One on One with Paul Pierce
The Celtics' leader on family, fame and his long road to a title
Below are excerpts from Neil Swidey's interview with Paul Pierce, edited and grouped by topic.
What was it like growing up the as the youngest of three boys?
I always wanted a little brother because I felt like the little brother had to do everything. I was like the whipping boy. "Go get the shoes!" I was always tussling with them. That brought out the competitive thing in me.
You were a chubby kid. When did you lose your baby fat?
In high school. But I started getting in better shape in college. I've always been a late bloomer. My body developed late. From ninth to 10th grade, I grew like 3 inches. Just kind of stretched out. I was like 6-1, grew to 6-4 in 10th grade.
You and your two brothers all grew up in tough neighborhoods, raised by a single mom, and all three of you managed to earn college athletic scholarships. What do think explains that success rate?
Watching them get scholarships motivated me. It started with my brothers and ended with my mother. When I moved from Oakland to Los Angeles. I was a fifth-grader. My brother [Steve Hosey] went off to college. My other brother [Jamal Hosey] went overseas to play basketball, start his family. My mother was working so hard to put food on the table, working the overnight shift [as a nurse]. When I wasn't playing as much as I wanted on AAU [amateur basketball league], she said, "You gotta work harder."
Did you ever have any jobs that didn't involve basketball?
I worked at a hospital for a week. And at a golf course when I was in college at Kansas for about a week. The tips weren't good so I quit. [Laughs.]
One of the things I've found working with lots of inner-city high school basketball players is that the ones who do best aren't necessarily the most talented, but they're usually the ones who know how to make lots of smart, quick decisions, on and off the court. Did you grow up with great ballplayers who lost their way?
Definitely. I knew guys way more talented than me who fell through the cracks. I think you're a product of your influences, your environment. You see guys with so much talent but they got the wrong people around them, telling them the wrong things. They wind up going down the wrong path. You got a guy who's not going to class, or he's out doing drugs or hanging around with gang bangers. You're like, "Why are you doing this when you've got all the talent in the world?"
How do you get kids to avoid mistakes like that in the future?
It's hard. Kids get influenced by other kids. I was influenced to transfer [out of my high school, before transferring back]. Me and my best friend were like, "We leaving, we ain't playing." You're influenced by your friends. Sometimes, it's not the best decision, but you don't know.
Did you go through stretches where you weren't making great decisions?
Definitely. Times when you did things you weren't supposed to, staying out late, taking your mom's car out of the driveway when you're not supposed to. I did little things like that, normal mess-ups. But I never did anything extreme to where it got me caught up with police, or gang activity, or holding a gun and getting caught up in street fights.
Many pro athletes have trouble, once they come into big money, of keeping things real and knowing which people around them are there for the right reasons.
A lot of people that I've had around me have been my closest friends since junior high, back when we were exchanging each other's clothes, staying at each other's houses. That was before I had anything.
THE LEAN YEARS IN BOSTON
Did you feel extra pressure in Boston when you weren't winning.
Yes. This isn't just any franchise. This is the Boston Celtics. This is 16 world titles. You don't rebuild, you reload here.
How was it that you never missed a game after you were stabbed in 2000?
Rick Pitino didn't want me on the court, for at least two more weeks. I had a protective body vest, still had some soreness. During an exhibition game, I took some charges. He said, "What the hell are you doing taking charges?" It's hard for me, that's how I play. When I'm on the court , my instincts take over.
What kept you playing hard during all those lean years?
I'm a competitive person. I love the game of basketball. I'm a gym rat. Regardless of what I felt about management and ownership of the team. Because I'm in a bad situation, I'm not just going to lay down."
Doc Rivers told me about all the conversations he had with you early on in his tenure about your body language.
I had bad body language at the time -- pouting, going through the motions. He could see it during practice, that I wasn't feeling what he was trying to do.
But he says, in fairness to you, he was having to spend a lot of time working on rudimentary things you'd mastered years earlier, like chest-pass drills, because the team was so young.
The majority ruled because I was the only veteran. We had young guys, a couple right out of high school. It was like going back to preschool.
Tell me about what was going through your mind during the 2006-2007 season?
I always wanted to be successful here. But then people around me were telling me "you're never going to win in Boston." You start to believe maybe it's not going to happen here. In my sixth year, seventh, eighth year, it's not happening. Man, these are my prime years. You start to think, maybe anywhere is better than what's going on here. Until we went through the 18-game losing streak, I didn't realize we were that bad. Before I got hurt, we were like 10 and 12. I still felt we would be a .500 team. When I got hurt, we couldn't win a game. I was like, "We're farther away than I thought."
Late that season, you sit down with managing partners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca and General Manager Danny Ainge, and you tell them you think they should trade you.
