The Whole Truth
On Friday night in the Boston Celtics locker room, Paul Pierce is looking splendid in baller chic. Twenty minutes after an easy home win, he stands in the middle of the media crush, outfitted like the star of a Dirty South rap video, like a leader of the new-school-me-first-razzle-dazzle wing of the National Basketball Association. He's rocking a black trench coat over an untucked T-shirt emblazoned with the face of the Godfather, Don Corleone. A red feather is wedged into the white band of the black fedora that rests atop his head. A sparkly chain dangles from his neck, supporting a fist-sized pendant fashioned into a single, silver word: Truth.
That's Pierce's nickname, “The Truth.” The truth is, Pierce can't wait to get out of here, to jump in his Hummer and get home. He hates this. A dozen reporters surround him, pushing their recorders to within inches of his face. He's squinting in the glare of the television cameras. He's fidgety and defensive. He responds to the questions with clipped statements that reveal nothing. The truth is, it's bizarre to watch someone dressed so provocatively — the Celtics' captain and best player, no less — look so uncomfortable at the center of attention.
That's Paul Pierce. He's a man whose contradictions have begun to define him. Whatever his attire tonight may suggest, Pierce's game is thoroughly old school. He can shoot, rebound, and pass. He always hustles at practice. He's coachable and respectful. And he's funny. But if that's Paul Pierce, then how to explain what's been going on this season? Pierce has been eye-rollingly, shoulder-shruggingly adrift. He has looked bored and unhappy. He barely speaks with his coach, who has benched him three times. During a preseason game in October, he pushed right up to the edge of pro-sports delinquency, spitting at the Cleveland Cavaliers' reserves following trash-talking rounds with Cavs' phenom LeBron James.
So really, how do you explain that?
You might trace it back to a year and a half ago, when the Celtics traded Antoine Walker, Pierce's good friend, co-captain, and buffer. Walker embraced his role as the public face of the team. He found it easy to answer the tough questions, to smile for the cameras. But the Celts got rid of him, and they began to lose, and those things became Pierce's job. Though Pierce has continued to play well — scoring more than 20 points per game and making the All-Star team for the fourth straight year — he has had a lot less fun doing it.
All that seemed to change, just as abruptly, after the stunning move the Celtics made in late February, when they turned around and actually traded for Walker. With the duo reunited, everyone was saying, happy days are here again. Maybe. But there are plenty of reasons to doubt it will last. There's a decent chance Walker will be gone again at the end of this season. And even if he stays, there's no changing the fact that Pierce has seen his sport's jagged edges. As Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, had it, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
Or as Pierce himself tells me: “Personally, I think I've got split personalities, and I may need a psychiatrist. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Seriously. I'm serious about this.”
On May 9, 2003, the Boston Celtics' new owners turned the fate of the franchise over to Danny Ainge, who had played Pierce's position while helping the team win two titles during the '80s. The Celts put Ainge in control of all basketball decisions, sort of like an extra-powerful general manager, and announced the big news right in the middle of a second-round playoff series, if you can believe it. The Celtics lost that night's game, and the next one, and that was it: Their season was over. Still, the mood around town was good. The Celtics had made the Eastern Conference finals the year before. They had two young stars in Pierce and Walker, a respected coach in Jim O'Brien, and solid role players. They were alive for the first time in a decade and a half. That's what the fans thought, anyway.
Ainge knew the team had already gone as far as it ever would. So he began his grand experiment. He'd “been doing an autopsy on the team and on each individual player,” he said at the time, “and ultimately I feel that this is a good deal for us.” The deal he was talking about involved several players, but at its core was Antoine Walker. Ainge never liked Walker's game. He never liked his approach to the game. Walker was the heart of the team, but he took too many bad shots and lacked the effortless athleticism Ainge desired. Worse, Walker resisted changing to fit Ainge's master plan. He had the organization in a “stranglehold,” Ainge said, so the boss got rid of him.
