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NEW YORK -- After moving into a new apartment in SoHo in early September, Paul Pierce decided to explore his new city on a picturesque fall Sunday.
In search of a place to watch some NFL games, Pierce walked down toward Chinatown, and then meandered over to Battery Park before making it all the way up to 36th and Sixth Avenue. He just kept walking, wandering around by himself for three hours before encountering a fan who gave Pierce his first "only in New York" moment.
"This one guy, I am never going to forget him," Pierce said recently in an interview with ESPNNewYork.com. "He said, 'Hey Paul, welcome to New York! I'm a Knicks fan.'"
Pierce noticed the self-proclaimed Knicks fan was wearing a black Brooklyn Nets hat.
"How do you got a Brooklyn Nets hat on and you're saying, 'Go Knicks?'" Pierce asked. "He said, 'I'm just from Brooklyn. But I root for the Knicks.'
"That was kinda like my welcome to New York moment."
Welcome to New York, the concrete jungle where Pierce's dream is not only to help the Nets win a championship, but also to convert as many Knicks fans as possible.
Winning a championship might be the easier task, but Pierce is up for the mission. After spending his entire 15-year NBA career in Boston, Pierce begins a new chapter Wednesday with his first game as a Net in Cleveland.
It took Pierce, 36, time to absorb the idea of being traded and no longer wearing Boston Celtics green. But the opportunity to win a second championship and make history with old friend Kevin Garnett and new head coach Jason Kidd has Pierce feeling more like a rookie than a savvy veteran starting his 16th season.
"That would be unbelievable for my legacy," Pierce said of winning a championship in Brooklyn. "When you look at the history of the game, there are not a lot of guys that changed teams and won multiple championships. I want to be one of those guys."
As long as Pierce isn't wearing a Knicks jersey, his feelings for the 'Bockers are not going to change. But when he has gone out around town, fans have occasionally reminded him who owns the majority of basketball hearts in New York.
"We got to start converting some of these longtime Knicks fans that live in Brooklyn to Brooklyn Nets fans," Pierce said. "Because now they got a team in Brooklyn."
Pierce has no love for the Knicks. He's been playing against them in the Atlantic Division his entire NBA life. He took the whole Boston-New York rivalry and Celtics-Knicks tradition to heart. And like most of the 'Bockers' enemies, Pierce loves the sound Madison Square Garden makes when he's hitting big shots there.
But now as a Net, Pierce's dislike for the Knicks has only grown. It used to be that the mere sight of Spike Lee sitting courtside at the Garden could fire up Pierce. Now Pierce has Knicks guard J.R. Smith and a legion of 'Bockers fans to get his goat, as well.
Not long after being traded to Brooklyn, Pierce said, "It's time for the Nets to start running this city." Smith took offense, saying there will be consequences and describing Pierce as a "bitter person" after he left Boston.
Pierce's response? When he was asked about Smith and his comments, Pierce offered a sarcastic "Who?"
"It is an even bigger rivalry," Pierce said, comparing his rivalry with the Knicks now to when he was a Celtic. "I think it's even on another level. Because you are right across the bridge. Both teams, same division, same city, one team thinks they are better than the other.
"Those are the perfect storms that create rivalries."
|Paul Pierce credits Jason Kidd with making him a better player.|
Early in his career, Pierce had a budding rivalry with Kidd's high-octane Nets team. Pierce was a Nets killer, playing some of his biggest games against New Jersey. In the 2002 playoffs, he authored a historic fourth-quarter comeback, scoring 19 of his 28 points in the last 12 minutes to erase a 21-point deficit and help beat the Nets in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Because Celtics fans were so hard on Kidd in Boston, New Jersey fans tried returning the favor. One Nets fan brought a sign that read: "Will someone please stab Paul Pierce." Pierce had been stabbed nearly a dozen times at a Boston nightclub on Sept. 25, 2000.
"Yeah, I remember that," Pierce said of the fan's sign. "In this league, you got to have thick skin. That type of stuff doesn't faze me. I look right past that. It's, like, transparent to me."
Not only is Pierce playing for the Nets now, but he is playing for Kidd, a man he couldn't beat early in his career. Kidd and the Nets won the next three games after Boston's miraculous comeback to go the NBA Finals. The following season, Kidd's Nets swept Pierce's Celtics in the semifinals to eventually repeat as Eastern Conference champs.
"At that point, I was like, 'Jason Kidd is the best player I've ever played against,'" Pierce said. "Because he broke my heart twice."
Pierce would eventually get reinforcements from Garnett and Ray Allen en route to finally winning a championship in 2008. But Pierce credits the losses against Kidd with molding him into a better player.
"It helped me grow," said the 10-time All-Star and 2008 Finals MVP. "When you go through painful defeats and tough years, it helps you mature. Sometimes you got to go through some tough times to really see the good times."
|Pierce looks to give the Nets some toughness, especially against the Heat.|
Now it's the Nets who are looking to Pierce to help them grow.
Pierce and Garnett have had an instant impact on the team's identity. They've added toughness and championship mettle and injected a jolt of attitude into a team that Kidd described as "vanilla" last season.
"Well, I think it's changed already, the identity, when the trade happened," Kidd said.
Pierce and Garnett spent much of the preseason giving the Nets an attitude makeover. Besides sending verbal messages about taking over New York, Pierce is showing the Nets how they need to act toward the defending world champion Miami Heat.
During an ostensibly meaningless preseason game against the Heat in Brooklyn, Pierce delivered a hard foul to LeBron James as the four-time NBA MVP was heading full steam toward the basket. James had publicly questioned why Pierce and Garnett didn't get as much heat for their departure from Boston as Allen did when he left in free agency. After the game, Garnett told James to mind his own business.
It's clear Pierce and Garnett are trying to transfer the Celtics' bitter rivalry with the Heat to their new team. And that is a very good thing for a Nets squad that lost by an average of 21 points in three meetings against the champs last season.
"It is not only that intense feeling toward the Heat," Pierce explained. "It has to be intense feelings toward the rest of the league. When we were Celtics, we always said we like ourselves [but] we don't like nobody. You know what I'm saying?
"That created a lot of hate for us," Pierce said. "We were kind of like the bad guys, the big bad Celtics. We didn't mind playing the villain role. If that is what we got to do here in Brooklyn, that is what we got to do. The great teams, they create an identity for themselves. That is what we are trying to do here."
For a moment, Pierce allowed himself to envision what it would be like to win a championship in his new home.
"Oh man!" an animated Pierce said. "The whole Northeast would be all mine. And the city. From Boston to New York.
"You win a championship? Here? Oh man, I would be able to go anywhere on the East Coast."
And perhaps he could do so without running into any more Knicks fans wearing Nets hats.