How Boston's Paul Pierce became the unquestionable Truth
Since his days as a college player at Kansas, Paul Pierce has changed his game
Once always in need of inspiration, the Celtics star has been a consistent force
His clutch performance in Game 5 showed what an elite player he's become
Buck O'Neil would talk all the time about how he saw the past while looking at the present. For instance, O'Neil would see Ken Griffey swing the bat and immediately think about the sweet left-handed swings of another time -- Billy Williams', for instance, or Ted Williams' or the swing of an old Negro League player like Turkey Stearnes. He would watch Roy Halladay pitch with all that intensity, and in his mind he would see Bob Feller or Satchel Paige or Bob Gibson.
And he often said: "You'll do the same thing when you get old like me."
Well, it must be happening. I must be getting old. Because when watching Boston's Paul Pierce make big shot after big shot against Chicago in Tuesday night's first-round Eastern Conference playoff game, I did not see the superstar Pierce has become -- last year's NBA Finals MVP, the man wearing the headband who has scored more than 18,000 points in his NBA career, the heart of the defending champion Boston Celtics, the man they call "The Truth."
No, I saw the young college player I knew more than a decade ago at Kansas. Paul Pierce was unlike any college basketball player I ever saw. He could do anything. And he could do nothing. And he usually did both in the same game, often in the same half, occasionally on the same possession.
"Paul!" then-Kansas coach Roy Williams would yell from the sideline. "Do something!" Williams never had to be more specific than that. There was never any question with Pierce about him doing the wrong thing on the court -- he always had the most remarkable instincts for the game. With Pierce it was always one of two questions:
1. Wow, why doesn't he play that way all the time?
2. Wow, where did Paul Pierce go?
"I don't get bored with it," he said back then. But that was how it looked much of the time, like he was bored. He was gifted beyond reason; Pierce, even back then, wasn't just good enough to score and rebound and pass and dunk and block shots into the third row. He was good enough to make it all look beautiful. He had a little bit of Jordan, a tablespoon of Malone, a pinch of George Gervin, a dash of Alex English. He could take over in a half-dozen ways.
But he needed something to challenge him, something to stimulate him. He was like the ever-present kids in most of our lives, the ones who make good grades in those school classes that interest them, not so much in those classes that do not. I was that kid in school, too.
"I love Paul," Williams said all the time. "And Paul drives me crazy too."
Watching Pierce on Tuesday, I remembered a game against Iowa State during Pierce's junior year. I had gone to write a column about him, and in the first half he played 15 minutes and did not score a point. He was so non-existent, so ghostlike, that the photographer actually wandered over at halftime and asked, "What do I shoot?"
"Wait," I said.
And in the second half -- perhaps inspired by a stern halftime speech from Williams and news his mother was in the stands -- he scored 16, grabbed five rebounds, made brilliant passes and played suffocating defense. Kansas won by 17. The photographer smiled. He got his shot. It was, in memory, the absolutely perfect Paul Pierce game.
That's how it was his entire college career. At the end of his sophomore year, Pierce was named third-team All-Big 12. Think about that for a minute -- Paul Pierce, who has become the ultimate NBA soldier, the guy who has carried the Boston Celtics this year, the most dangerous last-minute player in the game, was picked behind Nate Erdmann and Cory Carr and Dedric Willoughby and his own teammate Raef LaFrentz. The third-team pick embarrassed him, and Pierce showed his rage on the court, dominating the Big 12 Tournament and winning the MVP Award.
Then, a year later, he was not selected as one of the 10 best small forwards in the country by Street & Smith's. He neatly cut out the chart, taped it to his locker and would stare at it for motivation. Sometimes, it worked. Often, it didn't. "I do think something happens inside of me," he said then. "I think I play my best when I'm under pressure."
There were many doubts about Pierce as an NBA player. There was never a question about his game -- or there should not have been any questions about his game. He was one of those few players who had a true NBA game while in college.*
*You hear that phrase all the time -- "He has an NBA game," -- but I think it's a lot rarer than most people think. There are many great college basketball players, but only a handful of them have what you would call an NBA game -- the physical strength to play at a high level all the time, the unique talent to go to a spot and make a shot even if the defender knows it, the next level that you need to reach for the final minutes of the fourth quarter and the playoffs.
I remember when Kansas reached the NCAA championship game in 2003, the Jayhawks had a couple of excellent players -- Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich -- and it was clear both would play in the NBA, and the feeling was that one or both would be very good NBA players. But then, in the championship game, we all watched Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony do whatever he wanted. And seeing them all on the same floor at the same time, it was clear: THAT GUY had an NBA game.
The questions about Pierce and the NBA were the same ones that hounded him in college: Could he play at that high level night after night? Did he even want to play at that high level night after night? He showed so little emotion. He constantly had to play little games to inspire himself. What would it be like for him when it was Cleveland one night, Orlando the next, Atlanta two days later? Where would he find that inspiration?
That's why Pierce was the 10th pick in the 1998 NBA draft, behind, among others, Robert "Tractor" Traylor, his teammate LaFrentz again, and the unforgettable No. 1 overall pick Michael Olowokandi.*
*In one of the few prescient moments of my sportswriting career, I thought this was absolutely ridiculous. I wrote a rant on draft day in 1998 about the NBA geniuses who allowed Pierce to drop to No. 10. In it, I mentioned that Olowokandi was "Nigerian for Benoit Benjamin."
And so, it's so much fun to see what Pierce has become. He has become a warrior. Tuesday's game was perfect. This has been such a fun series between the Celtics and Bulls -- big shots, tough defense, overtimes, intensity. Pierce was not especially visible for much of the game. He's a very different player now. He's obviously still a great athlete, but, at 31, he's not the force of nature he once was. He is more anchored to the ground. He moves with purpose. And when the Celtics needed the jumper to tie, there was Pierce, going to his spot, shooting with a hand in his face, making the shot.
And in the final moments of overtime, when the Celtics needed points to take the lead, he kept going to his spot, kept shooting those jumpers and kept making them. Everyone knew precisely what he would do. But they could not stop him. That's the kind of player Pierce has become.
When it ended, the sideline reporter asked Pierce if he was at all tired because this was the fourth overtime of the series. He smiled real big and said no, absolutely not, this was fun, he would play overtime every time out. Pierce no longer needs anyone to yell at him to "Do something." He does plenty.
NBA Truth & Rumors