- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"I love my brother. I would love to know my brother. If he doesn't want to know me? O.K. I would wish at least he and our father can sit down and have some closure. Because I have kids, by two different mothers, and one thing I have learned? I will not allow my kids to grow up the way me and Paul grew up—not knowing each other."
DOC RIVERS took over as Boston coach in 2004, and for half of that season he and Pierce clashed. The Celtics were rebuilding and had used three first-round picks to bring in Al Jefferson, Delonte West and Tony Allen. Rivers wanted Pierce to trust his young teammates more and stop playing his ponderous isolation game. Trust? With a championship looking ever more distant, Pierce didn't trust Ainge to get the winning players the team needed and didn't trust Rivers's approach. Boston's first-round playoff loss to Indiana in 2005 put another dent in Pierce's image. After getting ejected from Game 6 for throwing a retaliatory elbow with 12.9 seconds left in regulation, he peeled off his jersey and walked off the court at Conseco Fieldhouse waving it. Auerbach, the Celtics' eminence, called the display "embarrassing." It came as no shock to hear, on draft night two months later, that Ainge was close to dealing Pierce for the rights to rookie guard Chris Paul.
When that deal fell through, it looked like star and team would be stuck in one of those bad NBA marriages. But during the two awful seasons following 2005, Pierce never tuned the coach out. Rivers kept waiting for Pierce's supposed selfishness to kick in, but "even though it wasn't working—and he was fighting it—he was still trying to do [what was needed]," Rivers says. "That's not a selfish person."
The team won just 24 games in 2006--07, and late in the season Pierce told a Boston reporter, "I'm the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks." Yet such foot-stomping had become more exception than rule; Ainge, Rivers, his brothers Jamal and Steve had noticed that, as Pierce says, "my spirits really changed." He had been seeing a woman named Julie Landrum since '05, and Pierce credits her with teaching him to think more positively and "keeping me happy." Out for nearly half the '06--07 season with injuries, Pierce watched Boston lose a record 18 straight. He realized that, at 29, he was as far as ever from winning a title, and his first impulse was to publicly demand a trade. Landrum talked him out of it.
Instead, in a midseason meeting with Ainge, Grousbeck and managing partner Stephen Pagliuca, Pierce calmly ran through the options: trading him to a veteran team, rebuilding around young talent. Grousbeck insisted he wanted Pierce to retire a Celtic and would pay to build a winner. "I believed them this time," Pierce says. "I thought, All right. I finally heard it from the horse's mouth."
Proof came only when Ainge engineered the trades, in June and July 2007, for perennial All-Stars Garnett and Allen. This is your opportunity, Pierce thought. Don't let it go to waste. Any fear that he wouldn't be able to share the ball, the stage, dissolved. "First day of camp, you knew: He wanted to win so bad," Rivers says.
When George Pierce returns the call, he speaks briefly, says he has watched his son play on TV. He has just one photograph, taken when Paul was four or five. George remembers that he was supposed to pick Paul up once, but he had to work and didn't show. George says he's had his ups and downs, and "some things that shouldn't have happened did." It's not clear if he's talking about his relationship with Lorraine or Paul or the fact that he never spoke to his son again.
"Why don't you do this," George says. "Why don't you get ahold of him and have him call me?"
The Celtics bolted to a 30--4 start, and anyone could see that Garnett and Allen had freed Pierce. He had carried the scoring load for so long that his all-around game now came as a revelation. With Garnett's presence enabling him to gamble on the defensive end, and Allen's outside shooting providing a payoff for his passes, Pierce took the fewest shots of his career and had the season of his life. He averaged 19.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.26 steals. He made the All-Star team for the sixth time. He began changing minds.
"What I saw was commitment," Karl says. "If the game said, 'Be a defender'? He was a defender. If the game said, 'Be a rebounder'? He was a rebounder. If the game said, 'Be an orchestrator'? He was an orchestrator. He made his career scoring points, but last year? What the game asked him to do, he did."