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Paul Pierce is not completely green

The Celtics' star grew up in Inglewood and loved Magic Johnson. He still has a house in L.A., but he has no friends on the Lakers.

June 02, 2010|By David Wharton

Purple and gold colored the dreams that danced in Paul Pierce's head so many years ago.

As a boy growing up in Inglewood, just down the boulevard from the Forum, he wondered what it might feel like to play for the Lakers.

"Just to tell you," he says, "I didn't want to be a Boston Celtic."

Such childish distinctions should have died long ago, replaced by the reality of more than a decade spent wearing Celtic green. Any vestige of hometown loyalty should have evaporated when Pierce led his team past the Lakers for the 2008 NBA championship.

But with the traditional rivals meeting in the Finals again, maybe a bit of L.A. still smolders inside.

"Coming back here as a Boston player," he says, a grin crossing his face, "it's a little weird for me."

Not that Pierce is the only Celtic with Southern California connections. Reserve forward Brian Scalabrine lived here until he was 12, then returned to play at USC, but says he never felt any strong affinity.

Coach Doc Rivers played briefly for the Clippers during a long NBA career. "My answer is easy," Rivers said. "I'm a Boston guy."

Things get a little more complicated for Pierce, the 6-foot-7 forward out of Inglewood High who used to catch glimpses of Magic Johnson driving to the arena and sneak into games.

"The Lakers were always his team," said Sgt. Scott Collins of the Inglewood Police Department, who coached Pierce in a youth league and became his mentor. "He loved Magic."

These days, Pierce says all the right things about being a Celtic, about meeting legends such as John Havlicek and Bob Cousy, about establishing himself among the greatest scorers in franchise history.

And when it comes to the Lakers, well, this rivalry doesn't allow for fence-sitting.

"I really don't have any friends on the Lakers. No one on this team does," Pierce said.

Still, tiny cracks show in his green armor.

Pierce has suffered rough patches in Boston. He was stabbed and nearly died at a nightclub there in 2000. With the Celtics struggling for much of his career, he once complained to the Boston Globe about feeling like "the classic case of a great player on a bad team."

As recently as the summer of 2007, Pierce was hanging around Los Angeles, getting chummy with Kobe Bryant, a couple of premier players joking about who might get traded first.

This much is certain: He still returns to Southern California every summer to be with friends and to play in pickup games at UCLA like he did when he was a teenager. His Truth Fund seeks, among other things, to help disadvantaged children in Inglewood and he has co-hosted annual charity games here.

Last summer, Pierce was walking his dog to the park when a convertible Mercedes pulled up to the intersection. Phil Jackson was behind the wheel. Pierce congratulated the Lakers coach on his team's championship victory over the Orlando Magic and a brief conversation ensued.

"He talks so low, I really didn't hear too much of what he said," Pierce recalled. "It was just like he said something, and it was like, all right, peace out."

Jackson insists he told Pierce to get the Celtics back to the Finals, to renew a classic rivalry.

Now the old neighborhood roils with arguments. People such as Inglewood High Coach Patrick Roy will wear green and root for their friend. Others are reticent.

"It's mixed emotions," Roy said. "A lot of people here are big-time Kobe fans."

Not that they would admit as much to Pierce.

"I don't really get anything from family and friends," he said. "They're sure to keep their mouths closed because they want tickets."

Rivers suspects the ticket issue became a distraction two years ago — every time he turned around, Pierce was on the phone. This time, Pierce has received dozens of requests but has learned to handle it better.

"I don't have a problem saying 'no' at this point in my career," he said.

Which brings this story back to his unusual predicament. Collins figures that no matter the color of the uniform, you cannot take the hometown out of a man.

"I think he's still kind of an L.A. guy," he said of Pierce. "That's never going to go away."

Does Boston's star player still have some purple and gold in him?

The question causes Pierce to hesitate, suggesting that he doesn't really want to answer.

"I still own a home in Los Angeles," he said. "How about that?"

Times staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this story.

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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