Green with Envy
Celtics rookie Paul Pierce is making the teams that didn't draft him regret it
He always saved the shooting drills for last, when his legs were dead and his breathing labored. It was a self-imposed rule at all his off-season workouts. Celtics rookie Paul Pierce had to be close to exhaustion before he would grab a basketball and begin his roll call.
" Michael Olowokandi, Los Angeles Clippers!" he would shout as he buried a 20-footer. " Mike Bibby, Vancouver Grizzlies!" he'd holler as he swished a second jumper. " Raef LaFrentz, Denver Nuggets...."
Down the line he would go, naming each player taken ahead of him in the 1998 NBA draft. The names of those nine players and the teams that selected them are branded into Pierce's psyche. Whenever he feels fatigued, or complacent, he simply recalls the list and feeds off the jolt of adrenaline that slight still gives him. "Whatever little thing I can find," Pierce explains, "I use to motivate myself."
At week's end, Pierce was third in the league in steals (2.67 per game) and averaging 18.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. Sure, Kings point guard Jason Williams is everybody's favorite highlight-reel rookie, and the Raptors' Vince Carter has thrown down a few tasty dunks in his first season, but the 6'7" Pierce is the complete package on both ends of the floor. "He's the cream of the crop," says Heat president and coach Pat Riley.
So why did he slip to No. 10? A combination of things: Pierce made it clear that he didn't want to play in either Toronto or Sacramento; he plays the same position—small forward—as Carter and Antawn Jamison, who were picked ahead of him; and after Kansas lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament last year, there were whispers that Pierce looked a little soft.
Regardless of why he was still available after nine picks, Boston is delighted Pierce dropped into its lap, and Pierce is fortunate to have ended up where he did. The Celtics' up-tempo style is a good fit for his skills and athleticism. Pierce's superior upper-body strength, meanwhile, has prevented other small forwards from muscling him off the blocks.
Pierce's fast start has made him wildly popular in Boston, where fans have been thirsting for a new star since the end of the Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish era. Forward Antoine Walker auditioned for the part the past two sea-sons, to mixed reviews; while his talent is unquestionable, he doesn't exhibit the poise or consistency Pierce has shown in just 15 NBA games. Pierce's teammates say Pitino rides the rookie harder than anyone else in practice, dwelling on the tiniest of deficiencies. In Pitino's world, that's the ultimate sign of affection. Pitino lusted after German star Dirk Nowitzki on draft night, and would have taken Nowitzki, had he been on the board, ahead of Pierce. This fact has not escaped Pierce. Nor has the fact that Kentucky, coached by Pitino, did not pursue him as a high school prospect.
Is all forgiven? Perhaps—but not forgotten. Asked if he has ever mentioned those slights to Pitino, Pierce says, "I may have brought it up a time or two."
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