaFrentz. A 6’11” knee-knocked kid from some foreign outpost of school called MFL Monona-Marmac. The first I’d heard of Raef was in the Des Moines Register when he was named to the all-state team as a junior after averaging 36-points, 16-rebounds, and six blocks. His senior year was waylaid by a bout with mono, but seeing him at the State Tournament that year, I knew he’d be legit, unlike his fellow big man from the class of ’95, Iowa-commit Greg Helmers.
So it was that in 1996, I was riding a wave of anticipation when my parents picked up tickets to see LaFrentz’s Jayhawks in Ames, Iowa against Iowa State. After all, Kansas wasn’t just LaFrentz. There was Scot Pollard and Jerod Haase, Jacque Vaughn and Billy Thomas, and a talented freshman from Inglewood named Paul Pierce.
At the time I was a skinny fifteen year-old freshman with a full head of short brown hair and round glasses. During a grab ass game of gym class basketball I managed to break my arm and leg, a hideous and painful calamity of injuries that landed me in the hospital hopped up on drugs, constipated and completely incapable of attending of a college basketball game. My buddy Hamilton ended up with the tickets and took another high school buddy of ours, and meanwhile I was bed ridden and crippled, unable and uninterested in some basketball game.
Back then Pierce was a curiosity. My affinity for the Jayhawks started with LaFrentz and ended with the team. The other guys were supporting characters, but characters nonetheless with their own stories on the periphery of my own basketball experience. For me Pierce maintained this role for much of his career before evolving into a hated villain when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in Boston.
It’s weird, but before KG and Ray showed up, my most memorable Truth-related tale was his brush with death in a scary off-court stabbing in 2000. I was a college sophomore at the time and too busy being a 19-year-old idiot to fixate on the day-to-day comings and goings of the league, but even though the game was less of a priority, Pierce’s stabbing rose above the socio-academic cacophony. Looking back over the story, he “was stabbed 11 times in the face, neck, and back.” In some versions of the story the only reason he survived was the thick leather coat he wore at the time. Something about that always stuck with me and probably always will. He probably should’ve died, he probably should’ve been a tragic story in the wrong place at the wrong time, but instead this leather coat was his body armor and saved his life.
Then there was the oddball improbable chase for the finals with Antoine Walker and Coach Jim O’Brien in 2002. These Celtics won 49 games and had a 2-1 lead over the Jason Kidd/Kenyon Martin Nets in the conference finals before the Nets won three straight. Even though Boston lost, game three was another in a career of big Paul Pierce moments. The Celtics, down 19 points heading into the fourth, outscored New Jersey 41-16. Of course, the big game bonafides which were so clearly on display in 2015 against the Hawks had already begun taking shape: Pierce keyed that comeback by scoring 19 points in the final frame. And with a hint towards what would grow into a legendary swagger, after the game Pierce had this to say:
If I was on the other end of this, I would be hurting right now. I think this is a chance for us to gain momentum and take control of the series and not look back.
In a diluted, post-Jordan/pre-LeBron east, I thought the Pierce/Walker Celtics were maybe, possibly onto something following that conference finals appearance. It’s also possible my basketball analysis was rudimentary or confused. But whatever my shortcomings as a prognosticator, the ensuing five seasons were lean with Boston missing the playoffs twice and winning a total of seven playoff games in five years. With the Bron/Wade/Melo group emerging as torch bearers for a new generation, Pierce receded further away from the NBA’s mainstream superstardom. From 2002 until 2007, he continued his elite, if unspectacular role as an NBA all-star, but struggled to compete with the better players and storylines of his contemporaries like Kobe, Shaq, Duncan, KG, Dirk, Iverson, and Nash. He was likely overlooked and underappreciated, but fair or not, indicative of individual ability or not, the NBA has historically reserved its ink and camera time for winners, good guys, and players who score 81 points in a game. Pierce wasn’t as good as Kobe, didn’t win like Duncan, wasn’t a media darling like Nash, and didn’t have the culture-challenging chops of Iverson.
After all those years with Boston, the patience finally paid off in the summer of 2007 when Garnett and Allen joined the 30-year-old Pierce and second-year wunderkind Rajon Rondo. Pierce didn’t become a different person with his new team, but rather the cameras and mainstream just started paying closer attention and captured something of a Barkley-lite charisma. Great Celtic teams pull in the media like flies to shit and this was no different. Beyond the feel good story of these three first-ballot Hall-of-Famers finally rendezvousing, a narrative of villainy and bullying accompanied them. What made it all even more compelling was a reborn east with good teams and rivalry. The Celtics, with Pierce and KG as their joint mouthpiece, were front runners. Kendrick Perkins was perfectly cast as an enforcer, KG as the bully known for targeting European-born players and youngsters, and Pierce, the old school crusty veteran chomping at the bit to prove he was every bit the class of LeBron and Kobe.