I just thought that was a smart thing. They're smart people. You've got Paul Pierce, who's 28-29 years old. By the time the team gets better, I'm going to be out of the league. What good is holding onto me? I'm their most valuable chip at the time. I didn't want to sour our relationships, like you see with other longtime players. Allen Iverson that year, he wasn't coming around, wasn't playing. Stephon [Marbury] right now. I didn't really want that. I didn't want them to just send me anywhere because our relationship soured. I wanted it to be fair for both of us.
What changed your mind during that meeting?
Once they convinced me we definitely will get better for the next year.
During the playoff series against Atlanta, you were accused of throwing a gang sign after you got heated. You were fined by the NBA. Now, with the perspective of time, how do you explain what happened?
People portrayed that how they wanted to, before they even asked me. I was hot at the time, I was angry. But what does throwing a gang sign do to that team over there? Before every game, all season, I come out, and I do this. [Shows thumb holding bent index finger and remaining three fingers upright.] Blood, sweat, and tears. Every time I come out from my introductions, I show three fingers. But because it was a playoff setting, the media portrayed it as something they wanted it to be.
So what were you trying to tell the members of the Atlanta Hawks with that sign?
My blood, sweat and tears -- you're not beating us. I swore by it. That's it. I've never been in a gang. None of my friends have been in a gang. I've never rolled around with big entourages.
During Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers, you went down with a knee injury, were carried off the court, and put in a wheelchair. Then you miraculously returned a short while later. Some people, especially in your hometown of LA, accused you of being an actor. What really happened?
I fell, heard a pop in my knee. I thought I wasn't going to come back. I was lying on the ground, saying to myself, "This can't be happening. This is my worst nightmare going on right now." The doctors were telling me, "Don't move." They carried me off, then they sat me down in the tunnel, said, "We'll get a wheelchair." I didn't ask for a wheelchair. I thought I had hurt my ACL because there was pain shooting in my knee. They didn't want me walking on it, just in case. When I laid down on the bench in the back, I said. "Let me see how it feels. I wanted to see if I couldn't straighten my leg. When I put the weight on it, I said, "OK, it's not broken." My knee felt kind of loose, so I put the knee brace on. I could bear the pain, so I went back out there. Maybe it wasn't as bad as it looked. But, hey, at least we gave people a story they can remember for a long time!
Were you amping up the drama a bit for your comeback to the court?
No, not really. Not something I planned. I'd never want to leave my teammates. I've never been a player who faked an injury. Why would I want to come off the court during the NBA Finals game? Only people in LA would think that was something I planned. That is Hollywood!
WINNING IT ALL
Speaking of emotion, talk about what was going through your mind when you cried during the banner-raising ceremony in late October?
It made me think about from the time I started playing basketball all the way up to now. I'm looking at the rings, looking up at the banners, thinking about all my struggles. I just couldn't hold it in. This moment right here, this is why I play the game. You think, "Is that day ever going to come?" Everybody has dreams. Sometimes dreams don't come through. You reach so far, and you come up short. I'd been coming up short so much. Damn, it finally happened! In high school, we were one game away from the state championship. College, one game away from the Final Four. This is the ultimate level, in the pros, and it finally happened.
Surrounded by the Celtics legends, and standing under all those banners, did you feel like you had made it?
Definitely. I'm looking at them and thinking, "I'm part of the group." So much tradition. Every day, you walk into our practice center, and first thing you see in the hallway is the pictures of the greats celebrating, the parades. Then you walk into the locker room, pictures of all the former players right there. Then you go into the gym, all the banners. Then you go to the game, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, JoJo White's there. John Havlicek, Cedric Maxwell. All these guys who won championships. They all wear their rings. You think, "Man, I want to be part of that. I want to carry on what they did." The only way you can be part of it is if you win the championship.
How do you explain your relationship with Boston? After your stabbing, your mother wanted you to get out of town, and changed her mind only after she saw the support from the community that you received.
It's just like any boy-girl relationship. Things aren't going to always be perfect, especially a long relationship. You're gonna have your ups and downs. But that's what creates the balance of a great relationship. You have to have some bad in there to get to the good. To understand, this is real. It's just like any relationship where you want to give up on it. I definitely had those moments. But when you love something so much you try to work it out. I love being here.
What do you see yourself doing after you retire?
I see myself as the future Celtics GM. I tell Danny that. I say, "D, you would have already done 10-plus years. You'll be ready to hand it over."
There are basically two kinds of Celtics legends, those who are very involved, at lots of games, like Heinsohn and Havlicek, and those who remain more elusive, like Bird and Russell. Which do you see yourself being?
I see myself being very much a part of the organization.
Who's your model for an ex-Celtic?
I'll be like JoJo White. He's always around, doing stuff for the community still. I know I'll always have a home in Boston.
Why do you live in Nevada in the off-season?
It's far enough from LA but close enough to visit.
Could you ever imagine living in Boston full-time?
Depends on if I'm working. If I'm working, I don't mind.
