- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2014

Word was getting around and it undermined Paul Pierce. Even the recruits knew something was amiss. Pierce was back in Lawrence, Kansas, despite being drafted 10th overall just months prior. The NBA was heading toward a lockout-shortened 1998-99 season which forced Pierce to get in work at his college stop while waiting for his rookie year to start.

Drew Gooden was on a recruiting trip to Kansas. Of all the things that could be talked about in regard to Pierce, a consensus first-team All-American the prior season, a lottery pick, a player who would have his jersey eventually retired by the Jayhawks, his wrist wear was the topic.

“He had a fake Rolex that he was bragging about,” Gooden said.

SEE ALSO: SNYDER: Otto Porter, Glen Rice could really make Wizards pop

Sixteen years before he would land in the District, Pierce was already enveloped in a personal swagger — even if It was the machismo of a 21-year-old paired with a fraudulent timepiece.

Unassailable confidence comes standard with Pierce, who, at 37 years old, now carries a legitimized panache as part of the Wizards. He has scored 25,031 NBA points since milling around Kansas in false bling. Ten All-Star appearances join a world title on his NBA ledger. The Hall of Fame will be a post-career stop.

A surprising two-year deal brought him to the Wizards in the offseason. In tow is the confidence and reputation of a scorer who has pulverized the NBA for more than a decade mostly from just beyond the elbows of the free-throw line. He brings belief to the league’s oldest roster that has its core in two whippersnappers at guard, John Wall and Bradley Beal.

“The greatness of Paul is he knows who he is and where he’s at right now,” Wizards coach Randy Wittman said. “I think he’s already stated that this isn’t his team. He’s coming in to try to help this team move forward in a positive manner. He understands where he’s at in his career and who he is. With the players he’s got here and some of the young guys, this is a situation he’s just trying to help. That’s unique.”

Joining the Wizards was the most drastic change of his pro career. He joined numerous known veterans in Brooklyn last season after spending 15 years in Boston. With the Wizards, he knows fellow Los Angeles native Andre Miller, whom Pierce played against in junior high school, and few others. Aware the end is coming, Pierce holds the rare player option for next season. He’ll deal with that after pushing through this season still anxious for a championship.

“I told people before, they’re like, ‘How many more years?’” Pierce said. “I don’t now how many more years. There is going to come a day where I wake up, my body is going to talk to me. My mind is going to say something that my body probably can’t do, then I’ll figure it out from there. My body still feels good. My mind is in the right place. I still have the hunger, desire to get up every day and want to be in the gym, so I’ll continue to do that until that goes away.”


Considering Sam Cassell’s self-belief, it’s not surprising his symbiosis with Pierce was swift when the two became pals in 2008. Cassell, then 38, was playing his 18th and final season, finishing his career with the Celtics following a midseason trade. The move to Boston put him on his 11th playoff-bound team. That season, the Celtics won their first title since 1986. It was Cassell’s third championship and Pierce’s first and, thus far, only.

Their friendship continued. It lasted long enough that Cassell became the pitch man who influenced Pierce’s decision to come to Washington.

Over the summer, small forward Trevor Ariza had left the Wizards and signed with the Houston Rockets. Pierce did not receive an offer to return to the Brooklyn Nets. The Los Angeles Clippers explored a sign-and-trade deal for Pierce, according to coach Doc Rivers, but couldn’t make the trade work.

Cassell, a Wizards assistant coach at the time, began talking to Pierce right after Ariza’s departure. There were multiple phone calls and a dinner at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. Pierce was already intrigued by Beal and Wall. He also felt the Wizards should have made the Eastern Conference finals last season.

“The more and more we talked about it, he liked the idea,” Cassell said. “He just made a decision quicker than I thought he was going to make it.”

The Cassell-Pierce connection was not the only layer to the transaction. Wittman was on the phone with his old friend, Rivers, to check on Pierce. Rivers and Wittman played together in the Atlanta Hawks’ backcourt prior to Rivers coaching Pierce for a decade in Boston.

In Rivers’ view, there are veterans and “great veterans,” the latter of which is rare and he contends Pierce is. In order to support that claim, Rivers points out his attempt to acquire Pierce. So, here is what Wittman will be receiving:

“He’ll get a guy that wants to practice every day,” Rivers said. “That is very competitive. That hates to lose. That knows what winning looks like. Paul doesn’t need the ball. He’s never going to complain. He’s just such a great team guy. I think he will be a great veteran to the young guys. I don’t think you could have added a better piece.”

