It’s hard to describe what Paul Pierce means to me. That’s probably overstated and definitely sappy, but it’s true. He’s my favorite basketball player ever. I write about basketball for a living. It should be easy. It’s not.
I always felt a connection to Pierce. We’re roughly the same age and arrived in Boston around the same time. We evolved from immature 20-somethings to seasoned 30-somethings together. Sort of. I started covering the Celtics during the Kevin Garnett era and saw the culmination of that transformation firsthand. I was there the night Boston traded Pierce. I left soon afterwards.
“The things that I’ve been through in this city, on and off the court, from an immature kid to a grown adult, I’ve spent more years in the city here than I spent in any other city in my life,” Pierce said from his jersey retirement dinner on Saturday. “I can definitely say this city definitely raised me.”
By no means am I comparing myself to Pierce. He’s a legend. I just tell them. But I saw some of him in me. Or me in him. Or whatever. That’s dumb, but maybe other Bostonians felt the same way. Pierce was human, relatable.
Never was he more human than at the Buzz Club on the edges of Chinatown and Boston’s Theater District on September 25, 2000. I was going through a tough time then, too, but not stabbed-within-an-inch-of-my-life tough.
The details of that night have always been a little murky. As Pierce told it to Sports Illustrated some eight years later, he was talking to two women in the club’s pool room when someone said, “That’s my sister,” and “all hell breaks loose.” At least three men swarmed him, stabbing him in the face, neck and back, puncturing his diaphragm, a lung and within a whisper of his heart.
Celtics teammate Tony Battie and his brother Derrick rushed Pierce to New England Medical Center, as the blood-soaked 22-year-old asked from the backseat if he was going to live. He was rushed into emergency surgery.
Five weeks later, Pierce started on opening night against the Pistons. I’ve told this story before, but there’s an image from that night at the FleetCenter that defines Pierce’s career for me. A fan held a sign above his head that read, “You can stab him, but you can’t stop him.” That’s Paul Pierce.
“Without a doubt this city raised me,” added Pierce. “I’ve been through a lot. I had almost a tragic incident where I was stabbed a number of times in this city, and it could have went to the point where I wanted to leave. I even thought about maybe I’m in danger here. But you know what, I embraced it. I moved on from it. And they took me in as one of their own, man.”
I always felt like that was Pierce’s superhero turn, so I searched for answers to that theory from his 2000-01 teammates during the week his No. 34 was raised to the TD Garden rafters. The details of Pierce’s greatness run together for many of his fellow Celtics, as they do for a generation of fans.
“Honestly, it happened some time ago,” Vitaly Potapenko, now an assistant coach with the Cavaliers, told Parquet Post last week, “I can’t even recall.”
It’s different for Chris Carr. He’ll never forget Pierce’s evolution in 2000-01. He remembers it vividly, because he spent just the one season in Boston, his last in the NBA, and Pierce welcomed him to the city. This is his story …
“I had just signed there as a free agent that summer, and I had got to town early, because I had kids that I had to get enrolled in school. That Friday, Paul was in the practice facility, and we end up engaging in some 1-on-1. It started off as, Oh, we’ll just kind of play, and then it ended up we’re going full go. We’re going at it. Here I am a vet, and he’s a young boy, and I knew he was good, but I wasn’t aware of his drive. He didn’t look the part. He looked a little pudgy, a little round, a slight bit overweight, a guy who had limited foot speed, and I remember going home and telling my wife, ‘Hey, Paul was in today, and, man, he’s really good.’
“Then, that Sunday was when everything happened, and he was fighting for his life there for about 10 days. I just remember that Monday morning waking up to go work out, and it’s all over the news. It was a good perspective on life, because I was just playing one-on-one with that dude on Friday afternoon. I was like, ‘Man, how does this happen. He ain’t a bad guy. He’s not a thug. That’s not him. How does this happen to somebody like that?’
“The way I remember it, it was something about a female. I think a female approached him in the club and said something to him, but I guess she was supposed to be connected or affiliated with one of the guys. From there, I don’t know if there was history. I don’t know if there was beef. That was just the story we got — the dude didn’t like that Paul was talking to such and such, and then from there it went from her walking away to them jumping Paul and stabbing him.
“But it was a great learning experience, and I think that’s where he got his drive and motivation from — ‘I’m going to play every game as if it was my last, because I was almost at that point where it was my last, so I’m not going to take this for granted. I’m going to play.’ So, I think that that was the biggest thing that he took from it, and it bode very well for him.
