There was no chance of Paul Pierce getting the kind of reception he had two days earlier, when he bounced a ceremonial first pitch to home plate at Dodger Stadium and was booed.
This was home, just down the street from where Pierce grew up.
In a welcome-back party at the old arena — the Inglewood Forum, Pierce said he liked to call it — he celebrated his return to finish a Hall of Fame career with his hometown Clippers. This is the place where he used to sneak into Lakers games with the help of a youth coach who also would supply him with official NBA socks from a team equipment manager.
“There would be no better feeling than to end my career here at home and winning a championship and carrying that trophy all the way down Manchester Boulevard,” Pierce told a gathering of friends, family and civic leaders Thursday inside the Forum Club, having signed a three-year, $10.5-million contract with the Clippers this month.
Pierce had spent part of the morning driving his children around his old neighborhood, pointing out an apartment where he once lived with his single mother near a doughnut shop, as well as his junior high and high schools. As Pierce spoke about the experience of showing his children “where it all started for Daddy,” his mother, Lorraine Hosey, stood in a cream-colored suit beaming in the back of the room.
One of Pierce’s youth coaches recalled a chubby middle-schooler who blossomed into a standout at Inglewood High and the University of Kansas before embarking on an NBA career that has lasted 17 seasons and included 10 All-Star appearances and the 2008 championship with the Boston Celtics.
Long before he become a superstar, Pierce nervously waited to learn whether he had made his varsity high school team. When Jason Crowe, a year older than Pierce and the son of the Inglewood High principal, arrived at school at 6:45 a.m., Pierce was the only person on campus and was already scanning a list of final cuts posted outside a physical education office.
“I don’t know if he wanted to be the first person to check the list because he thought it was going to change,” joked Crowe, who went on to play professionally overseas, “but he was there and he was on the list.”
Pierce celebrated in his own special way.
“As kids are coming to campus,” Crowe said, “Paul is going up to them saying, ‘Hey, let’s go check the list, man. I don’t think I made it, man. You probably made it, though.’”
A video tribute showed Pierce’s rise from a player almost cut in high school to a near-death stabbing at a nightclub in Boston to hoisting the Finals MVP trophy with the Celtics. Inglewood Major James T. Butts presented Pierce with a green letterman’s jacket with the name of each of his playing stops stitched on the front.
“Inglewood High colors,” Butts noted. “Unfortunately, Boston colors too.”
Pierce, who spent his first 15 NBA seasons with the Celtics, recalled being booed at Staples Center during appearances in an All-Star game and three-point contest, and against the Lakers in the Finals. He said the boos were loudest during the three-point contest because he was standing alone at half-court when introduced.
“I just remember going like this when they started booing,” Pierce said, waving his hands as if to incite the crowd, “because I knew those 30 or 40 people I had in the stands were cheering for me and that’s all that really mattered to me.”
For all its perks, coming home also could include some headaches.
“On behalf of all the little kids here, hopefully I can get two free tickets,” announced Jeremiah Roy, the son of Pierce’s high school coach.
Former USC coach George Raveling, who lost a recruiting battle in his attempts to lure Pierce to play for the Trojans, praised the Inglewood community for shaping Pierce during his youth. Pierce was born in Oakland before moving to Southern California as a child.
“His teachers, his mentors, his travel team and grass-roots coaches, they fueled Paul and the dream, motivating him to dream ... and ask, ‘Why not?’ ” said Raveling, who now works for Nike. “They challenged him. They dared him to be great and there’s nothing Paul welcomed more than the opportunity to take on the challenge to be great.”
Scott Collins, one of Pierce’s high school coaches who also works with the Inglewood Police Dept., recalled driving home past the school gym and seeing the lights on. He stopped to check it out and found Pierce and Crowe playing full-court, one-on-one games. Those battles would sometimes last past midnight.
He acted as if he wanted to stay all night at the Forum too, lingering after the speeches to pose with anyone who wanted a picture with him on the court.
Pierce, who will turn 38 in October, said he didn’t “have too much left in the tank to play this game” but intended to work hard as always and maintain his approach of treating every game like it could be his last.
“I’m just happy to be able to finish off my career in front of the people who love me the most and were watching me grow to who I am today,” Pierce said. “That’s going to be a special feeling.”
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