Paul Pierce will return to town soon, settling into his suburban home in preparation for the start of training camp Oct. 4. Maybe you will see him driving his customized Celtics-themed truck with images of the TD Banknorth Garden parquet inside. Maybe not.
With the exception of a cameo at the Las Vegas summer league in mid-July, a visit with executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge at the Celtics' practice facility a couple weeks ago, and two brief conversations with coach Doc Rivers during the summer, Pierce kept a low profile and his distance from the organization in the offseason. He also kept his thoughts about the future to himself, until he was reached by phone last night in Los Angeles.
For the first time since the Celtics' opening-round loss to the Pacers in May, Pierce talked publicly about his ejection for swiping at Jamaal Tinsley in the playoffs and the infamous bandaged-jaw press conference that followed, his young teammates, the offseason trade rumors, the Celtics' new code of conduct, and karaoke.
''I think I got a real bad rap from the [first-round playoff] series and it kind of stuck with me," said Pierce. ''I feel people view me like a different person now, especially after the Tinsley incident. That's how I feel. People have mixed emotions about me. I think people are confused about me now. I think that series made everybody look at me like a bad guy or something. And that's not right. The whole shirt off, the whole everything was taken the wrong way.
''People have got to understand this is a sport. You go through roller-coaster rides emotionally. You react to certain things and things happen and then it's over with. Am I a bad person? Of course not. I've never gotten into any trouble off the court. I conduct myself in a good manner. I'm an emotional person on the court, but that's about it. I apologized for [what happened] and left it there. It's over and done with.
''People who know me know that I'm loyal to the organization, know that I give my heart to the organization. I want to retire as a Celtic. I don't want to be a player that moves around and plays for different teams. I came here with a purpose. I think it was meant for me to be here, being drafted No. 10. I don't think what's in store for me as a Celtic is over with. I want to bring the glory and the pride back. I already know how it feels when you're winning and you're doing well in the playoffs. I just want that feeling back."
It was strange to hear Pierce talk about retiring a Celtic, especially when many fans and pundits expected the seven-year veteran would be dealt during the offseason. When the 2004-05 season ended, Pierce seemed ready, almost eager, for a change of scenery. But Pierce claims to have paid little attention to trade rumors that surfaced throughout the summer. He accepts such speculation as part of the job.
''I'm numb to that now," he said. ''It doesn't bother me at all. As far as I'm concerned, I'm still a Celtic. I'll still report to Celtics training camp in shape and ready to go and I'm looking forward to the season. I have no control over [trades]. I'm signed to the Celtics for three more years."
When trade rumors started to swirl early in the summer, Pierce let his agent, Jeff Schwartz, speak for him. With his Celtics future seemingly in limbo, what could Pierce say? It made no sense to complain about a team stocked with young players when they could be his teammates. It made no sense to criticize either Ainge or Rivers when they would determine his future. Besides, his body language during the regular season and playoffs said enough to fuel speculation. He sulked occasionally on the bench and struggled to forge a relationship with Rivers.
Pierce certainly needed time away from Boston and the frustrations of his first season under Rivers. Quiet time at his homes in Los Angeles and Las Vegas restored his optimism and enthusiasm. It also gave Pierce perspective on his relationship with Rivers.
''I think it's going to improve as time goes on and as we communicate and we know what each other wants," said Pierce. ''I just kind of think we assumed things about each other without the communication. I think that's where [the problems] hailed from. We assumed what we wanted from each other when we really didn't know. It got better as the year went along. But it was a whole new situation for him and a whole new situation for me. And we just sort of clashed, me making the adjustment to what he wants and what he's trying to do. I've been through like three transitions in less than three years. That can be a little difficult and it can be discouraging for me, not knowing what to expect. But after a whole year under our belt, I think things are going to clear up and we'll get on the same page.
''I think [the friction] was a little overstated. People on the outside made it look like it was more than it really was. I've never really had any problems with any of my coaches and I've played for some pretty tough coaches. I've played for Rick Pitino. I've played for Roy Williams, Jim O'Brien. Did [Doc and I] have our clashes? Yeah, of course. People have seen that. You've seen it on the court. It wasn't something that was hidden, but that happens."
A frustrated Pierce was uncertain about his role, which precipitated many of the misunderstandings. As a result, Pierce has set team goals, but not personal goals, entering this season. He wants to make the playoffs again, though he understands it will be difficult with Antoine Walker and Gary Payton now playing in Miami. In a handful of workouts and pickup games with some of the younger, new players, Pierce liked what he saw. He could not believe how lucky the Celtics were to draft Gerald Green at No. 18 and Ryan Gomes at No. 50.
''As far as personal goals, I haven't really thought about that as much," said Pierce. ''Usually, it would be easier for me in the past [to come up with personal goals], but when you don't know what to expect from certain players, [it's more difficult]. I'm just excited to play basketball. I really don't know what to expect when you've got so many new guys and you've got a lot of guys still trying to prove themselves on this team. We're probably one of the youngest teams in the league. I feel old. When I walked into the gym, I was like, 'Man, I was in the league when these guys were in junior high.' But they'll keep me young. I'll try to teach these young guys as much as I can with my experience.
''I like Gerald. I think I like him better than I like a lot of people [who were drafted before him]. I think he can play. I think he has a great feel for the game. You've got certain players who you can see are just specialists and can just do certain things. He has a great upside. I watched him in the summer league, then I was working out with him, playing pickup games in the gym. He can pretty much do it all. They're all talent. Ryan, I don't know how he slipped that far. It's going to be good competition for that [wing] spot."
Pierce may appreciate the Celtics' younger players and acknowledge their upside, but he also worries about spending his prime waiting for them to mature.
''We are a young team and we have a lot of growing to do," said Pierce. ''I consider these my prime years for the next five or six years, but anything can happen in between. We can upgrade as a team and become a contender. I've seen what happened in Detroit after one trade when they got Rasheed Wallace. [Spending my prime rebuilding] is definitely something I think about. Who wouldn't think about it if they were in my position as somebody who wants to someday win a championship?"
Pierce has also thought about the new ''code of conduct" the Celtics plan to institute, and he has no objections. In fact, he believes it might be good for such a young team.
''Being that we can be a college team, these young guys probably need some discipline," said Pierce. ''We have a few guys who came out of high school and are still learning the ropes, never had a chance to go to college and learn that kind of discipline, and they're just kind of thrown into the fire as far as the game of life at such a young age, being away from home, having a lot of money and not really knowing what to do. I think some of the rules are going to be put on the younger guys more so than the older guys."
Pierce has invested in a downtown karaoke bar with nightclub impresario Patrick Lyons. Opening night falls on his birthday, Oct. 13, when Pierce will turn 28. Pierce plans to make the karaoke bar his Boston hangout this season, taking the stage to sing ''Proud Mary." But on the court, Pierce has no intentions of just going through the motions.