Different tracks to stardom

James and Pierce find place in NBA pantheon

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 1, 2010

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WALTHAM — LeBron James has a tattoo, large and bold, stretching across his back from shoulder blade to shoulder blade.


The tag seems to fit. He was the high school star turned NBA megastar, marketed and monetized into the biggest brand in basketball since Michael Jordan. His ability is unquestioned. His image is untarnished. His star is still rising.

Paul Pierce’s back is the canvas for two hands delicately holding a heart nested in angel wings with two words below it.

“Chosen One.’’

An All-Star, a future Hall of Famer, a lifetime Boston Celtic, Pierce has carved out a legacy for himself in NBA history.

His path to success, however, couldn’t be more different from James’s. Since he made the leap to the NBA from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in 2003, James has been on the fast track, and living up to the hype. Pierce’s road has been winding. The hype and stardom evaded him to the point where he persistently calls himself the Rodney Dangerfield of the NBA.

Forgoing star status, self-confidence — and sarcasm — are Pierce’s coping mechanisms.

He tells the world he’s one of the best shooters in NBA history, then wins a 3-point contest to validate it. He says he’s the classic case of a great player on a bad team, then outduels Kobe Bryant — the league’s gold standard for individual greatness — in the NBA Finals.

Why does success come faster for some than others? Why do some people immediately command respect while others have to earn it over time? Why is it that when some players say they’re chosen, they’re taken at their word but others have to spend years proving it?

“I know at the end of the day, when my career’s said and done, everything I achieved, I worked for,’’ Pierce said. “Nothing was ever given to me. That’s one thing I can honestly say. I think when you come along the ranks, whether it’s from high school or college to the pros when you’re automatically given stuff, you know . . . ’’

He left the thought unfinished.

“But at the end of the day, everything I’ve gotten in my career, and I continue to get, I worked for it and I earned it.’’

To say that James didn’t earn every shred of success he’s achieved in seven seasons would be false. He’s already 110th on the all-time scoring list, ahead of Dan Issel, Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond, Jerry Lucas, and Dave DeBusschere (all Hall of Famers). He’s the youngest player to do just about everything in the league — win rookie of the year (19), record a triple-double, score 40 points in a game, score 2,000 points in a season, make the All-NBA team.

The rush of that success is what’s so staggering. So, too, is the overlap between James’s achievements and Pierce’s snubs.

James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school player and has been on 12 covers since. Paul Pierce didn’t get the cover until he reached the Finals, splitting it with Bryant. Pierce has made eight All-Star teams in his 12-year career. Not once was he voted in by the fans. As a rookie, James got more votes for the 2004 All-Star game (768,532) than Pierce (332,353). That season, Pierce averaged 22.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.1 assists. James went 20.9, 5.9, and 5.5. The Celtics edged the Cavaliers for the eighth seed that season by a single game.

“I think LeBron earned it, too,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t think it’s any different. He just did it quicker. I don’t think anybody in our league has ever been given anything. I think everything they get, they’ve earned. There’s a lot of guys walking around the streets with great talent, they don’t have the mental, they don’t have the work ethic, and they don’t have the skill. LeBron has that.

“I think they both worked. Some guys are more skilled or better right when they come into the league than others. Kobe has been pretty good throughout. I don’t think whether he had to work for it or not mattered. They all had to work for it, but he got it quick, he had skill earlier. LeBron was blessed with the gift of athleticism, but then he worked on his skill and that’s what’s made him a player.’’

Certain players – Jeter, Griffey, Manning, Crosby – are tapped. James, no doubt, is among them. But the ones often remembered are the ones who fulfill that potential.

“Certain guys throughout sports history have been thrust into the spotlight early and some people undeservingly,” said Michael Finley. “LeBron, he was getting hype all through high school, but he didn’t let that hype deter him from trying to be one of the better players in this league. He continues to try to be the best. That didn’t affect him.

“Some other guys around our league, I won’t say their names, they were thrust into the spotlight early and just thought that was the way it was. They stopped working on their games and most of those guys are out the league now and never got to thrive and take their team to the championship.

“Some guys had to go the hard route. Paul, for example, being a good player on a terrible team, but continuing to work on his game and not being satisfied with being a great player on bad team. He was able to get some players around him and show his worth when he made it to the finals, playing with sort of a kind of chip on his shoulder.”

The Celtics have a roster full of chipped shoulders. Rasheed Wallace defiantly carved out a career that could land him in the hall of fame, although he was never one of the NBA’s golden children. Rajon Rondo first had to emerge from the competition on his own roster (Delonte West, Sebastian Telfair), then break out of the shadows of the league’s elite point guards (Deron Williams, Chris Paul) before gaining all-star status and being mentioned as a top-tier point guard himself.

“I don’t really care,” Rondo said. “That’s just how it is. That’s how [the media] portrays it I guess. To me it’s irrelevant. I’m going to play the game regardless. I’m a confident guy, so it doesn’t matter.”

Kevin Garnett spent his best years trying to will the Minnesota Timberwolves to a title, never getting farther than the Western Conference Finals. Meanwhile, Tim Duncan, his quieter counterpart, racked up rings.

The only player taken in the 1998 NBA Draft with more points than Pierce is Dirk Nowitzki, who was taken by Dallas the pick before Pierce. Three of the players taken before Pierce, including Robert “Tractor’’ Traylor, are out of the league.

“Who knows why Paul slipped in the draft,’’ Rivers said. “There’s no reason he should have. He was skilled. He was fundamentally sound. That was a mistake by the guys drafting. But Paul got his pretty quick, not the stardom part, but he was already skilled.’’

By tomorrow, James will have his second MVP trophy. Judging by history, he will be a lock for the Hall of Fame and he’s only 25. The highest Pierce finished in the MVP balloting was seventh, a year ago. But he has the one thing that’s eluded James, a championship. When he won it, he also hoisted the Finals MVP trophy.

At the end of that series, Finley does what he does after every championship. He watched the celebrations, looking at all the faces.

Having waited 12 years before he won a title, Finley’s observations were simple.

“Sometimes,’’ he said, “you appreciate winning, because of the lack of success you had earlier.’’

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