Fire in the Disco

2013-14 NCAA Basketball Preview: The Pac-12

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images Paul Pierce #34 of the Brooklyn Nets passes the ball against the Boston Celtics during a preseason game at the Barclays Center on October 15, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Brooklyn and Boston: After the Trade

The beginning of a strange new season for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and their respective teams

This summer, on a pleasantly mild July morning, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry were officially introduced as members of the Brooklyn Nets. A press conference was set up on the floor of Barclays Center, one with decisively joyous intentions. Reporters lobbed rah-rah questions as to how the Nets stacked up with the elite of the NBA. A raucous fan contingent cheered every mention of the word “championship.” Garnett kicked off his hello with a big “Wassup, Brooklyn!” Terry declared himself “blessed” to call Brooklyn home. But if you sensed an undercurrent of ennui, you weren’t mistaken. After 15 years in Boston, Pierce was having a hard time pretending everything was peachy.

“It hasn’t really sunk in,” he admitted. “[But seeing] my jersey up in the locker room, being in this arena, trying to know my way around the city … it’s become real. I’m no longer a Boston Celtic. I’m a Brooklyn Net.” Assuming this was their cue, the fans again swelled up with hoots and hollers. But Pierce wasn’t declaring his loyalty — he was trying on the phrase to see how it fit. Under the shouts, Pierce kept talking, sounding more or less like an insurance firm manager settling his affairs after a lateral promotion that moved him from Dayton to Cleveland. “That’s what it is right now. It’s a business. At some point we all have to move on, and I’m here to try to create some kind of legacy here in Brooklyn.”

A few days earlier, Boston had played host to an even grimmer sight: Keith Bogans, Marshon Brooks, and Kris Humphries toting Celtics jerseys at their own introductory press conference. You’d be forgiven if you saw it as some strange joke. On draft day, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had traded his Hall of Famers to Brooklyn not for this riffraff but for their expiring contracts and the three first-round draft picks that came with them. (Also in the deal: Gerald Wallace and his very-much-not-expiring $30 million contract.) After a couple years of hemming and hawing, Ainge had gutted the Celtics, beginning the process of building them up by bottoming them out. But rituals must be maintained, so there they were at the podium — the scraps and also-rans, looking forlorn.

There was hope on that podium, too. It was standing beside the players in a polo and sensible slacks. And its name was Brad Stevens. Two years removed from leading mid-major Butler University to back-to-back appearances in the NCAA title game, the cherubic Stevens — now signed to a six-year, $22 million contract with the Celtics — was no longer a college ball wunderkind. He had become something more precarious: yet another in a long line of would-be saviors of the legendary Boston Celtics. Says Jordan Crawford, a prime resident of the Island of Misfit Toys that is this year’s squad, in all seriousness: “He can lead us to the promised land.”

Over 10 days in late June, the immediate futures of both the Nets and the Celtics dramatically shifted and became intertwined. First, the tectonic plates shifted: Celtics coach Doc Rivers engineered a swap for himself to the Clippers for a first-round draft pick. Then came the earthquake trade. That Kevin Garnett would no longer be around to bash his head into stanchions was strange enough. That Paul Pierce — whose pockmarked path to an NBA title read as nothing short of a wayward fight for redemption to us New Englanders — was gone? Almost unimaginable.

But Ainge had a trick up his sleeve. The day before the trade was reported, he’d initiated talks with Stevens. A few days later, he flew to Indiana to sit down with the coach. “That’s a big step, getting on airplanes,” Stevens recalls. “Now you’re really risking it not being confidential.”

Earlier this year, when rumors of overtures to Stevens from UCLA and Illinois went public, the news fizzled. Over the eight or nine days Stevens and the Celtics talked, nothing leaked. That let Stevens to “do [my] homework. Is it what it looks like from the outside? Are these people real?” Allured by the prestige of the NBA and the legacy of the Celtics, Stevens said yes.

That Ainge managed to seal off negotiations had a public impact, too. When the hiring was announced, almost a week after the trade, it was the first anyone had heard of the possibility, and the shock made it seem that much more transformative. With the snap of a finger, the Celtics were no longer rudderless.

