The night the Boston Celtics won the 2008 NBA championship, Paul Pierce took the NBA Finals MVP trophy in one hand, stepped onto the podium at center court, and screamed to the jubilant crowd in TD Banknorth Garden, “I told you so. I told you so.”
It was as much an affirmation of team as a reaffirmation of self. It was Pierce letting the fans know that there was an NBA title in him and in the team he captained after so many down years of abject mediocrity. It was Pierce also letting the fans know that he had delivered, that he was the MVP and that any future talk about the game’s elite players had to include his name in the discussion.
Arrogance? Pierce doesn’t see it that way. He sees it as confidence. The 2008 title was a liberating experience for him, because it validated to many of the great unwashed what Pierce always has believed and continues to believe: that he is among the best, if not the best, in the NBA.
He made that point over the summer, when, while on a tour in Spain, he kept being pestered about Kobe Bryant. Wasn’t Kobe the MVP? Wasn’t Kobe the best player in the world? Finally, Pierce raised his hand and said, “I’m glad you think that, but I think I’m the best player.”
That was the line that, predictably, fired up the blogosphere. It was a line Pierce would have felt comfortable saying the year before, except there would have had to have been a laugh track in the background. But he genuinely feels that way and the 2008 title, in which his Celtics beat Kobe’s Lakers, reinforced that in his mind.
“That’s pretty much all that was said,” Pierce said this week. “This was not a personal battle between me and Kobe. It wasn’t directed at Kobe. It was not a knock on him or guys like LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. That’s how I feel. That’s how I am.”
Until the NBA Finals, Pierce had trouble convincing anyone outside the Celtics organization, who certainly paid him as if he was among the game’s elite. His reputation was that of a good-to-occasionally-great player who didn’t win. He may have been an Eastern Conference All-Star Game regular, but he had been named to an All-NBA team only twice prior to 2007, and both of those were third-team mentions. Lost somewhere in the discussion were the number of bad teams he had to endure, two mid-season coaching changes, and outright frustration at the direction of the franchise.
That is all history.
“One thing they can’t say anymore is that he can’t win and he’s not a winner,” his coach, Doc Rivers, said this week. “I never thought he got that label from playing for the Celtics. I thought he picked it up from playing for the U.S. team and maybe the Kansas team. That’s when he became a great player who can’t win. That’s gone. Not only did he win, he was instrumental in us winning.”
Indeed, Pierce’s stint on the 2002 World Championship team, the one which finished sixth and became the first U.S. team with NBA players to lose in international competition, was calamitous. Coach George Karl called him out for being selfish. Others saw him (and his L.A. cohort, Baron Davis) as being disruptive. Neither player has played for USA Basketball since, although Pierce was given the opportunity to try out for the teams which played in the 2006 World Championship and the 2008 Olympics. Injuries and personal reasons prevented him from participating in the tryout camps.
The situation at Kansas, while a decade old, still hurts. Pierce was part of arguably one of the greatest teams in the last 25 years, yet Kansas never reached the Final Four in his three seasons there. That prompted his coach, Roy Williams, to tearfully apologize to Pierce and others (Raef LaFrentz, Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard among others) when Williams made his acceptance speech at his Hall of Fame induction. He feels he let them down.
But no one can doubt Pierce’s credentials now. He’s an NBA Finals MVP and that puts him in some pretty select company. His visibility has increased along with his success, something he finds both rewarding and annoying.
“I’ve become a lot more noticeable,” he said. “Being a member of the Boston Celtics, their proud history and tradition, a lot of people watched the NBA Finals. Sometimes the attention is good, sometimes it’s bad. It’s good when they recognize you for your accomplishments. But at the same time, you also want your privacy.”
Pierce tried to keep a low profile in Las Vegas over the summer, deliberately staying away from what he called “the L.A. thing.” While Los Angeles is home, he’s still a Celtic. And L.A. fans still feel he was playing the drama queen to the max when he was carted off the floor in a wheelchair in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, only to return minutes later. Pierce made fun of that over the summer when he had a wheelchair take him onto the set of the “Jimmy Kimmel Show.”
But even Las Vegas can pose problems, as Pierce learned one early August morning when he was pulled over for “erratic driving.” Visibly agitated, he was briefly handcuffed by the police, but he passed a breathalyzer test and was soon on his way, although the incident received its fair share of attention.
“They were Lakers fans, I guess,” Pierce said of the Vegas police.
Now, with the start of the 2008-09 season around the corner, Pierce is even more determined, if that is possible, to prove that 2007-08 was a beginning, not an aberration. He will accept his ring on Tuesday night and, as he put it, “that will put last year behind us and we can focus on defending.”
And the Paul Pierce that showed up this year already is showing his coach that not defending is not an option.
“This year, he has been off-the-charts amazing in his leadership,” Rivers said. “Winning has completely turned him on. He’s more demanding to his teammates. Paul wants to win again. Some guys win and they think that’s enough. He’s come back and he wants to win more. He’s determined to do more. You can see it. You can feel it. Now, he’s the guy in practices yelling at guys to pick it up. Last year, that was Kevin (Garnett.) Now, it’s Paul and Kevin. And a lot of times, it’s Paul first.”