By J.A. Adande
Special to ESPN.com
LOS ANGELES — Paul Pierce‘s back is against the wall. Outside the locker room in the University of Southern California’s Galen Center, to be precise.
This is good for the conversation. It means he isn’t going anywhere. This doesn’t work metaphorically, though. Because the words coming out of his mouth depict a man standing at the crossroads, worried about how, ultimately, the story of his career will be written.
Paul Pierce is stepping up in the community. And he’s ready to raise the bar for his NBA career.
“It’s hanging in the balance,” Pierce says. “People don’t know what to think. I think I have the potential to be a Hall of Fame player. I think I have the potential to be one of the best ever to play the game. It’s right here for me. It’s all on how hard I work and how far I want to take it.”
So what does he plan to do differently this season?
“Win more games,” he says. “That’s it. People know what I can do as an individual basketball player. The legacy is all about how many games you win, what you do as a team.”
Now his team has Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. But it still comes back to Pierce. He was in Boston first. He’s the one who watched the proud franchise plummet last season. And he’s the biggest question mark. How are the three stars going to mesh?
Start by asking the only one of them to chuck up more than 1,500 shots in a season three times in his career. Whether the Celtics can fulfill the expectations that arrived along with Garnett in that huge trade last week depends largely on whether Pierce the player can match the Pierce the person.
Because this past weekend we saw Pierce at his best. Unselfish. With the program.
See, there are two legacies Pierce is trying to uphold. Before he tries to add banner No. 17 to the Boston rafters, he’s taking his second crack at continuing the charity basketball game Magic Johnson established in the 1980s.
Early on, Johnson’s Midsummer Night’s Magic game expanded from a mostly Laker affair to a star-studded event that included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley. Even as the number of big names dwindled, the event expanded from just a game at Loyola Marymount’s Gersten Pavilion to include banquets, lavish themed parties on movie studio lots, comedy shows, music concerts and kiddie carnivals, while the basketball action moved to the Forum and then the Staples Center.
These days it’s tough enough to get the big guns to play on the Olympic team, let alone in a charity game. As Johnson’s playing days receded into the past, he became increasingly immersed in his burgeoning business empire. The game didn’t quite fit in with the rest of his portfolio. To be honest, it was no longer worthy of the Magic Johnson brand. Last year he deeded the weekend to a couple of local kids, Pierce and Baron Davis, and let them handle things, but Magic still showed up at events to make sure everyone knew they had his approval. His pregame stroll to half court Sunday drew the loudest ovation of the evening.
“They’re blessing others, that’s what it’s all about,” Johnson said of his successors. “God blessed them with great talent, and they’re using it to help other people.”
So now it’s up to Davis and Pierce. It’s easy to forget in Hollywood, but this is one event that shouldn’t be about the caliber of the list. What’s relevant is that students keep getting a chance to go to college.
“Paul and myself, we’re trying to do great things in the community,” Davis says. “That’s the most important thing that matters.
“When I was 22 or 23 years old, I started to want to get into foundation work, understand about my community. Looking at my little cousins and the influence I had on them, I wanted to be a role model and do something for them so they knew they had to go to school and be model citizens.”
So now the show goes on. It’s the tried-and-true celebrity fundraising formula: sponsors + schmoozing = scholarships. They closed off a block of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills for a party Saturday night. Angie Stone performed. Stevie Wonder showed up and even joined Stone on stage briefly.
Plenty of NBA players came out to participate in the LA Stars charity game.
The basketball game moved to the Galen Center, a good fit for a crowd that filled about half of the arena’s 10,000 seats. There were enough name players in the game that you didn’t need to look at a roster following every basket. Jason Kidd, Antoine Walker, Deron Williams and Ricky Davis, for starters. Plus names that resonated in Los Angeles, such as Matt Barnes, Ryan Hollins, Gabe Pruitt, Nick Young and Jordan Farmar.
Davis handled most of the showmanship aspect of the game, with a steady stream of behind-the-back and through-the-legs plays (Walker’s legs, in one instance).
Pierce, who grew up in Inglewood when that was the dateline for so many Lakers playoff newspaper stories, was fully vested in this. He was enthusiastic, and he engaged in trash talk with Davis when they coached teams in the celebrity game earlier in the evening (Pierce even worked the refs). It was Pierce who did the bulk of the talking for the new school when they joined Johnson at midcourt before the all-star game.
“This is a tremendous opportunity,” Pierce told the crowd. “We’re thankful that we can give back to the same people that supported me and BD growing up. It’s about giving back to our own community.”
Earlier, I asked Pierce about his definition of responsibility.
“Just continuing what people ahead of you have done, continuing the legacy they built,” Pierce said. “Making sure that it continues to go on smoothly for the years coming. As I move on and move forward, giving that to the next generation coming up.”
Hmmm, sounds like his obligation to a certain green-clad franchise.
The decline of the Celtics wasn’t entirely his fault. He wasn’t responsible for all the bad draft picks, questionable trades and curious coaching decisions. He was out with an injury for all but the final two games of the Celtics 20-game losing streak this season. But the fact is, the Celtics missed the playoffs the past two seasons on his watch.
“It definitely weighs on me,” Pierce says. “This is not just any old franchise. This is a storied franchise, great. So many of the top 50 players come out of this franchise.”
He sees the championship banners every time he comes to the arena. He notices when a Bob Cousy, John Havlicek or Bill Russell sits in the stands.
“I want to continue on what they did,” he says.
He feels ready now that he has Garnett and Allen on his side. Like Pierce, the best they’ve ever done is reach the conference finals. Pierce’s career scoring average of 23.6 points per game is the highest of the new Big Three. He led the league in total points in 2001-02, something not even Bird did.
But you don’t hear Pierce’s name come up when the topic is the best players in the league. He considers himself on a level with Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Except those guys have played in the final game of the season. Pierce has only watched.
The NBA wasn’t just Magic, Bird and Jordan in the 1980s. There was George Gervin and Alex English and Sidney Moncrief and Bernard King as well, to name just a few. But you didn’t see them in the Finals then, so you don’t hear their names much now.
Davis found out what a little playoff noise can do last season, when his Golden State Warriors beat the Dallas Mavericks and became the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in a best-of-seven series.
A couple of weeks after the playoffs he was in London and Paris, and even the locals were coming up to tell him what a great job he had done.
“Everybody started pulling for us,” Davis says. “We were playing with heart, a lot of passion, and trying to beat a big, tough opponent.”
Over a thrilling six games, Davis and the Warriors revived a dismal NBA season.
Pierce and Co. are trying to bring back a franchise that hasn’t been relevant in 20 years. And maybe, in the process of restoring the Celtics’ brand, he can create one of his own.
“I just feel like this is our time, man,” Pierce says. “I’ll probably play [another] four or five years in the league. These last five years, this is going to determine what people are going to be talking about for the rest of our lives, as basketball players and off the court. I’m in my prime, these guys are in their prime.
“This is it, right here. This is the run. Everybody realizes it. We’ve got a sense of urgency. These are the years that people will remember when it’s all over.
“I always want to leave my mark. I played the game, but I want to leave my mark on it. So people can say for a long time that Paul Pierce left his mark on the game. The only way that I can do that is to win a championship.”