The implicit prize was still the stacked 2014 draft, fronted by the otherworldly allure of Andrew Wiggins. But an ameliorative glow had settled. Thanks to the twin inchoate promises of an offseason and a clean slate, Celtics fans could talk themselves into just about anything.

Damaged goods Courtney Lee and Gerald Wallace having bounce-back years running through Stevens’s crafty offensive sets? Why not? Pleasantly tubby forward Jared Sullinger developing a 3-point shot? Sure, sure. And do we have a steal in this Brazilian kid, Vitor Faverani, or what? Big, quick, good hands;1 in the Spanish league they called him El Hombre Indestructible! And then one day, world’s greatest homer Tommy Heinsohn says rookie Kelly Olynyk has Dirk Nowitzki potential, and you just nod along.

In Brooklyn, the narrative was simple: The Nets were the New Old Celtics and immediate title contenders. In Boston, a more modest but still hopeful story was being told: Maybe, just maybe, this thing isn’t totally fucking hopeless.

Home of the Brooklyn Nets,” the sign reads. But here, down a ways from a BAPS Temple and a Stiletto Gentleman’s Club and plopped in a drab little office park, we are definitely in central New Jersey. The Nets might have bear-hugged New York City’s hippest borough, but the practice facility got left behind.

On the court, the team runs a no-dribble, three-man-weave passing drill, and the ball moves swiftly from Shaun Livingston to Brook Lopez to Paul Pierce, who lays it in. If a couple months ago it would have been bizarre to see Pierce flapping around in a black Nets practice jersey, by now, in preseason, it’s just reality.

After practice, most players head to the trainers. Chris Johnson, a training camp invitee, walks into a cryotherapy chamber. Mist rolls out and Johnson, shirtless but with big black gloves and a woolly winter hat on, heads in, looking just a touch apprehensive.

The remaining players field questions from reporters, and the mood is light. Terry kicks off his session by asking, “What the fuck is wrong with the Giants?” Joe Johnson knocks newbie coach Jason Kidd: “His whistle game is weak!” And then there’s free-agent signee Andrei Kirilenko, just a bundle of good vibes.2 In the locker room before the Nets-Pistons preseason game, Kirilenko sneaks away to read a colorfully decorated Russian-language fantasy paperback.3 During the game, he scrambles for a steal, then whips the ball, two-handed, no-look, directly behind his head, launching a fast break.

But if the Nets suddenly have a pulse, we know who gets the credit. There’s Kevin, enthusiastically slapping a butt in warm-ups for no discernible reason. There’s Paul, exploding off the bench late in the Pistons game to cheer a meaningless Mirza Teletovic 3. Their presence has ignited championship talk, and they’ve vowed to shape, mold, and cajole the talent around them into Finals material. In other words: These two never shut up.

For now, all eyes are on them. For now, that’s a good thing. After the game, the beat writers huddle around their lockers, and Brook Lopez is excused from press commitments. That would have been a rare treat in Lopez’s past seasons with the Nets. “Man, I like having KG and Paul around,” he shouts to no one in particular. “I like this.”

In Waltham, at the Celtics practice facility, the 17 banners hang. A blank 18th one hangs, too, ready for embroidering. During media day, the clocks all read “18,” and the beat writers snickered, “Is that the over/under on wins?”

Throughout the preseason, Stevens will explain himself as “process-oriented.” He’ll say it’s “almost sad,” but you must remain “unemotional.” Ignore the wins and losses. Swamp yourself with the details. “If anybody gets bored with process, they’re gonna be bored pretty quickly,” which is to say that Stevens will never get bored with process. He turned 37 today, but hasn’t yet had a chance to celebrate with his family. He had to rush out the door to prepare the day’s practice.

There’s an orderliness about him that should translate as dweebishness. He locks eyes and answers questions with the “Well, [first name]” format, effectively deploying traditional biz-manual communication stratagems. When he recognizes a line of questioning, he might cut it off with a gentle “Yep,” then provide his prepared remarks. But, knowing of his meticulousness and obsessiveness, the normality reads like a plan of attack — every last word accounted for. And that plan, by all accounts, is born of an ever-burning, all-swallowing lake of fire. His is the kind of unwavering will that, in past centuries, might have led centurions into battle.

