The Truth hurts—especially when it comes in the form of the sweet jump shot and competitive fire of Paul Pierce, who goes by the same nickname. Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers learned this the hard way in 2008, when Paul led the Boston Celtics to a stirring six-game victory in the NBA Finals. An all-around talent the likes of which Beantown fans haven’t seen since the halcyon days of Larry Bird, Paul proved he can indeed do it all, and then some. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Paul Anthony Pierce was born on October 13, 1977 in Oakland, California. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His mother, Lorraine Hosey, moved the family to Los Angeles a short time later. Paul never knew his dad. Lorraine, a single mother working two nursing jobs, raised Paul and his two half-brothers, Jamal and Steve. One of Paul’s friends as a kid was Baron Davis.

Paul grew up in a happy, hard-working family. His mother liked the structure of sports and encouraged her boys to play all they wanted. Jamal starred for Inglewood High School and earned a college scholarship to Wyoming. Steve was a baseball star who was drafted in the first round by the San Francisco Giants when Paul was 12.

Paul battled his weight as a kid but was still an excellent athlete. Basketball was his sport. He was money from beyond the arc and ventured inside as he gained more confidence and springier legs. He was slow-footed at first, but he worked tirelessly to improve his speed and stamina.

Basketball was the game in Paul’s neighborhood. He and his friends had plenty of places to find pickup games in Inglewood. There was the Darby Courts, the YMCA, Rogers Park, and the dunking courts where the baskets were just eight feet off the ground.

Paul was an insane college basketball fan. He wanted to play college hoops and star in the Final Four. He taped the NCAA championship game every year and loved to watch the winners celebrate. That’s what he wanted more than anything.

Although Paul lived just blocks away from where the Lakers played, he was not intensely focused on the NBA as a kid. Occasionally, some of the Los Angeles players would start pick-up games to entertain the kids. It was at one of these events that Paul got hooked on hoops for good. He occasionally would spot Lakers driving though his neighborhood off the 105 and became an expert at talking his way into games at the Forum. Paul snuck into the arena more than once.

After years of competition on playgrounds, Paul got his first taste of organized sports in the seventh grade, through the local Police Activities League. He was a star in basketball, volleyball and bowling.

Paul enrolled at Inglewood High School in 1991. He played JV for the Sentinels in his first year. Varsity coach Pat Roy was tempted to keep him there as a sophomore. Paul had talent and heart, but he was a doughy 5-10 shooting guard who simply did not look good on the court with the gazelles in the Ocean League.

Paul was sitting on the Inglewood varsity bench when several players went away for Christmas break. Roy put the soph into a tournament game for mop-up duty, and Paul dazzled. He scored 12 points, gabbed seven rebounds rebounds and singlehandedly brought the Sentinels back from a 17-point deficit. When the senior starters returned from vacation, they soon found themselves riding pine and watching Paul. Now a starter and go-to guy, he turned the team around in 1992–93.

By his junior year, Paul had slimmed down and shot up to over six feet tall. Fans began asking for his autograph after games, and college scouts began taking notes when he played. Paul was named co-captain as a senior, which is when his game truly blossomed. Now standing 6-6, he was a dominant presence on both ends of the floor, in the paint and on the perimeter. Paul was named a McDonald’s All-American and the 1995 California Player of the Year. He averaged 24.5 points per game with 11.5 rebounds and four assists.

Paul had offers from a number of top basketball programs. Tempted to stay in Southern California, he ultimately opted for a more rural setting where life was less violent. He chose Kansas over UCLA.

ON THE RISE

As a freshman, Paul started all but one game for the Jayhawks and averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 rebounds. Still, he played fourth banana to stars Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard and Raef Lafrentz.


 

 

 


Los Angeles Lakers,
1988 Sports Illustrated

     
 

But that didn't prevent him from getting his due in the media. At season’s end, Paul and Chauncey Billups shared honors as the Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Nationally, Paul did not get as much recognition as Stephon Marbury and Sharif Abdur-Rahim, but most NBA scouts felt he had even more potential than either of the two.

The 1996-97 season was an even better one for Paul and the Jayhawks. Heading into March Madness, Kansas was ranked ranked #1 in the nation for the first time school history. LaFrentz was a First-Team All-American, but many felt that Paul was the team’s best player. Kansas fans were shocked when he was named only a Third Team All-Big 12 pick. He showed the voters what a mistake they had made by being named MVP in the Big 12 Tournament.

The Jayhawks had visions of a Final Four appearance, but they lost a tough Sweet 16 game to Arizona. Paul nearly saved the day, earning nods of approval from pro scouts along the way. It wasn’t much consolation that the Wildcats went on to win the national championship.

