Pierce: 'I'm lucky to be here today'

Wednesday, October 11th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Mike Szostak / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Wearing a blue warmup suit and a baseball cap with the inscription "Only The Strong Survive," Paul Pierce strode to the microphone, gazed at the assembled media and asked, "Whassup?"

Talk about tension-breakers.

With that innocent greeting, and an accompanying grin, the Celtics' wounded swingman informed Celtic Nation that he is back.

Stabbed 11 times in the face, neck and back in a Boston nightclub on Sept. 25, Pierce knows he is lucky to be alive, never mind playing basketball again. He mentioned this remarkable situation a few times during his first public comments about his brush with death, emergency surgery and stunning recuperation.

"To tell you the truth, from the time I walked in (to the hospital), I never felt my life was on the line, even though there were pretty bad injuries," Pierce said yesterday on the court at the Celtics' training facility. "I didn't realize the severity of them. It wasn't until after the surgery, when the doctors told me what had happened and what I'd gone through. I'm very lucky to be here today."

Coach Rick Pitino described Pierce's rapid recovery as the team's "wish of the century."

"I think I have to attribute a lot of that to the Man above. He really looked out for me. The wounds that hit me could have easily been one inch left or one inch to the right, and I probably wouldn't be here today. So I just thank Him for that," Pierce said.

"I'm very blessed. . . . I'm excited to be here today and to still be able to play the game of basketball. I understand how lucky I am. And just to be here today talking with you guys, I understand that Someone was watching me."

Pierce admitted that he was scared by the attack, which, according to police, occurred at about 1 a.m. in the pool room of Buzz, a club in the theater district. Pierce, teammate Tony Battie and Battie's brother Derek were attending a private party.

"Yeah. I mean, this is something that doesn't happen to me every day, so it's just a natural reaction, a natural response to be scared to go through some of the things that I went through," he said.

Boston police have arrested three men in connection with the incident. Pierce wouldn't discuss any details because the investigation is ongoing.

Pierce is the third Celtic to become the victim of an unfortunate incident. Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose within 48 hours of being drafted in 1986. Reggie Lewis dropped dead of a heart attack while shooting hoops in July 1993. But Pierce never put himself in the same category.

"It never really crossed my mind because, at the time, I didn't realize the severity of the incident. I was kind of unaware of a lot of things that had happened to me," he said.

Pierce's total return to action remains uncertain. He has attended the team's daily double sessions and has begun participating in the evening drills. He wears a red shirt during morning shooting drills to remind his teammates to avoid contact.

"To see him run and jump is unbelievable. He has a lot of heart," Antoine Walker said.

Pierce wouldn't say if he will be ready for the Nov. 1 season opener.

"We're going to take it slowly. There's no saying that I will be there or I won't be there. Right now, it can go either way, depending on how the coach feels, how confident he is in me in the practice field. I guess we'll just go from there," Pierce said. "I know this team really needs me, but I'm not going to force myself back any faster than I have to. I know I'm going to be there when the time is necessary for me to be there. I'll be back."

"I think he's just about ready to do anything," Pitino said. "He's a quick healer, but we've been overly cautious."

"You got to take certain steps in coming back. I don't want to rush back and injure myself and be out a little longer. So I'm taking an extra few days or a week off, however long it's going to take for me to get out there and be the best I can for the upcoming year," Pierce said.

"I've started doing some activities on the treadmill. Lot of shooting drills. A lot of things are coming back to me slowly but surely."

Pierce didn't seem too receptive to the idea of wearing a protective device on his torso.

"I don't know. All the pain is mostly gone. That's all in me and how conscious I am of being hit," he said. "It's like when you get hurt and sprain you ankle and you kind of hesitate to go up in the middle and jump that first time until you really get hit. And so you get extra tape. Until you really tweak it, you don't know how it's going to affect you.

"I don't know how I'm going to react on the court until I get in practice and take a couple of bangs from some of the guys. Before I go out in a game, you got to test it in practice."

Pierce, 23 this Friday and starting his third season with the Celtics, learned a lesson from this incident.

"What I've learned is you got to watch your every move. We are a target. People know who we are. You're ballplayers, and you kind of stick out like a sore thumb. You got to prepare yourself for different situations because there are jealous people. Right now, I'm just trying to put it behind me and focus on basketball. That's my main focus. That's what I came to Boston to do, and that's what I want to do," he said.

Pierce isn't losing any sleep over the attack.

"I grew up in Inglewood, Calif., and I've seen some of the worst things happen. A lot of my friends have been through certain situations, and being able to talk with them, how they deal with it, I'm such a strong person mentally that I can put certain things behind me and have it not affect me," he said.

"I've had close friends die. I've had family members die. That affects you mentally, too, but being that I've been through a lot of things that can really mess with your head on the court, I think a situation like this, it'll be easy for me to put behind."

Pierce knows that he will have to adjust his social life to avoid questionable situations in the future.

"It's going to be difficult. I'm a young guy. There are going to be times when I want to go out. I just got to take extra measures, whether it be hiring security or whatever I have to do. But I think now I'll be a little hesitant on going places. Maybe I can bring Vitaly and bring Fortson back," he said, laughing.

Vitaly Potapenko is the strongest Celtic, and former Celtic Danny Fortson is a bruising rebounder.

Pierce appreciated the gestures of fans during his three-day hospital stay and in the days since his release.

"It feels great," he said. "Those are the type of things you need when you're trying to get better and recuperate. You need that family support, friends, teammates. Even around the world, I've gotten flowers, e-mails. It feels great, and I think that really helps you on the road to recovery, being that you feel a lot of love and support."

And Pierce is counting on that road to recovery ending on the basketball court.

"When I'm in the gym, my main focus is basketball," he said. "I tend to forget a lot of things that's going on. This is my life, so I think once I get back on the court, a lot of these things will be forgotten."