There stands Paul Pierce. The Celtics forward, once the seeming embodiment of what Jordan sneeringly called "New Jack players"—underachieving and self-involved, persona non grata with the national team after leading it to its implosion in 2002, bearer of a contract that will pay him $18,077,903 this season—is hunched over. He's a wreck. Havlicek hands him the trophy, and Pierce dips his head onto the legend's right shoulder. Pierce lifts his head, tears streaming down his cheeks, and it suddenly becomes clear that we're witnessing a rare moment in modern sports: not market-tested, not spun, close to pure.
The greats circle Pierce, hugging the captain who erased 10 years of questions by leading Boston over its archrival, the Los Angeles Lakers, in the 2008 Finals, the man who went head-to-head with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and outplayed them, revealing himself as a winner. It is a welcome. "For Havlicek to pass that to him?" says Celtics forward Kevin Garnett. "That was a generation passing it down, saying, 'You're finally one of us. You're a made person.'" Pierce raises the golden prize above his head and shakes it at the crowd: 19,000 throats bellow. He glances at the trophy, shakes it again, cheeks shiny and wet, mouth gaping; the man can barely breathe. He sets the trophy down on a table and staggers off.
But it's not over. When Pierce walks back out minutes later to receive his ring, he's still weeping, and he files down the line of league and team execs saying "Thank you, thank you" to each. He hugs his coach, Doc Rivers, and general manager Danny Ainge and, after helping raise the banner, turns on his heel and burrows into the crowd. He finds his mother, the woman who raised him alone, and gives the ring to her.
Lorraine Hosey kisses her son. "You've waited your whole life for this," she says.
And maybe that's it, why Pierce is carrying on in a way his family and friends have never seen before. Jason Crowe, his best friend for 17 years, had never seen him cry, not after heartbreaking high school losses, not after one of their teammates was murdered, not even after Paul himself almost died.
So many of the important people in Pierce's life are here tonight: Uncle Mike, who raised the basket in the driveway where he learned to play; his idol and half brother Steve Hosey; the high school coaches who served as the father he never had. Even that man—the dad—he's here, too, though he's not, his absence the same massive presence it has been since Pierce was very young.
This can't be real, Pierce thinks as he makes his way to the bench. His teammates are on the court, shooting warmups, but he sinks into a chair. He blows out his cheeks. "Get it together," Pierce says out loud, and then a fan yells, "Do it again, Paul!" and he drops his head into his hands. No: It happened. It really happened. When Pierce looks up, his eyes are red. He tugs on his right knee brace. He rubs his hands into his face.
And that's when you know: yes. Winning can still matter, still trump coin, comfort and cheap fame. The next question is why.
TWICE IN his life, men have left Paul Pierce in profound pain. It's too glib to say that's the reason he is a champion today, but being a victim has provided him a unique fuel. He's also been given great ability, especially to probe other men for weaknesses and beat them in a very public way—victimizing them, no less—and the tricky part is figuring out which is more important, the ability or the fuel. Pierce doesn't give a lot of clues. He's about as easy to read as an Easter Island monument. "There can be a fire going on all around him," Crowe says, "and if you look at his face? You won't know."
But Pierce may not know either; pain can breed complications, a lifetime of inner conflict. That's why, though stunned to see him so emotional, those in his camp understood. He is a basketball player, after all, whose ambivalence toward his sport can be summed up by the tattoo he commissioned two years ago for his left forearm, the one depicting a knife plunging into a basketball and framed by the words MY GIFT, MY CURSE. Pierce keeps that covered on the court with a sweatband, but if you're looking—and he wants you to look—know that in what should be his season of supreme contentment, of peace at last, Pierce has a miniature version emblazoned on the side of his game sneakers, complete with the initials MG/MC. Whenever he hits the court, Pierce is literally a walking contradiction.