The headlines in Kansas quickly shifted to Paul and LaFrentz. Both seemed no-brainer first-round NBA picks. Would they follow Vaughn’s lead and play through their senior years, or jump to the pros? To the great relief of Jayhawk fans (and coach Roy Williams), both announced they would stay. They made it public during a postseason exhibition game at Allen Fieldhouse.

Paul played smart, unselfish basketball in his third season at Kansas. He sensed how to make his teammates better, but he also knew when he had to take the big shot. When LaFrentz was sidelined with a broken finger, Paul stepped up and increased his scoring. He finished the year averaging 20 points a night. But his biggest improvement came on the defensive end, where he played with great intensity in Williams’s halfcourt trapping system.

Paul hit the national radar when he scored 31 in a 102–72 road victory over Texas. The game was televised from coast to coast, and Paul performed brilliantly despite a sprained knee, twisted ankle and poke in the eye. No one would ever question his toughness after that.

In what would be his last regular-season game at home, Paul torched Oklahoma for 31 points in an 83–70 victory. Fifteen of those points came on six consecutive possessions to stop a run by the Sooners and swing the momentum back to Kansas. It was the Jayhawks’ 60th straight home victory—a record that stretched back before Paul’s freshman season. As the clock would down, the fans chanted, "One More Year! One More Year!"


Chauncey Billups,
1999 Upper Deck Gold Reserve
     
 

Paul led Kansas to the Big 12 Tournament title again, winning his second MVP award along the way. The Jayhawks went into the NCAA Tournament with an eye on a Final Four berth. It had been exactly 10 years since Danny Manning led the school to a national title. Unfortunately, the Jayhawks suffered another early exit, losing to Rhode Island in the second round.

Paul was thinking he should go pro, but Kansas players typically stayed in school for four years. He consulted with Williams about his decision. His coach advised him to be selfish—it was his life and his career. In April, after being named a First Team All-American, Paul called a press conference at Inglewood High and announced that he was headed to the NBA.

Paul worked out for five pro teams. He didn’t blow anyone away, but he was a known quantity at this point. Where would he go? The 1998 NBA draft was a tough one to predict. It included intriguing big men like Michael Olowokandi, Dirk Nowitzki, Jonathan Bender and Paul's teammate LaFrentz. Athletic scorers like Vince Carter, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison were also available, as were floor leaders Baron Davis, Jason Williams, Bonzi Wells and Mike Bibby. Paul was the best traditional small forward on the board, and possibly the best all-around player.

Still, when team after team announced its pick and Paul’s name remained uncalled, it was hard to understand what was going on. The Celtics could hardly believe their luck when he was still there at the 10th slot. Rick Pitino grabbed him without much hesitation. In retrospect, the draft was clearly a case of teams picking based on need, and none of the first nine clubs had a gaping hole at small forward. It was a little embarrassing for Paul, who sat in a room with lesser players and watched most of them walk out before him.

Paul’s NBA destination did not thrill him either. As an LA resident, hel was conditioned to hate the Celtics. He had also heard about Pitino’s grueling workouts. And personnel director Danny Ainge? Paul despised him for the way he tortured the Lakers. Now Ainge was his boss!

Paul’s rookie season was shortened to 50 games by a labor disagreement. When the players finally got back on the court, the Celtics didn’t have the horses for the playoff sprint. They won just 19 times. For most of the abbreivated season, Paul played in the shadow of third-year star Antoine Walker.

Paul led the Celtics in three-point shots and was second among rookies with a 16.5 scoring average. He was first, however, in angry scowls. Still smarting over slipping so far in the draft, Paul invented a shooting drill where he would move to different points around the perimeter and swish attempts beyond the arc. Each time he shot, he called out the name of a player that was drafted in front of him.

Before long, Paul emerged as Walker’s equal. He averaged 19.5 points in his second season and then pushed that number to 25.3 ppg in 2000-01. The Celtics had losing campaigns both years and finished out of the playoffs. Paul, meanwhile, nearly lost his life in September of 2000 when he was jumped by three assailants at a Boston nightclub. They stabbed him multiple times in the face and neck. Fortunately, Paul’s heavy leather jacket prevented potentially deadly injuries.

By 2001-02, Boston had a new coach, Jim O'Brien, and a roster competent enough to upend the Philadelphia 76ers—the defending East champs—and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. There, they fell to the New Jersey Nets in six games. Paul made an indelible impression in Game 3 of that series, scoring 19 points in the fourth quarter to lead Boston to a record-setting 21-point comeback victory. The Nets, however, hung on to win in six games. Paul ended the postseason as his team's leading scorer and ssecond-best rebounder and passer.