CURRENT FAMILY LIFE
Were you surprised when your baby turned out to be a girl?
I told my mother I was going to have a girl. [Her other grandchildren are all boys.] I'll probably have all girls.
Your brothers both told me you're more settled now. And they like that because your life is more like theirs now.
Definitely. Life changes when you have a child, when you have your own family. You become more careful about what you do. You're not going to be out late, going out to clubs, hanging out with your friends. You're going to be at home, taking care of your daughter, playing with her. I'm not out with my friends as much. But it's a beautiful thing. I love watching [8-month old Prianna] grow, changing before my eyes.
How'd you settle on her name?
I just thought of it. Thought it sounded nice, thought it fit her. My fiance liked it, so we went with it. We had three names: Piper, Prianna, one was like Priscilla. Something with a P. She was stuck on Piper until I told her Prianna.
What's special about your fiance, Julie Landrum?
She really helped me through that year in 2007, provided me the support when I was down a lot. She's an amazing woman. We get along so well because we were such good friends. We started dating after the All-Star weekend in Houston three years ago. The next thing I know we're living together. Man, we clicked, we bonded.
How are you going to avoid spoiling Prianna?
She's already spoiled! I love waking her up in the morning. She's sleeping through the night now, which is good. For a while she was up every three hours.
Do you have a nanny?
No. Her [Julie's] mom lives out here with us. She's like our nanny.
Do you change diapers?
I definitely change diapers.
What kind of dad do you think you'll be?
I want to be the dad that my father never was. When I think about raising a child, and knowing I didn't have a father around, I want to be there for my daughter, to watch her grow into a woman.
I didn't have a dad around to pick me up when I fell, throw the ball to me outside. I always wonder how it would be if I did have a dad there.
How do you suspect your life would have been different if your dad had been a part of it?
Who knows? I think I ended up pretty good anyway. I found my father through other people, through my older brothers, my high school coaches, so I had men influences along the way who helped me.
So you feel you have models for fatherhood?
Definitely. Especially a guy I'm close with, Scott Collins, a police officer in Los Angeles. Met him in the sixth grade. Because I met him, I started getting involved in the Police Athletic League, getting involved in other sports, like volleyball, softball. It took away my time, especially in the summer, from just hanging around with guys who wasn't doing nothing, just hanging around on the streets, looking for trouble. My mom had to work all day, all night. In the summer, I'm there by myself. By getting involved in these activities, it really helped me, and influenced who was around me.
When you hold your daughter in your arms, do you think, "How could someone walk away from this?"
Definitely. She's the best thing that ever happened to me. It's crazy how people just don't care sometimes about the kids they have. I'll do anything for her.
DIET AND COMMUNITY WORK
This year you came back into training camp weighing 10 pounds less? How'd you do it?
My workout didn't really change. I just changed my diet, eating better in the summertime. I just stayed away from red meat, eating mostly fish and chicken.
You're a California guy. Was it hard to give up those In-N-Out burgers?
[Laughs.] It's hard to stay away from them. The double-double -- the best burgers ever! Where I live [in the off-season] in Vegas, there's an In-N-Out right down the street. When I leave to work out, it's there right before I jump on the freeway. Man, I want one of those.
Some people thought after winning it all last year you'd put on a few more pounds in the off-season.
After winning the championship, it really motivated me. I'll hopefully play another four to five years. We won a championship and I didn't even feel I was 100 percent. I know the older I get the harder it is going to be to get into shape.
Speaking of diet, how did you decide to use your foundation, The Truth Fund [www.paulpierce.net], to try to combat obesity among inner-city kids?
We were just talking about it one day. Focused on it over the summer. Me and my team got together and talked about healthy eating for children. Eating right is part of my lifestyle now.
When you talk to kids, how do you get your message across without seeming preachy?
Kids are the most genuine thing to me, everything they say and do, they mean it. An adult can say, "I love you. I watch you all the time," but they probably don't. A kid, you can see their eyes light up when you come into the room. I enjoy being that guy. I don't preach to them, but I do give them a drop of knowledge. Kids look at you like you're perfect, like you don't have bad days. They don't see the other side. I'll tell them that I have bad days, that I wasn't always the best student either.
What's your favorite food?
Boston Market whole chicken. I love that.
I thought you'd say In-N-Out burger.
I love In-N-Out, but I got to stay away!
I'm pretty versatile. But my favorite artists are Jay-Z and Beyonce.
Favorite TV show?
Right now it's
I'd have to say, Hustle & Flow and Gladiator.
Worst thing about Boston?
The construction! They've been doing something right here [he points to highway crews on Route 128 in Waltham] for two years. I still don't know what they were doing.
Neil Swidey is a staff writer for The Boston Globe Magazine and author of The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives (theassist.net), now out in paperback. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His cover story on Paul Pierce can be found at www.boston.com/magazine.