Just over a year ago, two of the NBA's top stars wondered whether they were going to be back in the only uniform they had ever known. Both were vocal in yearning for a better supporting cast. But where the difference arose between Celtics forward Paul Pierce and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was in how they asked for change.
Now, their hope for change has come to fruition, as the Celtics and Lakers are in the NBA Finals.
"I'm just happy to be a part of this, man," Pierce said. "It's been a long process. I could write a whole book on my emotions right now. But I'm just happy to be in this position, still with the Boston Celtics."
In late March 2007, Pierce told the Globe, "I'm the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks." The Celtics were on their way to finishing with the second-worst record in the NBA. But Pierce never asked to be traded or expressed regret about re-signing a deal that would keep him here until he was 33. Pierce just pleaded for help to get the Celtics back to the glory days.
"I'm waiting to see what happens this summer," Pierce said then. "We have to see who we keep and who has enough potential trade value to make a difference. I'm not talking about winning a few more games. I'm talking about getting into the playoffs, going deep into the playoffs.
"I don't want to be a team that just sneaks in. I want to be on a team that everyone says before the season, 'This is a team that's going somewhere,' like Detroit."
Celtics general manager Danny Ainge put Pierce in a position that proved to be better than Detroit's by adding All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, forwards James Posey and Glen Davis, veteran big man P.J. Brown, and guards Sam Cassell and Eddie House. The Celtics won an NBA-best 66 regular-season games and knocked off the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals.
Pierce, said coach Doc Rivers, "has been through so much, on and off the floor. I think we were talking about this, the fact that he stayed. In the times when all the stars, when their team gets bad, they want to bail, they want to get traded, Paul reupped. He stayed with us. To me, that means a lot, and I said that when he did it."
The Lakers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last season and were a far cry from their Finals team of 2004. Boiled over in frustration, Bryant said on ESPN Radio in May 2007, "I would like to be traded, yeah. Tough as it is to come to that conclusion, there's no other alternative, you know?"
Considering the Lakers chose to re-sign Bryant over Shaquille O'Neal and stuck with him when he was accused of sexual assault in Colorado, it was surprising that he seemed to be turning his back on the franchise.
There was a cloud over the Lakers from the start of training camp. During Bryant's trade turmoil, he dissed teammate Andrew Bynum, GM Mitch Kupchak, and owner Jerry Buss. There were rumors that Bryant soon would be running with the Bulls.
But the Lakers got off to a surprisingly hot start behind Bryant and Bynum. After the stunning addition of forward-center Pau Gasol via trade Feb. 1, the Lakers went on to finish with the West's top record, and Bryant was named NBA MVP.
"Once the season started, I didn't think about a trade or anything like that," Bryant said. "I just buckled down into what I needed to do to get this team to play our best basketball."
Said Lakers coach Phil Jackson, "Coming back after a bewildering two weeks or so in the preseason, where things were tenuous, at best, as an organization, I thought we were of really great support to him and understanding. And then to be able to throw his energy wholeheartedly into this team again, that has to be a very special feeling for him, to be back here and get to the Finals and have exactly what he had hoped to happen happen under all that duress and under that uncertainty."
When it's all said and done, Celtics fans may talk about Pierce in the same breath as Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and John Havlicek, admiring him for staying loyal. But even though Bryant could end his career as the greatest Laker of all time, their fans are bound to remember that dark day when he said he wanted out.
It's all in the way you say things, and the Pierce approach would have been a better one for Bryant.
"It makes me think about a year ago today what I was doing," Pierce said. "To be in this position with the same team going to the Finals, it's nothing I can really put into words."
No thorny issues for RoseExcerpts from a media session at the recent Orlando predraft camp with Memphis freshman guard Derrick Rose, who is projected to be taken either by Chicago with the top pick or Miami with the second pick:
How has your preparation for the draft been?
DR: "It's been crazy traveling everywhere. I've been in LA most of the time working out. I've really just been doing two-a-day [workouts], that's about it. I'm getting a lot of sleep."
Did you grow up a big Bulls fan in Chicago?
DR: "I was a big Bulls fans when Michael [ Jordan] was playing. But after he stopped playing, I really wasn't paying attention to them."
Would it be disappointing if the Bulls passed you up?
DR: "Not really. As long as I'm playing professional basketball, I'll be happy."
The Heat have the second pick and it's possible you could play with their star, Dwyane Wade. What do you like about the way the fellow Chicagoan plays?
DR: "He always attacks. He's a good teammate. Everybody listens to him when he's on the court. He's a leader and he can take the pressure off me if I'm on the court. Hopefully, if I play with him, I can take the pressure off him, too."
How has Memphis coach John Calipari prepared you for the draft?
DR: "He's helped me so much. When I first came in during the summer, I wasn't sure that I could run the offense because there were so many things to how Coach Cal runs that offense. He pulled me in his office many times, just told me to cool down and just to play my game."
Jackson wants to be next TVMark Jackson hopes to go from the microphone to the sideline, just as Doc Rivers did.
analyst to get coaching call
Rivers took over as the Celtics coach in 2004 after spending a year working at ABC as an NBA analyst. Jackson is currently an analyst for ABC and has interviewed for head coaching jobs with New York, Chicago, and Phoenix.