Paul Pierce, 1998 Collectors Edge
     
 

Paul raised his game to a new level in 2001–02. He finished first in the NBA with 2,144 points and third in scoring at 26.1 ppg. He also placed third in three-pointers, with 210. More important, Paul was gaining a rep as a deadly clutch shooter. He and Walker helped Boston to a 44-win season. The Celtics ran into the Nets again in the playoffs, and the results didn’t impove. New Jersey swept Boston in the second round.

Paul capped a solid season with a tumultuous summer. Named to Team USA for the World Championship of Basketball, he got on the bad side of coaches George Karl and Gregg Popovich and watched much of the action from the bench. America was equally dismal, finishing an embarrassing sixth in the tournament.

The Celtics lost their way in 2003-04 and tumbled into basketball obscurity. Doc Rivers came on as coach, but he and Paul didn’t see eye to eye. The team had instituted a youth movement and suddenly Paul—a veteran—was surrounded by unpolished youngsters who had no idea how to close out a game.

Through it all, Paul continued to pour in the points—23.0 ppg in 2003–04 (after Walker was traded) and 21.6 ppg in 2004–05. He enjoyed an MVP-caliber year in 2005-06, averaging a career-high 26.8 points and adding nearly seven rebounds and five assists a game. His supreme performance went completely unnoticed, as Boston slumped to 33-49 and missed the playoffs. Ironically, the Celtics thought they had Paul traded away the night before the 2005 draft, but the deal fell through. Following the 2005–06 season, the Celtics signed him to a three-year, $59 million contract extension.

Paul turned 30 the following year and was nearing the end of his rope. As the season wore on and the Celtics failed to reach the 25-win mark, Paul—who missed 30-plus games with a stress fracture in his foot—figured he’d be traded. He practically sealed his doom when he told the Boston Globe in an interview that he was a classic example of “a great player on a bad team."

Not surprisingly, Paul's relationship with his coach grew even more strained. But as frustrated as Rivers was, he began to believe that Paul could be a wonderful team player. Rivers pleaded with him to share the ball and bring a more positive outlook to the court. The young Celts were taking their cues from Paul. He was sulking, and they looked flat night after night.

MAKING HIS MARK

As the 2007–08 season approached, Boston decided to keep Paul and add two hungry veteran superstars, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Role players James Posey, P.J. Brown and Eddie House also joined the club. Rivers and Ainge were certain the newcomers would be willing to assume secondary roles to Paul—they hoped was that their desire for a championship would transform Paul into a player who could elevate the entire team.

The Celtics roared to the best record in the NBA, and for a while it looked like they might win 70 games. The team’s stars meshed beautifully. Paul, who shed some weight in the offseason, concentrated more on defense and less on scoring. This was a luxury that he had not had in the past.


Paul Pierce, 2001 Heritage
     
 

At 66-16, the Celtics secured homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. The met the pesky Atlanta Hawks in the first round and struggled to match their opponents' energy level. Paul shot poorly in the first four games, and Boston looked like it was on the ropes. But the Big Three of Allen, Garnett and Paul came alive in Game 5, pacing the Celts to a 25-point blowout. Boston closed out the series just as impresively with a 99-65 victory in Game 7.

Up next for the Celtics were the Cleveland Cavaliers. Each of the first six games went to the home team, and the series lacked the excitement and quality of typical playoff basketball. Finally, in Game 7, Paul and LeBron James engaged in the duel everyone had been hoping for. In front of a roaring Boston crowd, the two stars went at each other relentlessly.

The showdown between Paul and James reminded Boston fans of a postseason shootout between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins a generation earlier. Paul netted 41 points to 44 for James, but the final score tilted in favor of the Celtics, 97–92. Both players simply refused to lose, but in the end, Paul’s supporting cast made the bigger contribution. Outside of James, only Delonte West had a decent game. Cleveland finished with just 13 assists. Boston’s defense was ferocious when it needed to be.

Paul had played one of his greatest games in a do-or-die contest against the NBA’s marquee star. Few players had ever risen to that kind of challenge the way Paul did—and his signature play never showed up in the stat sheet. With a minute left and Boston clinging to a three-point lead, Paul slipped between two Cavs on a jump ball and created a loose ball out of a tip won easily by Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Paul dove for the ball and called timeout, while James stood over him and watched.

Paul came up big again in the Eastern Conference Finals, against the Detroit Pistons. In the Game 6 bedlam of Auburn Hills, he became the club’s undisputed leader when he announced that the Celtics were going to take care of business then and there—they were not going back to Boston for Game 7. He had an amazing fourth quarter, erasing Detroit ’s double-digit lead on the way to a 89–81 victory and a trip to the NBA Finals against his hometown Lakers.

In Game 1 against LA, Paul twisted his knee early on and had to be helped to the bench by two teammates. He got back on the floor quickly and played through pain and swelling, nailing three straight three-pointers from virtually the same spot. His trio of trifectas gave Boston a comfortable lead in what would end up a 98–88 victory.