In dismissing Walker, Ainge sent an unmistakable message: The Celtics were now Paul Pierce's team. He was the one with the talent to restore the franchise's greatness, a pure scorer unafraid to take the big shots in the biggest moments. At 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, he had a thick, rugged frame that set him apart from other well-known shooting guards, guys like Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, who are long and sleek, aerodynamic. His size made him one of the game's best rebounders at his position. And Pierce liked to win. A lot. Plus, he was clean-cut and bright. He was exactly the type of player around which you build a team, even an entire organization.
So it didn't seem to matter — or maybe no one bothered to notice — that Pierce had always been content to let Walker take the lead off the court. It didn't seem to matter that, when he's not playing basketball, Pierce can be reticent to the point of shyness, that the media horde makes him tentative, even distrustful. Some stars — like Bryant, who broke up the Los Angeles Lakers by forcing the trade of fellow superstar Shaquille O'Neal — dream of having the spotlight to themselves. Not Pierce. Yet as last season unfolded, it was him the reporters wanted to talk to, win or lose, good game or bad. It was his jersey everyone wore to the games. It was his face up on the Jumbotron. It was him.
All along, Ainge continued tinkering with the Celtics. Two months after sending Walker to Dallas, he traded Pierce's closest friend on the team, Tony Battie, to Cleveland. Eventually Ainge got rid of just about everyone he inherited upon taking control. He brought in younger, more athletic players, sacrificing wins in the present for the prospect of future glory. Coach Jim O'Brien quit in the middle of the season. His replacement, John Carroll, was let go three months later. Pierce, as Walker would later say, “felt like he was on an island.” About the only thing that remained from his first five years in the league was the building where the Celtics played. And for a while, even that had a new name every night.
With each move, Ainge's reluctant superstar was pushed further into the spotlight. There were still times when he enjoyed being the main attraction, the wisecracker, the charmer who draped an arm around a ballboy's shoulder, who pumped his fist to the crowd after a clutch shot. But just as often, he could be listless, petulant. And as the losses mounted, it was startling how quickly he could shift moods.
Earlier this season, I went to the Celtics practice facility in Waltham to watch the team scrimmage. New head coach Doc Rivers was hollering instructions but seemed to hardly notice Pierce at all. Pierce, in turn, declined to so much as look at Rivers, gazing at the floor while the coach addressed the team. The iciness was due in large part to the new fast-break offense Rivers had installed, which spread the scoring around rather than depending on Pierce's abilities to take his man off the dribble or hit three-pointers. As he often had throughout the season, Pierce looked glum.
When the team broke into green and white squads for a scrimmage, Pierce didn't take a single shot in the first half-hour, perhaps letting his coach know who was really in control of the scoring. But he rebounded aggressively, made crisp passes, and ran hard — about the only player to do so, to Rivers's growing annoyance. “Let's just run if y'all are not gonna play!” the coach yelled. “Let's just run!” Suddenly, Pierce responded to Rivers for the first time. “COME ON WHITE!” he shouted, clapping his hands. “Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!” He began to shoot the ball. The intensity picked up. Players dove for loose balls, leapt for rebounds, set jarring picks.
With the energy peaking, Rivers called time-out. The players sat on the sideline, heads bowed, dripping sweat. A minute later, an assistant coach put his fingers to his mouth and let out a shrill whistle. The players rose slowly, ready to resume the practice. Then a horrific sound filled the gym, something like a wounded, shrieking bird. There was Pierce, removing his fingers from his mouth, laughing out loud as he tried to mimic the whistle. He let out another squawk, then covered his face with both hands to conceal his laughter. You could feel the tension drain away.
After practice, a woman from the Celtics public relations staff led me up to Pierce. Hoping to break the ice, I joked that he needed to work on his whistling skills. He broke off eye contact immediately. “Naw,” he replied, without a hint of amusement. “That ain't my thing.”
Pierce grew up in California with his two older brothers and their single mother, a full-time nurse who sometimes worked two jobs. Even as a boy, he valued stability. “A lot of people don't know this,” he says. “When I was young, I wanted to be a garbage man. I asked my mom and she said they made good money and it was steady work.”