Rivers didn't have any head coaching experience prior to getting hired by Orlando in 1999; he was an analyst for Turner Sports for three years before that. Jackson has no head coaching experience, either.
"Doc is a guy that really opened the door and allowed it to be a reality," Jackson said. "When you think about going from the booth to coaching with no experience, here is a guy who has done it and been successful."
Said Rivers, "I told him this, 'All you want to do is win, and if that's your reason for coaching, I think you'll have a chance to be successful.' I think he will be."
Jackson played for such esteemed coaches as Pat Riley, Larry Brown, Larry Bird, Lenny Wilkens, Jeff Van Gundy, and Jerry Sloan. He was a finalist for the Knicks job before Mike D'Antoni was hired, isn't expected to get the Suns job because they want a more experienced coach, and is expected to lose out on the Chicago job to Doug Collins.
"I've been playing for Hall of Fame coaches, and it's something I'm excited about," said Jackson. "If I didn't get an opportunity and I'm still calling games, I'm fine."
He believes his experience as a point guard will help him as a head coach.
"As a point guard, you are a lead assistant," Jackson said. "That was my mentality for 16 years."
While Rivers was working for ABC, he jotted down plays from games and practices and received valuable coaching information from pregame meetings. Jackson is doing the same.
"To talk to [Gregg ] Popovich before and after games, talk to Doc, Flip Saunders, and Phil Jackson, this is valuable stuff," said Jackson.
Etc.A new word from the sponsor
"You got Rondo'd!" Reebok hopes this new catchphrase in reference to Rajon Rondo will become a familiar one in New England during the NBA Finals. Reebok filmed three commercials in Canton over the weekend with former Celtics Jo Jo White and Dee Brown and Patriots star Vince Wilfork. The spots will be shown online and in TD Banknorth Garden during the Finals. The first one shows a small car sliding between two Hummers into a parking spot. The drivers of the Hummers stick their heads out of their cars in disgust. Then White gets out of the small car and says, "Sorry, fellas, you just got Rondo'd." The second ad shows Brown as a dentist, wearing a surgical mask. After pulling a tooth from a satisfied and surprised patient, Brown says, "It's OK. I Rondo'd it. You'll be fine." The last commercial shows Wilfork and some of his teammates watching a game, with one slice of pizza left. Wilfork points out a window and says, "Hey, check it out, a parade!" While they look, Wilfork eats the last slice. A teammate says, "Vince, did you just Rondo my slice?" Another adds, "Dude, we totally got Rondo'd." Before each commercial, "Rondo" will be defined as moving smoothly between larger objects, being able to remove an object quickly and efficiently, or creating a distraction with a swift change of direction. "I didn't know they were going to do all that," said Rondo with a smile. Reebok attempted to get Bill Russell in one of the ads, but couldn't get it worked out. Reebok is hoping it doesn't get Rondo'd by Rondo himself. The point guard's contract with the shoe company ends after this season. Reebok has been in negotiations with Rondo's representation agency, BDA Sports Management.
Should they elect to select?
An NBA scouting executive said Friday, "The Celtics are going to get a good player. That's the best talent I've seen there in three or four years." The scout was referring to the NBA predraft camp held last week in Orlando. The Celtics have the last first-round pick, 30th overall, in the June 26 draft. The 30th pick is guaranteed $797,600 for the 2008-09 season, $857,400 for the 2009-10 season, and a team option for $917,200 during the 2010-11 season. The Celtics are projected to have about $74.5 million in salary next season, assuming James Posey doesn't opt out of his contract ($3.45 million) and the first-round pick is still around. Considering how valuable the 31-year-old Posey is, it would be surprising if he didn't opt out for more money and more years. Re-signing the all-purpose swingman is a must for Boston. With that in mind, it's easy to understand why the Celtics would want to save money by trading the first-round pick. But if all the underclassmen stay in the draft, it may not be best for Boston to move a pick that seems to be getting more valuable by the day.
Change of direction in Atlanta
Cavaliers assistant general manager Chris Grant seemed poised a week ago to become the Hawks' new GM. But an NBA source said the Hawks told him that they decided to go in a different direction because of philosophical differences, contract issues, and concerns about experience. The Hawks ended up hiring ex-Sonics general manager Rick Sund. Other candidates included Washington vice president of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard and ex-Magic general John Gabriel. Former Hawks stars Dominique Wilkins and Steve Smith were not considered. Sund's addition instantly put the status of coach Mike Woodson in question since they have no previous relationship.
The likely return of Doug Collins as coach of the Bulls is quite surprising. One NBA executive said last week that Collins told him during the regular season that he had no desire to return to coaching. Collins had also told the Globe that he was enjoying spending time with his grandchildren.
An ex-NBA player close to the league's predraft camp in Orlando gave his insights on several of the top performers, including Gary Forbes of the University of Massachusetts.
Maryland forward James Gist "was athletic, active, and doing a little bit of everything."
Texas A&M center Joseph Jones "has a big body, was mobile, crashed the boards on both ends, and can score. He didn't hurt himself."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com.