The rookie had swagger.
Tony Battie knew that much when he became teammates with Paul Pierce on the Boston Celtics in 1999.
Pierce talked trash. A lot. He wasnt afraid to assert his confidence on the court and let his opponent know he believed he could beat him.
The 21-year-old backed it up, too.
Battie could tell early on Pierce had the potential to make his mark in the NBA. What he didnt know was the bond they would share 13 years later.
He was relentless, Battie, who was traded to the Celtics in January of 1999, told CSNNE.com. You knew there was something special about him because of how hard he worked, his view on the game. He would pick up on things so much faster than other guys would have, and he just had a love for the game. He was watching film and practice would be from 10-to-12. I called him later on that evening, its four oclock, five oclock, and hes back at the gym getting up shots. He was a workhorse.
Over the next five seasons, Battie watched Pierce step to the forefront of the Celtics backcourt. After practices, the guards faced off in one-on-one-on-one competitions between Pierce, Kedrick Brown, Joe Johnson, Ron Mercer, and Joseph Forte, among others.
One player would start with the ball and try to score on the defender. If he hit his shot, the defender left the court and another came on, rotating until a scorer reached a certain number of points from designated spots on the floor.
Pierce thrived on this competition. Even when then-head coach Jim OBrien gave him a day off (there were times when Pierce outlasted 40 minutes in these battles), he was back in the gym the next day, refusing to let another guard win.
He was the king of that guard section right there and he schooled them every day, recalled Battie, now a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. He took pride every day in busting those guys up every day, talking trash to them. And he made them better at the same time. He would not let them have bragging rights by saying they got the most wins that day.
But nearly all of it came to an end when Battie and Pierce went out on the evening of September 24, 2000, prior to the start of Pierces third NBA season. Pierce was stabbed multiple times at a nightclub in Boston. It was Battie who drove him to the hospital.
Pierce underwent surgery and, in spite of the wounds, was back in the starting lineup with Battie on Opening Night.
To be around him and to know him, I would expect nothing less from him, said Battie. If anybody has the heart, has the determination, the blessing, the gift, or whatever you want to call it, he possesses that. Hes something special.
Battie saw a change in Pierce following the incident. Faced with adversity, he noticed Pierce become more of a thinker and approach the game differently.
I think it drove him even more, said Battie. Never want anything bad to happen to him, but that could have been one of those turning points where his mind really clicked and he went to another level, he went to another gear. Im sure it was a step back for him physically and probably mentally, too, but he definitely became a better person, a better player, from that situation.
In December of 2003, the Celtics traded Battie to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Within a few years, Pierce was the only player from the 1999 team still in Boston. By the 2006-07 season, Pierces role had shifted from the young gun Battie played with to the veteran leader of an inexperienced squad. The team struggled, and Pierce continued to push.
The following season the Celtics cleaned house to bring in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, surrounding Pierce with future Hall of Fame talent. They won a championship in their first season with Pierce, still the only team captain, earning NBA Finals MVP honors.
Hes always been a hard worker so I figured that he would eventually get a championship, said Battie. Danny Ainge took over the team and basically reconstructed everything around him. He was the mainstay from that team back then. Im proud to see that he was able to stick around, he was able to hang a banner out there, and one day hell have his number retired with some of the greats.
Pierce is now 34 years old and in his 14th NBA season. He is battling through a left MCL sprain during the playoffs, yet finding new approaches to help his team win.
He was just a young guy who did it heart and talent, said Battie. Now that hes evolved into the captain and one of the leaders of this team, he does it more with his knowledge of the game, too, as his legs get a little bit older and you kind of have to transition yourself from a young gunning player to more methodical, thinking the game. Hes done a great job in transitioning that part of his game.
Battie laughs as he recalls Pierces practice battles, becomes solemn as he reflects on his attack, and smiles as he shares the state of their relationship that began between a trash-talking rookie and the new guy in town.
We talk all the time, Battie said. He and my brother, after they crushed us in Game 3 (of the Eastern Conference Semifinals), we had dinner together. We dont talk basketball. Its one of those things.