The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Paul Pierce gives Washington a hype man who’s more than just hype

(By John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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When Verizon Center’s arena camera panned to the four Wizards sitting in owner Ted Leonsis’s rinkside seats Monday night, only one of them stood up. Only one of them gestured for the crowd to get louder. Only one of them started slapping hands with strangers, as teammates cackled.

It was the same man who dominated the headlines in Toronto earlier this month, the same man who injected adrenaline into what had been the NBA’s sleepiest first-round series, the same man who lit up social media after the Wizards swept the Raptors. To his teammates, it was hardly even worth noting. Oh, the Silver Line is delayed again? Oh, the pollen count is high again? Oh, Paul Pierce is revving up local fans again?

“I mean, if you’ve been paying attention to his career, that’s Paul. That’s who he is. It’s not an act. That’s just how he is,” said Rasual Butler, who turned to John Wall and grinned Monday night as Pierce frothed up the hockey crowd. “That’s how he conducts himself in an environment like that. In a basketball environment, he’s like that with the crowd, whether he’s in the game or on the bench, and he did the same thing [Monday] night. … It was a big game for the Caps, so he got up and got the crowd into it, like he does. That’s what he does. You would expect them to respond to Paul Pierce. He’s The Truth.”

The Caps have plenty of quirky hype men, from the rock stars who’ve done pre-taped bits to the beloved longtime fans who lead organic cheers, like Horn Guy and Goat. But the Wizards can’t say quite the same thing. Wale? Doug Kammerer? Wolf Blitzer? “The Situation Room” isn’t exactly known for its raucous crowds, and Jose Andres is better at creating small plates (and doing the Heimlich) than inspiring insanity.

But when Pierce hit those big three-pointers in Game 3 against the Raptors and then attempted to slap hands with just about every fan in the arena, the crowd responded. When Pierce orders you to get up, fans can’t help but comply, even if he’s been here for all of seven months. Who was the last Wizards star who had both a massive aura and the game to back it up?

“That’s just me,” Pierce said on Tuesday. “I mean, if you go to YouTube, [search] Paul Pierce starting in 1998. You’ll see the same things.”

And the troublemaking on social media?

“I just look at it as … just good banter,” he said, smiling broadly. “Good banter. That’s the word.”

“This is the Paul Pierce I always knew,” Drew Gooden said. “You guys have seen something different? I just know around the league, he’s always been like that.”

Like what exactly?

“A competitor that likes to talk [junk] and back it up,” Gooden said.

The Wizards didn’t bring the 37-year old here to be a cheerleader, of course, not to wears Caps jerseys nor to dress up in blue spandex and perform somersault dunks off a trampoline. If they only wanted someone to drop bombs on social media, they could have hired back Gilbert Arenas. Pierce’s WWE act works because he’s a future Hall of Famer who can still play, who averaged 15.5 points in the Toronto sweep and was the most memorable player in two of the four games. It works because he was the driving force behind the first four-game sweep in Washington pro sports history.

“I mean, there are certain guys that can get away with doing that, and there are certain guys that can’t,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “It’s just as simple as that.”

The Wizards have had plenty of guys who tried over the past decade, the DeShawn Stevensons and Nick Youngs. They were often fun, and even lovable. But none of them were all-time greats with title rings. That’s why Pierce could feel comfortable joining a playoff team in a foreign city and immediately accepting the role of chief motivator, not just for the hockey team on an April Monday but for his basketball team during an entire season.

“You know, Paul Pierce is just going to be who Paul Pierce is going to be,” he said. “I’m going to be myself. It wasn’t like they said, ‘Come in here and be a hype man,’ or ‘Be a leader.’ You know, I’m just being myself. If it helps our team, or if it hurts our team, I’m just trying to be myself and see where that goes. That’s all it is. I’m a vocal person. I speak up. I tell the guys how I feel. I’m emotional. So that’s just me being me, truthfully.”

So it probably doesn’t even matter that Pierce left the Caps game early, to beat traffic. Nor does it matter that his regular season included lulls when fans wondered whether he had anything left. By Tuesday night, as the Nats were erasing an eight-run deficit to record a miracle win in Atlanta, one fan after another wondered whether The Truth had been in the building. Something about Pierce’s glass-pounding approach to hockey fandom– “they said when a player comes next to the window, you’re supposed to hit the window,” he explained —  and to everything else makes him irresistible.

It goes without saying that Pierce will always belong to Boston; try to block out the memory of him wearing a Bruins jersey. He’s Washington’s latest Sergei Fedorov, an international star who briefly landed in town at the end of his career and authored a few unforgettable highlights. And when you can borrow someone like that for a few months — a Washington hype man who’s more than just hype — it’s hard to say no.

“You know, when you play for a city, you become part of it. You become one with the fans,” Pierce said on Monday. “In Rome, you do what the Romans do.”