The road to redemption (cont.)
The redemption quest for Pierce is more desperate than it is for Bryant. The Lakers star has three rings, even if they were earned alongside Shaquille O'Neal, and is a surefire Hall of Famer. Pierce, on the other hand, had played in just one conference finals (in 2002) before this season and waits, impatiently, just outside the velvet ropes of superstardom. He has never been as airily haughty in the public eye as Kobe. When Bryant was asked last week why so many of his teammates wear his signature sneakers (Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmanovic and D.J. Mbenga lace up the new Hyperdunk, while Ronny Turiaf favors the older Zoom Kobe III), he had the chance to muster up at least some wink-of-the-eye humility. We're all just waiting for Ronny to get his own shoe, he might've said. Instead, Bryant lapsed into Nike-speak, referring to his famous viral video clip. "They all have an interest in jumping over cars," he said. "It intrigues them, so they wear the shoes." That is Bryant, take him or leave him, the latter being what much of America -- aside from L.A., where Kobe-adoration knows no bounds -- chooses to do. His hunt for redemption is very real, but he does not ask for our blessing or approval along the way.
Bryant glides through life. Pierce claws. The Celtics' swingman has not been pilloried to the degree that Bryant has, but then Pierce has not publicly erred on such a manifest scale as Bryant did when he found himself accused of rape in 2003. (The charge was dropped.) Pierce was clearly the victim when he was stabbed nearly a dozen times in a Boston nightclub in September '00. Still, Pierce has had his moments, which he collectively calls "the dumb stuff I did." For much of his early career he affixed a scowl to his face, suggesting that this child's game for which he was handsomely compensated brought about as much pleasure as dealing with a duodenal ulcer. He played angry as well, bulling his way to the basket and flailing his arms wildly to get a foul call, the American version of the European flop. (Though his game has become much more refined, he still does that from time to time.) He came across as the emblem of the self-centered American player when, as the team's top scorer, he "led" the United States to a sixth-place finish in the '02 world championships in Indianapolis, alienating teammates and coaches George Karl and Gregg Popovich. And who could forget when he showed up at a press conference after the Celtics' Game 6 overtime win over the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the '05 playoffs with his head wrapped in bandages, to protest a foul that he thought should have been called.
Then, too, not all of the dumb stuff is so far in the past. It was only last season that he presented himself as "the classic case of a great player on a bad team," thereby creating a two-caste system, just as Bryant would do last spring with his comments about his lack of a supporting cast and his trade demand. And in the first round of this postseason Pierce was fined $25,000 for flashing what league officials considered to be a "menacing gesture" toward the Atlanta Hawks' bench. Last week Pierce acknowledged to Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe that it "can be" a gang sign but added that "anything can be a gang gesture. It's whatever you interpret it as. I interpret it as something different, where a gang member is going to interpret it as a gang symbol." Welcome to the Spin Room.
Also still open to interpretation is the knee injury Pierce suffered in the third quarter of Game 1, when teammate Kendrick Perkins fell into his leg. Pierce's face was contorted in pain as he was carried off the court by teammates Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine, then deposited in a wheelchair. That was followed by his skip-the-light-fantastic return three minutes later. "You know, I think God just sent this angel down and said, 'Hey, you're going to be all right,' " Pierce said after the game. " 'You need to get back out there. Show them what you've got.' "
That served as a nice setup line for Jackson, who was asked between Games 1 and 2 to compare Pierce's return with Willis Reed's dramatic hobble out of a Madison Square Garden locker room before Game 7 of the 1970 Finals between Jackson's New York Knicks and the Lakers. "[Reed] had to have a shot, a horse shot, three or four of them in his thigh to come back out and play," said Jackson, who lives for such moments when his wry wit can be sufficiently engaged. "Paul got carried off and was back on his feet in a minute. I don't know if the angels visited him at halftime ... but he didn't even limp when he came back out on the floor. ... Was Oral Roberts back there in their locker room?"
Pierce could laugh that off on Sunday night. While Bryant, head down, had already turned away from the action and was heading toward the locker room when the Game 2 buzzer sounded, Pierce did a couple of on-court interviews and then, arms raised in triumph, skipped toward the tunnel that leads to the Celtics' locker room. While the path to redemption will be far more difficult to negotiate in L.A., on Sunday night at least there were only joyous supporters lining his way.