It was not until Pierce's third year in high school that he became a dominant player. By his senior year, he was getting offers from the best college programs in the country. Roy Williams, who spent a year recruiting him to join the powerhouse University of Kansas program, flew halfway across the country to attend 90 percent of Pierce's games that season. He's never forgotten the time Pierce's team entered the final period down 20 points. “He loaded everybody else up onto his back and scored 24 points in the quarter. It was the Paul Pierce show,” Williams recalls. “I wanted him as bad as I've ever wanted anybody.” His persistence eventually paid off. Pierce chose Kansas over UCLA and USC, schools right in his backyard. “I wanted to get away from home,” Pierce explains. “I was becoming too dependent on my mother.”
By the end of Pierce's junior season at Kansas, he was already the fifth-leading scorer in school history. He decided another year of college was pointless and declared for the 1998 NBA draft. He was generally projected as the second or third selection, but the night of the draft would become one of the most humiliating of his life. Team after team passed him over; Rick Pitino, then the Celtics coach, was astounded when he realized that Pierce had slipped all the way to Boston, which was picking 10th. “It was impossible. How could he be slipping?” Pitino recalls. “We were ecstatic. We felt we got the greatest deal in the draft.” Asked now whether that night left him wishing he'd waited another year before going pro, Pierce just laughs. “Actually,” he replies, “I thought maybe I should have left college a year earlier.”
The embarrassment of draft night probably contributed to a certain defensiveness Pierce projects about how he is considered compared with other basketball greats. For years, he used the perceived slight as a motivational force. Then, in September of 2000, a new one found him. During an argument at the Buzz nightclub in the Theater District, he was stabbed in the face, shoulders, and neck — wounds that left scars still visible over one eye and above the large tattoo on his back. He nearly died, but stunned his family and teammates by returning to preseason practice just three weeks later. When I ask Kenny Anderson, a former teammate who now plays for the Clippers, whether Pierce seemed any different after the stabbing, he looks me directly in the eye. “It seemed like he was the same old guy,” he says. “And that was amazing to me.” Pierce says support from his family and Celtics fans gave him a new urgency to grow as both a player and a man. “People don't understand the power of love and family and strength,” he says. “My strength comes from my mom. Just seeing what she had to go through to raise us, she wouldn't make excuses, she wouldn't put her head down. So I guess I looked at adversity right in the eye and took it on.” Less than a year after the stabbing, Pierce signed a contract extension reportedly worth at least $85 million. That season he made his first All-Star team. The Celtics were better than they'd been at any point in his career. The future looked bright. And stable.
When Pierce finally agrees to sit down for an interview, he opts for lunch at Bertucci's in Waltham, though he's also partial to Naked Fish. A heavy snow has covered many of the strip mall's parking spaces, so a half-dozen cars are forever circling the lot looking for spots. Rolling up to the restaurant in his Hummer about 20 minutes late, Pierce simply stops the enormous truck at the end of an aisle and hops out. He pauses at the restaurant entrance to hold the door for a middle-aged guy fumbling with several bags of takeout.
I'm used to seeing Pierce surrounded by pro basketball players. Here among normal people, wearing a padded nylon track suit, black Celtics ski cap, and oversize rock-star sunglasses, he is enormous. He seems to fill the room as we walk to our table. After he takes his seat, Pierce removes his jacket and sunglasses and stretches out his legs. He speaks quietly, as though concerned that other diners might overhear.
I ask him about the different sides of his personality. “Dr. Jekyll is who you've got right now, a guy who's gonna laugh,” he says. “Wait, wait . . . Mr. Hyde is the bad one, right? Yeah, right now I'm Dr. Jekyll, but I have my days. I think most people say I'm moody.” He tugs at his knit cap. “I'm real moody. I'm not real moody with kids. I love being around kids. I'm more moody with adults.” In private moments like this, Pierce is introspective, even warm. He seems to have maintained the same matter-of-fact manner as the young boy who understood that sanitation is steady work that pays well.
