How this born Laker became a Celtic

Times Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Firsthand, in person, he had to see the Lakers.

His Lakers.

Paul Pierce grew up in the shade of the Forum, the shadow of Magic Johnson and the era of Showtime.

So, first through a tunnel, then through a window, he would slip inside when workers were distracted, sneaking around to see the heroes he had come to know by watching television.

"I was a fan . . . and I was a little kid just doing what kids do," Pierce said. "Sometimes you get into trouble doing stuff, but I think me getting in there was a big influence in my life."

As Pierce returns home today in the midst of his first NBA Finals, he can now enter NBA games through whatever entrance at whatever time he wants. He has evolved into the Celtics centerpiece, a player who encompasses both his team's failed past and bright future.

At times, Pierce has taken over playoff games, punctuated by his 41 points in a Game 7 against the Cleveland Cavaliers that pushed the Celtics into the Eastern Conference finals, and his 15 points in the third quarter in Game 1 of the Finals against the Lakers. At other times, he has taken a side seat to Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen.

It all started with his love of the Lakers, his hatred for the Celtics.

"That was the beginning for me, watching the Lakers and Celtics battle it out in the Finals," he said. "That was the birth of basketball for me. That's what I pretty much thought about during the '80s. I was a little kid, 6, 7 years old."

"I just remember being at my uncle's house trying to get a seat on the floor just so I could see it. The TV was so small, you just wanted to get a good glimpse of it. I enjoyed it at the time because the Lakers won."

He mimicked Johnson's ballhandling, James Worthy's fastbreak finishes, Byron Scott's pure shooting stroke.

"We always talked about if we ever played in the NBA we would never play for the Celtics," said Sam Turks, a teammate of Pierce's at Inglewood High. "We played one on one and used to argue about who would be Magic, who would be [Larry] Bird. It would always end with one of us being Magic and the other would be Worthy or Scott."

Soon after, Pierce found himself at Inglewood High and, oddly enough, wearing the green school colors.

He and a few teammates started a tradition, waking up well before the sun rose and school started, brushing the sleep from their eyes, and piling into his dusty brown Datsun.

"The most hilarious thing ever," said Carlo Calhoun, one of the teammates. "There was no back seat."

Over at a gym, Scott Collins, an Inglewood detective and volunteer coach who served as Pierce's mentor, would be waiting with keys.

There, they trained in "morning sessions," early practices that, Calhoun says, "separated the men from the boys at Inglewood."

"When you look at it, it was kind of nasty because you went to class all sweaty at the time," Pierce said. "But hey, that's what you had to do back then to get to this point.

"Who wants to wake up at 5:30 to go to the gym? I know nowadays I don't. But then you were a kid who had dreams and tried to develop a work ethic."

They played full-court games of one on one, then hopped back into Pierce's car and over to IHOP.

Recalled Collins: Pierce "would try to get other guys in the gym, and he would tell these guys, 'Why don't you come out and play with us?' And guys were like, 'You're crazy. It's early.' He would just say, 'While you are in the bed sleeping, I'm working on my game.' "

That, along with Collins' mentoring, helped Pierce stay out of trouble.

"I didn't really see too many gang members out or bad things happening at 6 a.m.," Pierce said.

One turning point in his career as a player came during Pierce's sophomore season at Inglewood, when he came off the bench during a playoff game to dunk in a game for the first time anyone could recall. His confidence grew from there, and Pierce, who was for a time considered pudgy, began to overpower opponents.

For college, Pierce headed off to Kansas -- "To get away and figure things out for himself," Collins said.

"When he got drafted I told him, 'You're back in the green and white just like in Inglewood again,' " Collins said.

It took a while to reach his current heights, and there were plenty of bumps along the way. Pierce was stabbed multiple times and nearly lost his life at a Boston nightclub several years ago. But now he's coming home, and it really does feel as if he has come full circle.

Except that playing-for-the-Celtics part.

"It probably won't sink in until it's all over, but it's definitely exciting," Pierce said. "It's definitely a dream. But a lot of things don't sink in until you get a chance to sit there, think back, when you don't have nothing to do. Just relax and think of what just happened.

"Right now, everything is like a roller coaster. I'm enjoying the moment. And when I get a chance to sit down and think about it, I'll be like, 'Wow, this is a hell of an experience.' "



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Finals matchup

Paul Pierce is holding his own against reigning MVP Kobe Bryant after the first two games of the NBA Finals:

*--* PIERCE -- BRYANT 25.0 Points per game 27.0 4.0 Rebounds 3.5 5.0 Assists 7.0 16-26 FGM-FGA 20-49 61.5 FG PCT. 40.8 11-14 FTM-FTA 13-13 7-8 3-PT FGM-A 1-6 *--*

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