His earliest memories are of basketball — first Pacers games, later the 1985 NCAA championship and Villanova upsetting Georgetown. He also loved board games. Nothing specific, just anything “where I could win or lose. But especially win.” He was a pretty good high school player, then less so in college at Division III DePauw University. Not being able to post up or move fast enough on defensive rotations meant playing less instinctually, more analytically. He credits this with the early development of his coaching chops.4

And then the dream was over. After graduation, Stevens took a job with Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical powerhouse behind Prozac and Cialis. He was a marketing associate, tasked with running metrics and incentives for salespeople. But Stevens “was not convinced, nor [attempted to] convince myself” that he was done with basketball. He still coached summer league ball, still scouted for high school teams, still played all the time. In June 2000, when he was offered a spot as a full-time volunteer in the Butler basketball office, he couldn’t say no. Again: volunteer.

With the Lilly money no longer coming in, his wife, Tracy, pulled what can truly be described as “a real solid”: She went to law school. And Stevens got a job at Applebee’s. Why Applebee’s? “‘Cause I couldn’t get a job at the first place.” He’d applied at the Aristocrat, just down the road, but “they looked at me like, ‘Why would you quit Lilly to volunteer as a coach?’ And they didn’t hire me.”

Regretfully, Stevens would never actually sling any Quesadilla Burgers. While on a recruiting trip, a Butler assistant coach, Jamal Meeks, was arrested on solicitation and drug-possession charges and had to step down.5 A full-time position opened up for Stevens. Years later, under less salacious conditions, that’s how he would step up to head coach, too: Todd Lickliter would go to Iowa and Stevens would move into his place. But it was on the day he was to start training at Applebee’s that he came onboard at Butler for good.

Butler’s 2010 title game run — which ended against Duke, just inches away from a Gordon Hayward miracle bomb that would have won it all — made Stevens a celebrity. His aw-shucks determinism was irresistible to a nation obsessed with the notion of humble, self-made men. When he appeared on the Late Show, David Letterman tried to goad him: “Tom Izzo said that Duke would handle you guys pretty easily … Why would he say something stupid like that?” Stevens responded with robotic diplomacy. “You’re just not gonna take my bait?” Letterman gruffed. “I’m too young to take your bait,” Stevens shot back, smiling.

Again: This is being even-keeled as strategy. I ask if there was a particular moment, maybe early on, during which it first dawned on Stevens that he was a talented coach. He says it’s never happened: “You take great satisfaction in watching your team carry out a game plan, but right when you feel good, your team’s gonna lose. I’ve never felt comfortable in coaching yet. You have to become comfortable being uncomfortable.” In 2011, taking Butler back to the title game was about “beating human nature. Because everything in human nature tells you to relax. And they didn’t.”

Stevens says leaving Butler was the hardest thing he’s ever done. He gathered the team in the locker room, then spent most of the night on the phone with their families. “We had a little office down a hill that nobody really knew,” he says. “I just went down there for hours. After the players digested it, almost all of them came down to spend time one-on-one, laughing, talking.” A significant appeal to taking the Celtics job rather than the other offers that cropped up: It meant not ever having to coach against Butler.

Now, with the gushy stuff behind Stevens, it’s back to the cocoon: Stay even. Defeat human nature. “Take the wins and losses away and completely pull the emotions away,” Stevens says of the Celtics job, “and it’s a great opportunity to grow. In a lot of ways, it’s like going to graduate school.”

Pardon me? Coaching in Boston? Is like … graduate school?

“The first thing with any rebuilding process is for the fans to have patience,” says M.L. Carr when I reach him at his office at Dream Company life insurance in Huntsville, Alabama. He pauses, then cackles: “That’s a wasted breath in Boston! They don’t have no patience!”