Pierce keeps his world in Boston very small. It consists mostly of his teammates, a cousin, and his fiancé, whom he declines to discuss. He says he has no other friends here. “I'm at peace with myself,” he says. “The highlight of my week is probably going to Tower Records when something new comes out. I enjoy myself more on the road.” His attempts to develop new interests have been less satisfying than he probably expected. He and a couple of partners started a company with plans to capitalize on Pierce's fame by attaching his name to a variety of products. The firm, called P2, held a launch party last year at Yankee Candle and distributed Paul Pierce mistletoe-scented candles. When I ask how P2 is doing these days, Pierce rolls his eyes. “I don't know,” he says, cutting me off. I ask if he's optimistic about its prospects. He throws an arm over his face. “Not right now.” He's kidding around, exaggerating his despair, but there's truth in the gesture. “I don't know if we're gonna move on with the business,” he says.
Pierce looks exasperated when I bring up speculation in the media about his gloominess. It's true he doesn't like the losing, he says, and he does feel disillusioned with the Celtics sometimes, but he's continued to play hard. “I come to practice every day,” he says. “I don't fake injuries: Some people fake injuries if they're not happy, they do things to irritate the coach. I've been totally professional, and when my time runs out here, I'm gonna do the same wherever else I play.”
It's possible, I suppose, that Pierce meant to say if his time runs out here rather than when, but when I give him the chance to clarify, to declare his love for Boston and his desire to spend the rest of his career here, he doesn't exactly leap at the opportunity. The Celtics' day will come, but it won't come for a few years. And who has time for that? Certainly not the fans — this is Title Town now, if you didn't know — and certainly not Pierce, not when he's in his absolute prime. “I love my job and regardless of where it is . . . ” he begins, then stops. “I would love to be a Celtic for life. It would be a great place to end my career, but you've got to understand, it's a business.”
The plates are being cleared, time is almost up, when I ask about a seemingly touching moment I'd witnessed in the locker room the night before. The Celts had just defeated the Indiana Pacers, a tough team that has been beating up on them over the last two years. It was an important, emotional win. Pierce was just about to begin taking questions from the media when Danny Ainge, smiling broadly, pulled him into a small room off to the side. I imagined the boss giving his star player a private pat on the back, a “We're turning this thing around!” pep talk. When I ask about the meeting, Pierce simply smirks. “He said I couldn't do an interview with my hat on,” he replies, shaking his head.
The Celtics had already start- ed to improve when Ainge brought Walker back. Youngsters Al Jefferson and Tony Allen had both been named to the rookie all-star team, and the Celts, suddenly very tough to beat at home, were battling for first place in their division — an exciting development, even if their division is the worst in the NBA. Pierce had finally accepted Doc Rivers's offense, and his demeanor had begun to change along with the team's performance.
Walker has not transformed the Celtics into title contenders, but his leadership and versatile talents do make them more formidable. He certainly took over from the very first day, beaming before the intense media scrutiny and delivering on the court. Most of all, Walker's return has emancipated Pierce. The Celtics' best player has begun tiptoeing back to where he's most comfortable: the background. It's not really the background, of course — when you're as famous as Pierce, there's no such thing. But having Walker around has given him breathing room, and more than anything else these days, he looks relieved. “It's just tremendous pressure off me,” he told the Globe a few days after the trade. “You [media] don't run straight to me after the game.”
But I wonder whether the story really ends here. Ainge is ruthlessly good at what he does, and he didn't bring Walker back to soothe Pierce. He did it because it made his team better this year and cost him next to nothing, since Walker's huge contract expires at the end of this season. If he keeps playing well and doesn't ask for too much money, Ainge may keep him around. If not, he'll cut him loose again, as he made clear in a conference call to season-ticket holders the day after the trade. “We think the risk was very minimal . . . ” Ainge said. “We'll see how this whole experiment works.”
Given Pierce's rejuvenation, given all the smiles and letting down of the guard, what happens if Ainge passes on Walker again? From the day of the trade, I've been thinking about that, and about something Pierce told me near the end of our interview. I'd asked him what it's like to realize that you, your teammates, your coaches are nothing more than absurdly compensated playing pieces to be moved around, or discarded, as needed. He smiled uncomfortably. “I don't know what I should say,” he finally replied. “The game of basketball and the business world — the general managers, I look at the general managers . . . ” Mr. Hyde was ready to unleash, to say everything he had bottled up for a year and a half. But he stopped midsentence. “No, I ain't gonna . . . I don't wanna say it.” I asked him to say it, but he wouldn't. Dr. Jekyll was back in control.