“He went from fighting for his life to healed up, and he’s like, ‘I’m playing in the last two exhibition games.’ Coach Pitino was like, ‘What?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m playing.’ He always said, ‘I’ve got to exorcise these demons.’ So, I think that the hurt and the hatred that he felt from that whole incident he made the NBA pay for the pain that he had to endure.’
“I remember the first practice, we were doing a defensive rotation drill, he put the ball on the floor, and I cut him off and bumped him. I said, ‘My bad, dawg.’ He threw the ball at my chest, and he said, ‘Don’t do that.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Don’t do that. I’m here. If I wasn’t ready to be out here, I wouldn’t be out here.’ We were doing a trap drill, and Eric Williams just whacked him real good. He kind of stopped a little bit. If you remember, he used to always reach and grab his left rib cage all the time with his right hand. He’d always reach. He kind of reached, and he patted it, and then he started playing again. And he was like, ‘It’s a reminder. It’s just a reminder. Eric hit me, but that ain’t nothing.’ So, that was kind of the way that he went through it — and, shoot, Day 3 it didn’t look like he missed a beat.
“For a while, he was very reserved. He wouldn’t go out on the road. It took him a long time. He came to my birthday party. I turned 27 on March 12, and my wife had invited all of my teammates and some of my best friends from my hometown to come in for my birthday. I remember him coming, and I was really shocked that he was out. I would ask him to come out to dinner when we were on the road, and he was like, ‘Naw, dawg, I’m chillin’.’ He just stayed to himself a lot. He had more fun staying in the hotel room playing cards. We did that a bunch, playing Tunk and Bourré. He didn’t really go out. I know that year, there wasn’t much going out. The team hired extra security and whatnot to try to help protect him and protect our guys.
“There were a lot of days coming into the practice facility, the shooting machine would be up in the Sports Authority Center, there would be 1,000 shots on there, 1,100 shots on there, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I was there working on my 3-ball last night.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, OK.’ He’d be like, ‘I think I can make eight in a quarter,’ and you’d be like, ‘Dude, you can’t make no eight 3-pointers in a quarter,’ and he was always like, ‘I think I can. I think I can.’ That was always sort of his gig.
“I think something like that probably helped him find a focus that I don’t even know if he knew he really had until he went through it. And then once he realized, Yeah, I have it, it’s a drug at that point. Like, Oh, I’m not giving this up, because I know now what I’m capable of by doing this.
“I remember one game, he kind of tweaked his ankle, and it was this big question: Is he going to play? Is he going to sit? I remember coach Pitino saying, ‘Hey, Paul, I know we need you, but you can sit this one. We’ve got four games in five nights, maybe we can get you a little bit better.’ He was like, ‘Man, I almost died. This ankle ain’t shit. I almost died, so me not playing would kill me more than me playing on a little sore ankle. I’m playing. Tape it up. I’m good.’
“I remember that conversation distinctly. I was like, Oh, yeah, he’s different now, because he went through something. That’s when he started getting recognized as being one of the most deadly fourth-quarter scorers in the NBA. That was even above and beyond Kobe. That year I was with him, he attempted almost as many free throws per game as Shaq did. He eventually led the league in free throws attempted, just because he was relentlessly attacking the basket.
“We go to All-Star break, we come back, and in late February he and I and Antoine are sitting around, talking. Paul asked a question: ‘You always talk about in practice guarding me. What is it that you think I can’t do?’ And I said, ‘Paul, once you realize that you can shoot a mid-range jump shot off your mid-post stuff anytime you want to, you’re unguardable.’ And if you remember in March that year he was the NBA Player of the Month. He went on a scoring tear. It was just his own personal, Watch me go. I bet you can’t stop me. Nobody. It didn’t matter. That’s when he went to L.A., he put 42 on the Lakers, and Shaq was like, ‘Paul Pierce is the f***ing truth.’
“Anybody that was around him, you just knew. And who knows if he does become The Truth if he’s not stabbed as Paul Pierce. I’m not saying it takes a life-altering situation to make you value and appreciate what you have, but I just think it enhanced his focus on what he really wanted — not just out of basketball, but out of life. He approached every day with a thankfulness and a belief that I’m alive, and whatever I get to do, I’m blessed to do, so let me just attack it, and basketball was his thing.”