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Archive for Monday, April 23, 2001

Pierce emerges as NBA phenom

Boston forward has breakout season after stabbing incident nearly cost him his life

April 23, 2001

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— Years from now, Celtics fans will likely remember 2000-01 as the season Paul Pierce emerged as a legitimate star. He established himself as one of the NBA's most dominant offensive forces, while fine-tuning his all-around skills to become a more valuable player to his team.

As a co-captain for the first time, Pierce exhibited leadership qualities on and off the court.

It was a breakthrough season to be certain for the 23-year-old Celtics swingman. But for the remainder of his life, almost assuredly, he will view 2000-01 far differently from those who follow his professional career.

For former Kansas standout Pierce, it will always be the season that nearly ended before it began.

In one stunning turn of events in the early morning hours of Sept. 25, Pierce's world and the way he viewed it changed forever. Attending a party at a downtown Boston nightclub one week prior to the start of training camp, he was the victim of a vicious and criminal assault by three men.

Among his injuries, Pierce suffered multiple stab wounds, one of which penetrated his sternum and came so close to a lung it nearly cost him his life.

That Pierce was released from New England Medicial Center just three days after undergoing emergency surgery was, in itself, a remarkable development. That little more than two weeks later, he was back at Celtics practice preparing to play in the last four preseason games defied all logic.

And, that Pierce would validate his rush to recovery by turning in his finest pro season, well, that would have to qualify as off the charts.

"Looking back now, it's almost hard for me to believe everything that's happened this past season," Pierce said. "The way things turned out, in terms of being able to come back to play so quickly after the incident, well, that's something you can't plan for or predict."

Pierce had no idea as to the severity of his wounds when he was rushed from the nightclub to the hospital by teammate Tony Battie and his brother, Derek. Pierce learned from doctors the following day he had faced a very real brush with death.

Given that sobering news, Pierce was merely happy to be alive.

"I had a lot of time to think about things while I was lying in that hospital bed for three days," Pierce recalled. "Your life, your health and the people you love those are things that become important to you when something like this happens. Your priorities become crystal clear.

"At the same time, though, I couldn't help but think about how long it would take me to get back on the court, and whether I'd be able to play up to my expectations. I was fortunate to have such an incredible amount of support."

Pierce's mother, Lorraine Hosey, his two brothers, Steve and Jamal, then-Celtics coach Rick Pitino and general manager Chris Wallace were among those at Pierce's bedside virtually around the clock.

The Celtics offices, meanwhile, were besieged with thousands of phone calls and e-mails wishing Pierce well. If the attack itself hadn't changed his perspective on life, the aftermath certainly would. When Pierce learned of the outpouring of support from fans all over the world, tears welled up in his eyes.

"I don't know how you could go through something like that without learning a lot about yourself and about life,'' said Pierce. "I feel like I've really grown up a lot this season. And I know I don't take anything for granted anymore, because everything in your life can change in a minute."

Pierce's performance was so good this season, particularly during the second-half schedule, that for most people, the events of Sept. 25 are little more than a faded memory. They remain vivid memories for Pierce, though.

He carries the lessons he learned from his horrible experience close to his heart.

"I definitely value my life a lot more," Pierce said. "My family, my friendships, my profession, really I look at everything involved in my life from a different perspective. I just feel blessed because I have so much."

The season ended with Pierce ranked eighth in the league in scoring at 25.3 points per game and fourth in total points (2,071). Along the way, he collected 40 or more points in a game eight times, including five games in March to help him earn the league's Player of the Month award. Earlier in March, he became the first Celtic in nine years to win Player of the Week honors.

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