Pierce has matured into a star on cusp of second championship
Paul Pierce fell to 10th pick in '98 draft and has played with chip on shoulder
For the first part of his career Pierce was known as a good player on a bad team
Now, Pierce can win second title in three years by beating Kobe each time
LOS ANGELES -- Answer: Michael Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, Raef LaFrentz, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Robert Traylor, Jason Williams, Larry Hughes and Dirk Nowitzki.
Question: Name the nine players selected ahead of Paul Pierce in the 1998 NBA draft.
This has always bothered Pierce. He's been playing the "no respect" card since he came into the league. In his early years with the Celtics, he'd practice his perimeter game, firing shots from nine spots on the floor, shouting the name of each player picked ahead of him as he made his way around the semicircle.
All these years later, things haven't changed that much. Pierce is viewed as a second-tier talent, something less than Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard.
But here's Pierce on the threshold of a second world championship in three seasons, and he's got a chance to do it at the expense of the four superstars named in the paragraph above. The Celtics beat Wade and the Heat in Round 1, stunned LeBron and the Cavaliers in Round 2, toyed with Howard and the Magic in the conference finals, and are now one victory away from winning another championship against Kobe and the Lakers.
Bryant is the best finisher in the game. He's won four titles. He scored 38 points against the Celtics Sunday night in Game 5, including a stretch of 23 consecutive Laker points over the course of two quarters.
But Kobe has yet to win a championship against the Celtics. It was Pierce who was MVP of the Finals when the Celtics whupped L.A. two years ago and Pierce could be MVP again if the Celtics win tonight or Thursday at the Staples Center. After a slow start in the early games of the 2010 Finals, Pierce has converted 19 of 33 shots and scored 46 points in back-to-back Celtic victories.
Not bad for a self-described "fat kid" who grew up in Inglewood in the shadow of the Los Angeles Forum.
Pierce has played 12 NBA seasons and has scored more points than every Celtic except John Havlicek and Larry Bird. At this stage of his career, he's considered one of the six greatest Celtics ever, alongside Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Havlicek, Bird and Kevin McHale. But it's taken Pierce a long time to earn a chair in the parquet pantheon.
There's never been much doubt about Pierce's talent. He was forced to take a backseat to Antoine Walker in his early years, but it was clear Pierce was the best thing to happen to the Celtics in the Rick Pitino era. Pierce's maturity was the issue.
In 2000, through no fault of his own, he was attacked at a Boston nightclub and almost died. He was jumped by three men and suffered multiple stab wounds to his neck, face and back. Doctors speculated that his life was saved by the leather jacket he was wearing.
"You've got to watch your back,'' Pierce said after the stabbing. "We are targets as basketball players. I'm more aware of where I'm going and who I'm with.''
He recovered from his wounds, but couldn't escape the stigma of immaturity. Pierce was part of an American team that finished an embarrassing sixth at the 2002 Worlds and he alienated USA basketball coaches George Karl and Gregg Popovich.
Pierce clashed with Doc Rivers when Rivers took over as coach of the Celtics in 2004. "Me and Doc definitely bumped heads from the beginning,'' said Pierce. "There were screaming matches, rebellion. I didn't think it was going to work between me and him.''
Pierce misbehaved in a playoff series with Indiana, getting tagged with a selfish technical foul at the end of a close game, then wrapping his head in a bizarre bandage for a postgame press conference.
The Celtics were a sub-.500 team in six of Pierce's first nine seasons and he said, "I'm a classic example of a great player on a bad team.''
Pierce did not grow up overnight. In 2008, the league fined him $25,000 after he flashed a gang sign in the direction of the Atlanta Hawks bench during a first-round playoff series.
Winning the championship and the Finals MVP changed everything. Pierce was finally a true Celtic, worthy of being discussed along with Russell, Bird and the rest. Now he's got a shot at a second championship.
"You have dreams and I'm one of the few that accomplished my dream of going to the NBA,'' Pierce said before the start of this series. " I didn't want to be a Boston Celtic (he grew up a Lakers fan), but I am a Boston Celtic and I've enjoyed every moment of it. I've had a chance to learn the history, been around the great players. It's so much fun when you're in Boston and you see the Havliceks come around, you see Cousy, [Cedric] Maxwell and [Tommy] Heinsohn all the time. Just soaking up the history of the Boston Celtics has been the best thing that's happened to me as a player.''
There's more history to be made Tuesday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Dan Shaughnessy is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Read more of his columns here.
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