WALTHAM - The "menacing gesture" Paul Pierce flashed during the Celtics' Game 3 playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks could indicate anything from gang affiliation to shoe company preference, according to law enforcement officials and experts in gang culture.
Pierce linked his right index finger and thumb in a circle and, above that, raised his three other fingers together. He directed the gesture toward the Atlanta bench, along with what could be seen as a menacing stare.
The NBA responded with a $25,000 fine on Monday, two days after the game. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said the franchise would address the matter after the season. The reactions of both the league and team officials prompted speculation that there was more to the gesture than what cameras captured.
"It definitely can be a gang sign," said Boston community activist True-See Allah, who counsels at-risk youth about the dangers of gangs. "Paul Pierce is from California, so he's got to be aware of all the different signs and symbols. I'm sure he knows people who are in gangs.
"They definitely saw something wrong with what he did. Even if it wasn't a gang sign, it gave the appearance that it was.
"That's unbecoming of a professional athlete. I can see the league doing something like that because it wants professionalism."
Given that he grew up in Inglewood, Calif., near areas of widespread gang violence and that he nearly died after being stabbed at a Theater District nightclub in 2000, Pierce may seem an unlikely individual to flash gang signs.
Following practice yesterday, Pierce did not address the gesturing incident.
The Boston Police Department declined to comment about the matter, saying there are a wide array of hand-gesture interpretations.
According to other law-enforcement sources, a hand sign similar to the one Pierce directed toward the Atlanta bench can indicate "blood killer" or "crip killer," referring to the two major gangs with origins in Southern California. The three raised fingers stand for "k." A closed circle made by the index finger and thumb indicates "blood." A slightly open circle indicates "crip."
The subtle difference in hand gestures used by rival gangs underscores how easily such signs can be misused or misinterpreted. Signs also can be co-opted by those looking for a certain "street cred," law enforcement officials said.
Additionally, the meanings of gang signs often change over time and depend on context and audience. Allah said that Boston kids who showed three fingers to friends were often indicating a preference for the three stripes of Adidas. (For the record, Pierce wears
But signing "Adidas" or "What's up Boston" doesn't make sense in the closing seconds of a frustrating playoff loss, especially since the gesture followed taunting by Atlanta rookie Al Horford.
"I don't know anything about [the gesture]," Horford said to Atlanta reporters. "I don't know what that is."
Ainge claimed that Pierce's gesture was a variation of the sign he flashes during pregame introductions, meaning "blood, sweat, and tears."
Asked if he had heard speculation about the gang-related meaning behind the gesture, Ainge said, "I've heard, but I'm staying out of that. I'm not certain that that's what it was intended to mean.
"I know what it could possibly mean. It's been explained to me what it could mean, and I think that's a stretch. That's all I'll say."
The NBA has levied fines around $10,000 for "obscene gestures" in the past, but "menacing gestures" have not led to heavy fines until recent days.
The NBA also fined Washington Wizards guard DeShawn Stevenson $25,000 Monday for two menacing gestures, including a slash across the throat.