His ascension to basketball immortality is so highly unlikely that not even Paul Pierce, as confident as he is, can truly accept it, not until he is on stage at the MassMutual Center on Saturday, giving his Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame induction speech, with close friend Kevin Garnett standing over his right shoulder, probably uttering encouragement in four-letter words.
The road from Inglewood, Calif., to Springfield has been a laborious one for Pierce, never wildly athletic, never considered an elite player in his draft class, slipping to the Celtics behind the likes of Raef LaFrentz, Larry Hughes and Robert Traylor.
And then getting picked up at Logan Airport in his first visit to Boston in a “rugged” Cadillac by Celtics executive Leo Papile.
Pierce reflected on his remarkable career, one that included a near-death experience, painful losses, a rise to the NBA apex and finishing as one of the great Celtics of all-time.
Not surprisingly, this journey began with having to prove a doubter’s assertions untrue. It was his Inglewood High School coach, Patrick Roy, who demoted an improving but not quite ready sophomore to the junior varsity early in the season.
“When I first saw him play, just an Average Joe, at best,” said Roy, now Pierce’s close friend. “When I first met Paul Pierce, he was 14 years of age, a chunky kid. He was decent but nothing that really stood out. But having a chance to be a Hall of Famer? Never in my wildest dreams.”
Pierce was back on the junior varsity after an forgettable stint with the varsity, until Roy needed bodies after three starters took Christmas vacation prior to a Holiday tournament. It was there that Paul Pierce, the Division I prospect, was born.
That first tournament game, Pierce scored 15 points with seven rebounds.
“I was like ‘Oh (expletive)’ to be honest with you,” Roy said. “In the championship game, Paul said to me, ‘I can take this thing over if you let me do it.’ I told him not to get too cocky, but he was serious. He had 24 (points), 9 assists, 8 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and 4 steals. From that point on, we just never looked back.”
That was 29 years ago. But Pierce remembers it vividly. He had transformed himself into one of the top players in Southern California virtually overnight. He still talks about the demotion to junior varsity with irritation.
‘When I first met Paul Pierce, he was 14 years of age, a chunky kid. He was decent but nothing that really stood out. But having a chance to be a Hall of Famer? Never in my wildest dreams.’
Patrick Roy, Pierce's high school coach
“I was [ticked] sitting on the bench on the varsity and not playing and then getting demoted,” he said. “I guess it goes to show you whenever that window of opportunity is there, you have to make the most of it and that was mine. I really just never looked back. That was the confidence booster right there that got me dreaming big.”
Pierce’s improvement and rise were stunning. Most of his peers in the LA area such as Schea Cotton and Ricky Price, were already being heavily recruited by sophomores. Pierce didn’t develop into a prep juggernaut until his junior season.
When Pierce saw that he had a chance at a Division 1 scholarship, his work ethic increased immediately. He along with his best friend, Jason Crowe, who played overseas, would drive to the beach to run sand dunes or practice at Inglewood’s gym at 6 a.m. and again at midnight. Crowe’s father was the school’s principal.
The focus on basketball kept Pierce out of trouble. In the post-riots era, Los Angeles carried distractions for a rambunctious teenager and the gang culture factored in everyday life in Inglewood.
“Inglewood High School was infested with gangs,” Roy said. “And these guys knew Paul and they knew Paul had a gift. So they actually helped keep him in line. If anybody came and approached Paul about smoking weed or doing anything like that, they’d better not do it because they gotta answer to the them Bloods. Them Bloods loved Paul and they made sure he stayed on point with his future.”
Pierce said he didn’t fall into the pitfalls of inner city life because those who had fallen made sure he didn’t.
“A lot of us grew up together so when I started getting better (at basketball) they didn’t want me to be around them, around the stuff they were into,” Pierce said. “A lot of them were my friends, you grow up with them and you go through the whole school system together. Man I lost a lot of friends growing up in the street life.
“When you see that around you, you say, ‘I don’t want that to be me.’ I had a dream of hooping and I had a dream of going to college and I didn’t want that to be me.”
Pierce led Inglewood to the Division 2-AA section title as a junior and then rose to the top of recruiting lists entering his senior season. It was then he had a conversation with his mother Lorraine about leaving home for college. Pierce said he took one visit to Lawrence, Kan., watched one game at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and was sold on the Jayhawks.
It was a sign of independence for Pierce. If he truly wanted to focus on being an NBA player as he dreamed, he needed to do away from the distractions from home. He said it was the right choice.
“I remember having that conversation like, ‘Mom, I need to get out of here,’” he said. “My senior year, I wasn’t running with no gangs but I wasn’t doing good in school. I was missing classes and I wasn’t almost even eligible to attend college. I’m gonna get out of L.A. and focus on basketball and school. All my friends were older. There was nothing in LA for me to come back to.”
Three standout seasons at Kansas led him to draft night 1998, when Pierce fully expected to be a top three pick. Wearing a grey striped suit, Pierce watched as the Clippers, Vancouver, Denver, Toronto, Golden State,
Milwaukee, Dallas, Sacramento and Philadelphia all chose somebody else.
He was shocked and disappointed. Celtics general manager Rick Pitino figuratively sprinted to the podium to hand Commissioner David Stern Boston’s pick at 10.
“I was just happy to get drafted, I thought I’d be a perfect fit for Vancouver. I just knew I was going there,” he said. “It all indicated I was going to Vancouver. When I look now and see my reaction (on draft night), I smiled but it was a fake smile.
“I didn’t expect to be in the green room that long, When I didn’t get picked [in] the top five, I’m looking at my agent like, ‘what’s going on, is this how it’s supposed to go?’”
And when Pierce arrived in Boston, he saw Papile pull up in that Cadillac, beginning what would be a remarkable, rocky, and painful but eventually triumphant 15 years in his new city.