In 1996, Carr, then in Stevens’s seat, seppuku’d the Celtics to 15 wins in a futile grab for a rangy Wake Forest kid named Tim Duncan. Death threats were common that season. Regularly, he’d come into his office to find his assistant on the phone, in tears: Belligerent fans would call to scream at her about M.L. ruining the team. Every once in a while he’d take the receiver from her and say, “Listen, you think I want to lose?” Carr knows fans are more informed these days,6 more in tune with multiyear plans, more trusting of Ainge. Still, “on that cold winter night in Boston, when they happen to lose three in a row … ”

Says Stevens about what may come: “You can’t control the expectations. Even if you’re not expected to win, there comes a time when you’re gonna be expected to win. But I’ve always been just focused on what it takes to win.”

If you’re still waiting for him to let down his guard, maybe look instead to his wife, Tracy. In an interview with the Indianapolis Star, she was asked about their worst-case scenario. “It doesn’t go well and he gets fired and run out of town,” she answered, laughing. “I hope that doesn’t happen.”

“I never went to Danny,” Pierce said back at the Barclays press conference, explaining how the mega-trade went down. “But the writing was on the wall. We were in no-man’s-land as far as competing for a championship.” Once the rumored KG-plus-Doc-to-the-Clippers trade fell through, Doc left on his own and Pierce began paying closer attention to the rumors, convinced something was going to happen.

When Brooklyn appeared as a suitor, he heard from Coach Kidd. “We’re trying to get Kevin, too.” Pierce quickly got on the phone with KG, who’d have to wave his no-trade clause. “His initial reaction to everything is ‘no,'” Pierce explained. So Pierce wore him down, arguing that core guys like Lopez, Deron Williams, and Johnson would still be around, promising they could contend again. “[I said], ‘I know you don’t wanna retire. I know you don’t wanna retire!'” The call lasted about an hour and a half, with Pierce pacing around outside in the summer heat. By the time he hung up, he was dripping sweat. And Garnett was on the hook.

Pierce acknowledges the business aspect — he says if he were a GM, as he one day hopes to be, he’d have made the same decision — without repressing his emotions. He has imagined the first game back in Boston “probably a hundred times. A hundred thousand times. Every time I picture it, I shed tears. It’s like, the first girl you was in love with. You broke up. You cried. Thought about her. Probably sent her letters. Then cried some more. And then you move on.”

If this feels sad, in a dull, familiar kind of way, then this might be a good time to point to the randomness of the initiating events.

Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov made his money initially by taking masterful advantage of the post-Soviet economic confusion in the early ’90s. Then, six years ago, he caught a very lucky break. After growing apart from his business partner, he sold his share of the giant nickel company they co-owned. As the New York Times reported, “It turned out to be the perfect time to cash out. By the fall of 2008, markets all over the world were cratering, and Prokhorov, flush with cash, pounced on depressed real estate, media properties and half of an investment bank.” This made him one of the richest men in the world, the kind of guy who wouldn’t blink at footing the Nets $100 million in salaries and more than $75 million in luxury taxes this season.

And why were Prokhorov and his business partner not getting along? Well, in large part because Prokhorov had embarrassingly gotten himself arrested after partying, during Russian Orthodox Christmas, at a high-end French ski resort with seven alleged prostitutes. All of which is to say: If Mikhail hadn’t felt like getting his swerve on that holiday season, then Paul Pierce would most likely still be a Celtic.

I don’t know about you, but this gives me an enormous sense of well-being.

Sometimes, people point to the randomness of events in sports as if they’re lodging a valid criticism. The ball bounces one way and the entire fate of a man’s life is forever changed? What barbarism is this? I say that’s the point. The meaninglessness of chance — your free will is an illusion. How great.

This season, the Celtics are defined by their absences. Sullinger talks about passing on the lessons of “Garnett University”; Brandon Bass says the team swaps stories about their old warhorses almost every day.7 Then there’s the absence of Employee No. 9.

Rajon Rondo, who tore his ACL in January, travels with the team and runs through non-contact workouts. He’s vocally onboard, calling Stevens his new “best friend.” They talk and trade texts all the time, and Rondo has even accepted self-actualization reading assignments from his new coach. He says Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is his “favorite book.” “I haven’t read this much since college,” he adds.