The Celtics squandered a 20-point lead in Game 2 but held on to win—their 14th straight home victory in the playoffs. The Lakers snatched Game 3 from Boston and looked like a sure bet to win Game 4. They had the Celtics down 18 points at halftime, and Kobe Bryant had only been a minor factor. Fearing a Kobe explosion in the second half, Paul asked to guard him and was able to keep the LA star in check. Boston came back and won to take a commanding 3–1 series lead.

The Lakers defended their homecourt successfully in Game 5, defeating Boston 103–98. Paul was relentless in defeat, playing all but two seconds and scoring 38 points, half of which came form the charity stripe.


Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett & Ray Allen
2007 ESPN The Magazine
     
 

The Celtics wrapped things up in Game 6 on their home floor. Bryant started the game on fire but cooled off just as Boston heated up. With Bill Russell and John Havlicek seated courtside, Paul and his teammates won the 17th championship in franchise history in a blowout, 131–92. With four minutes left, Paul, Garnett and Allen were summoned to the bench, where they gave Rivers a group hug to the cheers of the Boston faithful. Paul capped off his first championship with a Finals MVP award.

Paul followed up his title-winning effort with a fine 2008–09 season. He led the team in scoring again with at 20.5 ppg and played in all but one game. He finished seventh in the MVP voting—the highest of his career—and was Second Team All-NBA for the first time. The Celtics were competitive, but a knee injury to Garnett ruined their chances of repeating as NBA champs. After defeating the Bulls in the opening round, they fell to the Orlando Magic in seven games.

Paul’s numbers dipped a bit in 2009–10, and he missed 11 games. At 32, he showed his age on some nights, but also showed flashes of his All-Star form on others. He led the aging Celtics to 50 wins with career-best 47.2% shooting and a solid score sheet that included 18.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.

With Garnett on the mend and Allen looking for his range, the Celtics went into the postseason as a decided darkhorse. Boston took care of the Miami Heat in the first round, winning Game 3 on Paul’s buzzer-beating 20-footer. The Celts prevailed in five games. Against the Cavs, Paul struggled at times to score but held his own on the boards, ripping down a team-high 11 rebounds in a pivotal Game 5 victory on Cleveland’s homecourt. Boston won Game 6 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals against Orlando.

Paul gave the Celtics what they needed in their rematch with the Magic. He was particularly goodin Game 2, leading the club to victory with 28 points. After building a 3–0 lead, the Celtics left the door open for two Orlando victories. But Paul responded with 31 points and 13 rebounds in Game 6 to put the series away.

That set up a rousing NBA Finals with the Lakers. Paul was Boston’s high scorer in three of the first five games, including exciting wins in Game 4 and Game 5. Back in LA for the last two games, the Lakers focused an intense defensive effort on Paul. After his standout performance in Game 5, he scored only 13 points in a Game 6 loss and never made it to the foul line.

Lamar Odom and Ron Artest clamped down on Paul again in a heart-stopping Game 7. The Celtics opened a promising lead in the third quarter, but they ran out of gas in the fourth, ultimately losing 83–79. Paul made a couple of clutch 3-pointers, but his shooting was still off. He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Although no one ever questioned Paul’s drive or talent, the stigma of losing hung over him for more than a decade. A superstar, after all, is supposed to lift his teammates when it counts. In Paul’s case, he was redeemed, and then some. During Boston’s championship run in 2008, he stepped up at crunch time and made his teammates great. Having fallen agonizingly short in the 2010 NBA Finals, the question now is how many—if any—title shots does Boston’s Big Three have left?

PAUL THE PLAYER


Paul Pierce, 2007 Topps
     
 

When Paul finally got a couple of talented running mates in his 10th season, few doubted that he would blend quickly with them. He has the kind of game that can compliment or be complimented by great players. He learned this from Roy Williams at Kansas and forgot little during his years leading a marginally talented Boston club.

When Paul has the ball in the open court, he is one of the most dominant players in the NBA. He can knock down threes, slash to the hoop or pull up for short, twisting jumpshots. He is especially deadly when a game is on the line—he ranks among the top clutch shooters in team history and likes to go to the foul line.

Paul is a monster when it comes to preparation. He is one of the first to arrive at practice and one of the last to leave. He reviews game films obsessively, looking for any weakness or advantage.

Paul is a strong, smooth player with a nose for the basket. He is one of the best shooters in the NBA, and his ability to sell a ball fake ranks with the all-time best. Paul is often fouled before he even starts his shot. He must be guarded closely inside and outside.

Paul is a good defender with excellent anticipation and great body strength. He uses these attributes to battle for rebounds as well as any small forward in the league.

 


Paul Pierce, 2009 Topps


 

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