Resilient Paul Pierce has lifted the Celtics into the playoff hunt
During the nights in late October while the police were parked outside his home, Celtics forward Paul Pierce would have dreams in which three men were surrounding him, stabbing him over and over as he helplessly cried out. "I had those dreams quite a bit," says Pierce. "I would wake up and touch my scars." Then he'd reassure himself that the nightmare—like the attack that inspired it—was over.
In March the 6'7" Pierce averaged 30.3 points, lifted Boston into playoff contention and was named NBA Player of the Month—the first Celtic to be so honored since Larry Bird in 1986. The scars he carries make those feats seem more amazing still. In the early morning of Sept. 25, 2000, Pierce was chatting with two women during a private party at the Buzz Club in downtown Boston when he was confronted by William Ragland, who claimed to be a brother of one of the women. Pierce says he turned to walk away. Then, according to the Suffolk County prosecutor's office, Ragland and two friends, Tony Hurston and Trevor Watson, allegedly went after Pierce, conking him with a bottle. Pierce was then stabbed repeatedly in the torso, back and neck, according to the prosecutor's office, which has charged each of the men with armed assault with intent to murder. All three have pleaded not guilty.
Pierce was conscious when his companions that evening, Celtics center Tony Battie and Battie's brother, Derrick, rushed him to New England Medical Center, a few blocks away. He underwent emergency surgery to repair a collapsed lung, and when he awakened, the doctors told him that his wounds had come within an inch of killing him. "It's changed my life," Pierce says. "It helped me grow up a lot faster and become closer with my family. You never know when your time will come. I realize you can't take the people around you for granted, including the fans—they helped me pull through this."
While Bostonians have never fully accepted Antoine Walker, who was booed after making a ball handling mistake in last Friday's loss to the visiting Lakers, they have embraced Pierce as the new embodiment of Celtic Pride. He solidified their support by playing in a preseason game less than four weeks after the attack. Having been elevated to co-captain alongside Walker, Pierce was eager to set a good example for his teammates. In an almost masochistic display of toughness, he absorbed five charges during his second preseason game and was forced to the bench with a sore sternum. "The coaches were amazed I kept taking those charges," Pierce says. "I've surprised myself. I knew I would come back, but I thought it would take a while for me to be in the form I've been in this year."
Though he's forbidden to do any upper-body weight training because of the scar tissue from his wounds, Pierce hasn't worn down. Thanks to his amazing March he was averaging a career-high 25.3 points at week's end. He also ranked third in the league in free throws attempted, behind Shaquille O'Neal and Jerry Stackhouse. "As unlucky as we were in the '97 draft, when we lost out on Tim Duncan in the lottery," says Celtics general manager Chris Wallace, "we were just as lucky in '98 when Paul fell to us at Number 10. He's one of the top three players in that draft, along with Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki."
After coach Rick Pitino announced Ills resignation on Jan. 8, his replacement, Jim O'Brien, trimmed the rotation from 11 men to nine and surrounded Pierce and Walker with defensive-minded players such as Bryant Stith and Eric Williams, freeing the co-captains to run the offense. With that approach the Celtics won five of seven games on the road in March to make a run at the more talented Pacers for the final playoff spot in the East. (At week's end Boston trailed Indiana by 1� games.) Though Celtics fans don't like to give Walker credit—complaining that the 6'9" power forward shoots more three-pointers (552 through Sunday) than free throws (332)—he has established himself as a team-minded player, willing to step aside and let Pierce lead the way.
"They're two totally different players," says Williams. "Antoine is finesse and spin; Paul is cutthroat. Paul knows when he's got a player down, and when he does, he's going to go right at him."
Celtics sources say that O'Brien will probably be retained as coach. It's a good bet that Wallace also will be kept on to oversee a draft this June in which Boston could have as many as three first-round picks. While chairman Paul Gaston has remained silent on all management issues, he has let it be known that the priority this summer is to sign Pierce to an extension before his contract runs out after next season.
No matter where his career takes him, this season will mark a turning point in Pierce's life. Though police no longer provide around-the-clock protection, he has hired bodyguards to accompany him when he does something as simple as shoot a game of pool in Boston. The nightmares stopped months ago, but every morning he awakens to the image of his scars in the bathroom mirror. "My mother says the scars show character," Pierce says. "She's always turning a negative into a positive. When I look at my scars, I think about my mom, and it makes me smile."