But ask Rondo when he’ll return to the court and he’ll respond, deadpan, drawing out the syllables, “In the two thousand thirteen … two thousand fourteen … season.”

Meanwhile, we speculate. Will Ainge want Rondo out as long as possible to improve lottery odds? Will he hustle him back for a few weeks around the new year to reestablish Rondo’s trade value, then ship him out? Will he get over his fear of commitment and pop the question: Rajon, will you sign this max contract? The 2014 trade deadline is February 20. Between then and now, the rumors shall fly.

But it’s hard not to pine for Rajon to stick around.

His physique is marvel enough: the Delta Burke–dress shoulders, the banana hands. I’m not gonna go so far as to suggest he was sired in outer space. But I’m just saying, if invading alien hordes do one day land, and they come off the spaceships in battalion formation all looking exactly like Rondo, I won’t be surprised.

Then there’s the way he plays. It’s unwise to read too much into the fact that Rondo says he never watched much ball growing up, but how else are we to make sense of his inimitable game? There are the personalized moves, the behind-the-back cradle/swoop fakes, the around-the-waist disappearing-ball tricks. There are the impossible angles he sees, like fleeting portals to other dimensions whispered open by an invisible fairy atwixt his knuckles. And there is a pervading sense that, through some balance of determination and deception, he is getting one over on you.

But above all, that these Celtics should be his team now is the most tantalizing part. You want him back, at the very least to see what happens with no town elders around. There have always been glimpses of a different kind of guy. At the end of the shootaround, on the day the Celtics come to Brooklyn for a preseason game, Rondo and some of the other guards run through a manic 3-point shoot-off. Apparently there’s money exchanging hands, only no one seems to be paying attention to the bets or the makes. Rondo leads the charge, keeping up a steady patter as the balls launch: “I ain’t agree on that bet! How you gon’ make your own bet?”; “The fuckin’ calculations are wrong”; “Nigga, you air-balled it! That’s money time!”

Rondo seems destined for a misunderstood career — he’s the kind of guy about whom, years after he’s done, we’ll still be shouting “Overrated! Underrated!” But if we are here in the pursuit of some truth, then what’s better than a controlled experiment? I want to know: What can Rondo do with youth, scraps, tin, string, and an open floor? Bring him back. Let the kid play.

Where my boy at? Where my boy?” We’re a half-hour from tip-off on Nets-Celts and Paul Pierce has decided to give his old crew a visit. He’s ambling around the visitors’ locker room, dapping up Avery Bradley and Jeff Green, greeting older, suited gentlemen not by their government names — “There go Deuce! DB, whadup?” — and running into the showers to find this vaguely defined “boy.” “Where my boy at?” He spots Walter McCarty, his old Celtics running mate, now an assistant coach. “Whadup, Coach McCarty?” In one corner, Olynyk quietly shimmies out of a towel; in the other, Faverani sips coffee, to the dismay of a nearby trainer. And Paul wraps up, talking half to the room, half to himself: “Just turned 36 … getting up there … gotta take pressure off these knees … Imma go get my stretch on.”

And then he is on the court, playing, for the first time, against the Boston Celtics. His first action to the basket comes midway through the first quarter, a stuttered pick-and-roll with Lopez that ends with Lopez finishing a nifty and-1. A couple minutes later, while Joe Johnson shoots free throws, he chats with Rondo. He’ll miss a 3, he’ll fake another; he’ll keep finding Lopez, flashing a nice synchronicity with the big man. And then, with seconds left in the first half, he’ll find himself at the top of the key, a spot we’ve seen him in countless times before. He’ll run down the clock, then drive, and there it is: the first bucket of his anti-Boston career.

Paul Pierce made The Leap on those early-2000s, Jim O’Brien–coached Celtics. You might still suffer mild PTSD from those unrepentant chuckers: It was, after all, a special kind of place that would encourage Antoine Walker to lead the league in 3-point attempts for three seasons. But watching young Pierce figure out his game, through the sheer force of reps, was a singular joy. “We had a play called ‘Fist,'” O’Brien recalls. “I’d put my right fist in the air, and Paul would slash to the left post and have Antoine get him the basketball. Well, we’d constantly joke I was gonna wear out my hand putting up that right fist.”