In recent years, Pierce admitted, he would never have considered Washington. His career will always be steeped in Celtic green and he’s a Los Angeles native who grew up rooting for the Lakers. Plus, the dismal Wizards had won 29 games or less for the five consecutive seasons prior to last season’s breakthrough.

“Four years ago, nobody was really talking about Washington,” Pierce said. “Now, they changed the culture here.”


Rivers has a multitude of stories about Pierce. They plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic Division together in 2007 when the Celtics won 24 games. A year later, they won 66 and the NBA title after Pierce was aligned with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett.

Constants for Pierce, and Rivers’ storytelling, are challenges from ambitious, athletic young players. They show up, some with a future in the league, many without, during each preseason camp or in the summer. Pierce is the alpha wherever he resides, which also makes him the focus of those out to prove themselves. They also apparently feel this target — too slow on his feet, not able to jump like the freaks of the league, getting on in his 30s — is a susceptible one. They are mistaken. Once picked apart and verbally abused on the floor, the youngsters are discarded like worn-out gum by Pierce.

“He does it every year,” Rivers said. “He did it this summer [in L.A.] with all the young guys. You can see them scratching their head, like, ‘How is this guy doing this?’”

The defeated youth are not alone in their bewilderment. Pierce has scored the 18th-most points in league history. It should only take a couple weeks this season for him to move up another spot and overtake Jerry West.

He moves with calm until it is time not to. Pierce has enough speed to drive by defenders. He has enough lift to be competitive at the rim. But point after point was mostly piled up because of footwork and guile.

An hour before the Wizards played Maccabi Haifa in the preseason, Pierce was on the floor working on his stepback jumper. This is the oxygen of his offensive game. Jab with the left foot, drag both back; add one dribble, pull back. An inch of air space equals a 17-foot jumper going down.

“At the elbows, he’s deadly,” Rivers said.

Pierce is 12th in NBA history in free-throw attempts despite his lack of high-end athleticism. He gets there with pump fakes, proper footwork off picks and that maddening, undeterred pace, which appears so slow yet is so effective. In many instances, a hammer will do. As Pierce shows, sometimes the screwdriver is just as effective.

“He was very easy [to coach] offensively,” Rivers said. “I think what you’re going to be surprised is when you slide him over to the four and how effective he is at that. Not only guarding guys, now he’s a nightmare for other fours and he can score. I think what it gives Washington is a power three, then a guy who can play the four when they go small.”


Time is a hindrance even for those not reliant on the gifts of youth. At 37, Pierce’s minutes will be reduced. Last season in Brooklyn, he averaged a career-low 28 minutes per game, his fourth consecutive year of having his time on the floor wane. Wittman said he will begin to get an idea for Pierce’s minutes as the season moves forward.

“That’s a feel thing that I’m going to have to figure out,” Wittman said.

Pierce will be influential no matter the minutes. Upon arrival, he stressed the importance of making free throws. Pierce was in the gym early, surprising some of the Wizards’ younger players. When asked what he had learned early on from Pierce, Beal said, “How to talk trash.”

Rivers and Cassell were emphatic that Pierce will be a benefit to Beal and Wall. Wall, 24, and Beal, 21, have been in the league a combined six seasons, most of them dreadful. Winning last season and advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals was a surprise more than an expectation. Pierce is here to be part of the solution for the next step.

“He understands what it takes to win,” said Cassell, who is now part of Rivers’ staff in L.A. “Them two guys, they got a touch of it last year, but they don’t know what it’s really going to take to win at a high level. Paul I think is an investment for both them two guys.”

“I think that he’ll be so important to that team,” Rivers said. “To Bradley and to John and to all the young guys, in the way he plays. They’ll realize all that speed and athleticism is nice — Paul has that, but he rarely uses it because he knows timing and how to play. I think that’s what the people of D.C. will love the most. Then, they’ll also love his ability to make big shots. He makes big shots.”

Again on the floor early prior to another preseason game, Pierce was putting in work before a mythical big shot. He went through his usual routine of working on the stepbacks and free throws. He also drove baseline, then alternated dunks on the other side of the rim with each hand. About ready to depart, he moved his feet behind the out of bounds line in the baseline corner. Out came a pass from the ball boy and Pierce hoisted.

“One time!” he yelled.

The jumper was pure and Pierce had won a game in which he was the only participant. As he walked off, an early arrival in the third row said to Pierce he didn’t know he had it like that, an aging player able to dunk with each hand plus drop in long-range shots. The scrunched face and rebuttal were swift.

“C’mon, dawg! All-world, man!”

With that, Pierce shot a wave to the yet-to-be occupied ushers taking his picture with a camera phone. He strutted to the back alone, sweating and sure, his career not done yet.

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