I hated these Celtics. It wasn’t just because I’m a Laker fan. The best teams are often the easiest to dislike and these Celtics were no different. In retrospect, this was likely the best group in the league for a two-to-four year span and it’s surprising they only squeezed out a single title. Pierce had always been some sort of modern madcap iteration of Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley, a great player outshined by better peers. Like Chuck and Clyde, his emergence onto center stage brought with it ample opportunity to re-assess his place in my fandom and whether it was easier to lump him into the unlikable whole that was the Celtics or maybe just the ridiculous, if overblown, wheelchair incident, I loathed this new Paul Pierce. But the wheelchair thing didn’t help and it was less about Pierce than the hero narrative the media or Mike Tirico attached to it. With Pierce going down and returning, the theater of the game and the Pierce narrative along with it grew out of control like an ugly media-created Frankenstein. On one hand, Tirico (or a Tirico-type) lionized the event. Meanwhile the public was right to troll it. The disparity between the two views was drastic and while my disdain should’ve been reserved for the media, Pierce was an easier target at whom I could direct my venoms.
From 2007 to 2011 or 2012, the Celtics were my least favorite team in the league. It’s more than likely a telling trait of my personality, but the players I loathe the most are the ones for whom I reserve much of my time. There’s a dark intimacy to embracing the characters you hate. In the same way I looked forward to Joffrey’s death in Game of Thrones, I relish the defeat of my least favorite teams in any sport. This deep loathing lives somewhere in my bones and in the pit of my guts and has been with me since the Pistons were walloping Michael Jordan back in the late 80s. What’s twisted about this relationship is the need for villain to be not just talented, but to be dominant. In order for any level of sustained sporting hatred to develop into anything worth remembering, the opponent needs to leave you salty, almost rub your face in all the things you can’t stand about them. At this point, the fan (me) can start seeing beyond actions and into intentions. Whether real or perceived, the fan who gets his or her money’s worth will have their suspicions validated by facial expressions imagined as arrogance, bumps misconstrued as flagrant shoves, injuries as fakery. I remember these teams and players as well as I remember my favorites over the years. Jordan’s Bulls aren’t Jordan’s Bulls without those Pistons, the Patrick Ewing Knicks, or even the Malone/Stockton Jazz. The Fab Five wasn’t as interesting without Duke as a contrasting foil – and I hated some Duke. For Pierce, with KG by his side, to attain this level after years of middling existence in my fan world is no small feat and for those four or five years he was at the top, I despised him.
But like everything else, nothing lasts forever and with the decline of the Celtics, the most beautiful part of fandom occurred for me: the great thaw. For most (all?) players I’ve despised, after a time, when they are no longer a threat to my team or my existence, the dark frost melts away from me and I can embrace the player with a sense of respect and appreciation. It’s almost sad to see an old foe no longer capable of eliciting the same anger in you, but unless you’re truly hardcore it’s simply not possible.
Before he was even traded to Brooklyn, Pierce was transitioning into this phase for me, but it was the most unfortunate part of the phase, the one where the former foe is an empty shell like Ewing in Seattle or Ewing in Orlando. In Brooklyn, it was boring with LeBron trouncing his old enemies in five games like an in-prime Larry Holmes pounding an outclassed Muhammad Ali into the canvas and that was that. It’s easy to forget and let memories go with a whimper or a fizzle, a something to a nothing without much reason to pause and reminisce.
Cue 2015 and the playoffs. Cue a throwback Paul Pierce, still rocking that pearish-shaped body, but now making appearances at the power forward spot in Randy Wittman’s offense. And suddenly Pierce wasn’t just an old man, but a queer specimen of the Hollywood variety. Our own Crash Davis as a colorfully crustified veteran oozing with savvy and audacity. He shot 52% from three over ten playoff games and that was while taking over six threes per game. As the Wiz scrapped and clawed through their series with Atlanta, a series they would lose in six games, it wasn’t Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer or even game five hero Al Horford that would be deemed “winner of the series” (assuming such an award existed), but it was Pierce. With his game three buzzer beater for the win, his wide open game four miss, his game five clutch three that should’ve won, and his game six three that was late by the slightest of milliseconds, Pierce breathed life back into the character he’s always played, the character he’s always been and in the strangest of plot twists managed to temporarily snatch the spotlight from young bucks 10-15 years his junior. I watched all four of those final games and for the first time in my relationship with Pierce, I rooted for his slow-mo form to be perfect and on point, I sat at home trying to will his shots into the hoop and experience the other side of watching Paul Pierce.
It feels strange that my consciousness has known the human called Paul Pierce for nearly twenty years. The Pierce I missed out on in Ames back in 1996 is fundamentally the same person I hated for five years in Boston and the same guy I cheered for a week ago. Circumstance thrust him in and out of various roles and he’s the rare character fully capable of existing as hero or heel. With his one ring and incomplete splotchy facial hair, he’ll never be Kobe or Duncan, just an infinitely more colorful character who calls his own shots and hits them.