Before the 2001 season, Pierce survived a senseless nightclub attack. He was stabbed 11 times, with one wound digging seven inches in — an inch from his spleen, an inch from his liver, and barely short of his heart. His life was saved in part by his thick, white leather Avirex jacket.

In the third game of the 2002 Eastern Conference finals, against the Nets, the Celtics — with Pierce slashing, scrapping, extra-oomph-ing his way to the basket — waged the greatest comeback in playoff history. A year and a half after the incident, six years since the worst season in franchise history, the Celtics were two games from the Finals.

Games tend, for the most part, to be an analogy for battle. For ultimate victory. But only one team wins the title every year. And between and below all that, there’s the other, knottier stuff. Remorse, aching nostalgia, the gut-churning grab-bag bittersweetness that can follow a rocky but ultimately amicable divorce. Any given game or series can offer you a linear, packaged redemption arc. A career is not that neat.

And so the Celtics lost the next three games and slipped, before we knew it, into ugliness again. In the first round of the 2005 playoffs, in the late stages of Game 6, Pierce was ejected after knocking his forearm into Jamaal Tinsley, who’d just fouled him intentionally. He sauntered off the court, twirling his jersey above his head. In the press room after, still protesting Tinsley’s foul, he showed up with his jaw bizarrely taped, as if he’d just undergone some old-timey DIY dentistry. And our inner curmudgeonly sports columnists wondered, Is this guy ever going to figure it out?

That redemption finally came, with new buddies and the 2008 title, is crucial. That the story didn’t end there is as much a part of it all. After the championship, in a SportsCenter interview revisiting the incident, Doc Rivers would say of Pierce, “Standing onstage, with all of Boston cheering … I think that’s the perfect ending.” Of course it is. But it’s not the ending.

After the game, the reporters huddle around Pierce and ask the questions he’s been expecting: How did it feel? Was it super weird? “It was weird looking over at the Boston team,” he said. “But it’s settled in. It’s been settled in. I’m past that right now. I’m part of this team now.” The scrum disperses, and Pierce small-talks with a few Celtics reporters from the old days. He’s living in Manhattan, he says. It takes longer to get to the arena, yeah. He’s thinking of trying the subway.

One last note, back on the point of randomness. One evening in the Barclays press seats, I talk to a reporter, a young woman whose family is from Lebanon and who grew up in Ottawa hating hockey and loving the Celtics. See, in the true tradition of scrappy immigrant git-‘er-done, some cousin or friend had set up for the family a jury-rigged satellite dish that, for no particular reason, received Celtics home broadcasts. A guy crossed the green wires with the red and this girl spends the rest of her life knowing Havlicek’s scoring record.

I think about that the next week in Boston, at the TD Garden with the Nets in the building. Across town at Fenway, the Red Sox are kicking off the World Series, and so even if Pierce and Garnett hadn’t opted to skip this one, the place would be near empty. The loudest cheers of the night come when Dustin Pedroia’s bases-clearing double is shown on the JumboTron. The second-loudest come when the camera operator finds an elderly, mustachioed Asian man in a crisp white sweater waving enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, me, Tommy Heinsohn, probably the girl from Ottawa, and the rest of the pleasantly deluded Celtics faithful watch the game, convincing ourselves there is hope here. I mean, just look at Vitor Faverani tonight. The big Brazilian drains a 3, grabs a miss and flushes a follow-back, hustles for an off-hand block. Vitor! Vitor! El Hombre Indestructible! Is there anything he can’t do?

During the one brief conversation I have with Faverani, I ask him what he knew about the city before coming here. “I don’t know nothing about the Boston.” And what about stories regarding the old guys, Pierce and KG and them? Do you hear all the old battle stories? “Sometimes.” He pauses, smiling. “My English is not so good. I know the players. They have the pictures in the locker room.”

Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad