Examining Paul Pierce’s Strange, Remarkable Journey

The Celtics forward has had a unique career, at least compared to other NBA stars. Alan Siegel traces Pierce's path to greatness.

It's been 10 years since Paul Pierce was stabbed, nearly to death, in a Boston nightclub. His subsequent recovery, miraculous considering the severity of his wounds, set the tone for an up-and-down, unpredictable but ultimately redemptive decade.

What makes Pierce so interesting, beyond his obvious on-court skills, is his unique career trajectory. Most superstar athletes ascend, and stay at the top. Pierce, on the other hand, has seemingly lived a parabolic existence, rising and falling and repeating that cycle. But as ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg points out, Pierce never stays down very long.

The incident occurred just days before the start of training camp for the 2000-01 season and shook an organization that was starting to turn the corner after landing Pierce with the 10th overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft.

Fortunately, Pierce recovered to play in all 82 games that season. By 2001-02, he earned the first of his eight All-Star Game nods and helped Boston return to the playoffs for the first time since the 1994-95 team (what's more, Boston advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals that year before falling to the New Jersey Nets).  

Pierce was stabbed 11 times in 2000. And just two years later, the Celtics nearly made the NBA Finals.

Remember Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals that season? Boston won, 94-90. Pierce scored 28 points, bringing the Celtics back from a 21-point deficit. "At the start of the fourth quarter we just wanted to fight and make a statement for the next game that we're going to be a team to be reckoned with. I think we did more than make a statement," Pierce told reporters.

Alas, Boston lost that series in six games. Still, Pierce had become a star. But after the Celtics won a playoff series in 2002-03, things started to unravel. In 2005, Pierce was ejected from a playoff game against the Indiana Pacers. The New York Times' Howard Beck was there:

Indiana trailed by 1 point with 12.9 seconds left in regulation when [Jamaal] Tinsley intentionally fouled Pierce. As the whistle blew, Pierce knocked Tinsley to the floor with his left forearm. Pierce was called for a technical foul, his second of the game, for an automatic ejection.

"I just lost my cool," Pierce said. "It almost cost us. I'm just happy we got this win. I'm pretty much speechless."

Boston, fortunately, won in overtime (it ended up losing the series). But afterward, Pierce acted like a petulant teenager.

Pierce went to the interview podium with strands of tape strapped across his chin and over his ears, explaining sarcastically, "I have a broken jaw."

That June, there were rumors the Celtics were set to trade Pierce to the Hornets for the fourth pick in the NBA Draft. It never happened, and New Orleans took Chris Paul. These days, merely suggesting that that the 6-foot-7, 235-pound Pierce might be expendable would be crazy. A lot has changed in five years. Back then, Pierce was still regarded as immature. You know, the guy who went to the podium with tape strapped across his chin. (The idea of Pierce's immaturity was actually planted in basketball fans heads' long before that. George Karl, then the USA Basketball coach, performed the inception at the World Championships in 2002. America finished sixth in that tournament and Pierce was deemed a ball hog.)

Within a few years, Pierce had seemingly become as irrelevant as the Celtics. In 2005-06, he did average a career high 26.8 points per game, but Boston finished 33-49. In 2006-07, he missed 35 games with a foot injury. More trade rumors surfaced. Pierce was down.

Then, that summer, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived via trade. And you know the rest. Pierce, who was eventually named MVP of the 2008 NBA Finals, was being lauded for his selflessness. Even Karl was back on the bandwagon. Did Pierce really change? Maybe. But more importantly, the situation changed. With two stars flanking him, Pierce had the support he'd lacked his entire career (Sorry, Antoine). Pierce was up again. And he's stayed up.

Injuries again hampered Pierce, 33, in 2009-10. Still, he managed to help lead the Celtics to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Lakers in seven games. Expect him to be back with a vengeance this season.

After all, Pierce never stays down very long.

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