By Kevin Henkin
During the off-season, the only time I want to see Paul Pierce’s face in the news is, well, never. When it comes to the Celtics’ Captain, no news is the best kind of news because when Pierce is off the radar, that means he isn’t involved in nearly fatal stabbing incidents or representing the face of USA Basketball during one of its lowest moments or denigrating his surrounding cast of teammates and making veiled demands to be traded a mere year after re-signing a very lucrative contract extension or senselessly comparing himself to Kobe Bryant. When Pierce stays out of the news, the hope is that he is off somewhere treating his body like a temple and doing everything within his power to fend off the process of aging that will soon rob him of his special gifts.
It’s important to consider Paul Pierce in terms of who he is and where he has been. By the time they unfurl Banner 17 and hand out the rings, Pierce will be 31 years old. He’s a 10-year veteran of the league and has nearly 800 regular season and playoff games under his belt. Ten years is a long period of time in this league. Hell, it’s an era. And it hasn’t been a quiet ten years either. During that time, there have been some powerful lessons personally delivered to the doorstep of Paul Pierce.
First and foremost, there was the stabbing attack that almost left him dead during the pre-season in 2000, his third pre-season as a professional. It seems hard to believe but the incident took place eight years ago this September. Still viewed as a minor miracle, Pierce was able to recover to the point of submitting a strong (and full) season and a significant step forward as a player and a premier scorer.
That recovery season is best viewed as a testament to Pierce’s toughness and intestinal fortitude. It was also the season, however, in which Pierce’s young team sufficiently quit on Rick Pitino, ultimately driving the pocket-tyrant out of town. Pitino left with his reputation left in tatters and with millions (about 27) of his dollars left on the table. It was a textbook case of NBA player empowerment and it would likely later impact Pierce’s attitude towards and relationship with Doc Rivers.
When Jim O’Brien took over, the first and best thing he did was to turn the team over to Pierce and Antoine Walker, made them part of the leadership, made them accountable. And it worked. Pierce (and Walker) quickly grew up as players and eventually led their team as far, perhaps farther, than it deserved to go in 2002.
Then that likeable (apologies to Bob Ryan) team was dismantled by a trifecta of Paul Gaston’s frugality, Chris Wallace’s incompetence and Danny Ainge’s alternate longer (and I mean longer)-term vision. And thus began Paul Pierce’s five year odyssey into the wilderness as a disgruntled star player.
There was the trading of Antoine Walker, the unloading of other close teammates like Tony Battie and Eric Williams, the huffy departure of Jim O’Brien, the subsequent banana republic of John Carroll, the seemingly endless carousel of unlovable loser teammates like Ricky Davis and Mark Blount. What was the official low point, the immature ejection and foolish press conference during in the 2005 playoff meltdown against the Pacers or the 18-game losing streak season that included Pierce’s first serious injury? Who knows? Better yet, who cares? The point is, those five years are clearly acknowledged as not a fun time to be Paul Pierce. But the wilderness at least had to give him some perspective, on just how bad it could be to live among the dregs and also-rans of the NBA, to feel hopeless against the ticking of a career clock.
Then, finally, Pierce experienced the sweetness of the flip-side scenario. He saw his hard work converted into the ultimate payoff, an NBA championship. The title came largely as a result of Pierce’s renewed dedication to the game and, some would say, a first-time dedication to real team defense. In short, Pierce (along with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett) set aside personal glory for the benefit of his team and that sacrifice paid off. One would assume that such a powerful lesson would resonate and sink in deep, would carry over into his approach to his first off-season as a defending champion.
Which is why this Vegas incident is so puzzling. Is begs the specific question: Why is a 30-year old 10-year veteran player out at 3 in the morning in Las Vegas? Or, more to the point, why is this particular player out in the middle of the night in a dangerous city? Shouldn’t he simply know better by now, after all that he’s been through, both good and bad? If his own experiences haven’t been enough of a judgmental driver, what about the notable example set forth by Kevin Garnett? What about the continued need to serve as a leader to the younger players? How many times have you heard Doc Rivers caution his rookies: “Nothing good happens ever after midnight.” By doing what he’s done, Pierce negates that message. He drowns it out. “Hey, I hear what you’re saying, Coach, but look at the Captain…”
Is this the end of the world? Hardly. In terms of impact, it’s a relatively minor incident. The loss of James Posey is the far more disturbing development of the off-season thus far. But at least Posey’s flight was understandable. Business is business. It happens. With Pierce, however, these days of controversy were supposed to be over, as much a part of the past as Antoine’s wiggle or Dan Shaughnessy’s relevance. The time is now more than ever for Pierce to wear that “C” on his chest on a year-round basis.