by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad

In the NBA, only the strong survive. And only the strongest survive through two lockouts, a dozen knife wounds and unfounded character assassinations to serve as the face of the League’s most storied franchise for more than a decade.

The 1998 Draft brought basketball the game’s greatest modern dunker (Vince Carter), the reigning Finals MVP (Dirk Nowitzki), the one and only White Chocolate (Jason Williams) and a handful of other notable names, from Larry Hughes to the late Tractor Traylor. And yet, at the head of the class lies The Truth.

Paul Pierce enters his 14th season with the Boston Celtics as strong as ever, looking to cement his legacy with another title run, while the majority of his classmates are looking for post-basketball employment.

Sure, P-Squared has seen his production drop from close to 27 points and 7 boards a game in ’05-06 to 19 and 5 in ’10-11, but while making room for Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, the Celts’ centerpiece has been as durable and as efficient as any swingman in the NBA. Pierce, 34, has played at least 80 games in three of the last four seasons, and last year he shot a career-high 49.7 percent from the field.

Pierce’s willingness to welcome fellow stars to “his” team in order to win and his outspoken leadership from matters basketball to business have earned him an unparalleled level of respect around the game. Peers, young and old alike, value his opinions on League issues and pick his brain for hoops insight, despite a reputation as one of the game’s nastiest trash talkers. It’s why veterans want to play in Boston, even if it means becoming his sidekick.

When Boston reserve forward Marquis Daniels suffered a scary bruised spinal cord injury in February, doctors told him he might never hoop again. Laid up in a hospital bed, the free agent-to-be got a visit from Pierce, who kept tabs on Quis’ health from surgery to recovery. Ten months later, a fully recovered Daniels re-signed with the Celtics, crediting the “family-oriented situation” fostered largely by Pierce as reason for his return.

“Paul’s a great guy, a great teammate to have,” says Daniels. “You hate playing against him, but when you’re playing with him, he’s going to support you 100 percent. He practices hard, he plays hard. Why wouldn’t you want to play with a guy like that?”

And Pierce knows “hard.” Perseverance has led to much of his success, from enduring a nightclub stabbing in Boston’s theater district in 2000 that left him with 11 lacerations to the face, neck and back to watching the Cs lose 18 games in a row en route to one of the franchise’s worst seasons in history in ’06-07 while recovering from a stress reaction in his left foot. So it’s no surprise he can admit to having benefited from the luck of the Irish.

“I think that just says a lot about my dedication, my consistency and work. I’ve been lucky as far as not having any major injuries,” says Pierce. “There’s been a lot of great players that have come along that have had injuries, and I’ve been fortunate enough not to have that, to go along with my consistent work ethic. You know, even at this age as I continue to work, I treat it as if it was my first year in the League.”

But luck alone can’t explain Pierce’s more than 21,000 points over 13 seasons in the green and white. Only John Havlicek and Larry Bird have scored more points in a Celtics uniform, and he has Bird’s spot in his sights—with a realistic shot at catching Hondo, too. He’s the all-time team leader in three-pointers and free throws made. He’s played more minutes with Boston than Bob Cousy, Sam Jones or Kevin McHale. He ranks No. 2 in team history in steals, fourth in assists and ninth in rebounds.

“Paul’s legacy?” teammate Kevin Garnett asks aloud at Celtics media day in early  December. “It’s the obvious. When you speak of Celtics, and you speak of modern Celtics, you think of Paul.”

When Pierce is done, his number will hang next to the greats at the Boston Garden, among names like Russell, Sharman, Cowens and Auerbach. So is it crazy talk to call him a top-10 Celtic of all time? Top five? Adding another ring wouldn’t hurt.

Pierce recognizes he’ll be in the conversation, but for now chooses to side-step legacy questions, instead wondering half-jokingly, “How old was Bird when he retired?”

As if aligning himself with the best in Boston basketball history wasn’t enough, Pierce’s longstanding allegiance to the Cs has also made him a common pop culture reference. Kids who were still in Huggies when Paul entered the League associate his name with undying loyalty, thanks to rap acts like Fabolous—“Been playin’ with that green long as Paul Pierce”—and Chiddy Bang—“I spit the Paul Pierce, and never change teams.”

Even rappers realize that in today’s NBA, sticking it out with one team is rare. Especially for a perennial All-Star wasting away on a rebuilding squad that finished with more than 36 wins just once from ’03 to ’07. Especially in an era where top players demand trades at the slightest hint of discomfort. But Pierce stuck it out, keeping faith in Boston’s fans, tradition and pride, despite head coach Doc Rivers’ characterization of that stretch in Celtics history as “the dark ages.”

Rivers, hired in ’04 to coach up a roster full of young, unproven players like Al Jefferson and Marcus Banks, and first-round castoffs like Sebastian Telfair, knows full well Pierce was at a crossroads. The coach reflected on Pierce’s struggles with that team prior to this season, telling CSN New  England, “I thought he grew. Just think, he had a new coach who was trying to change the way he played, we were struggling and he bought into what I was trying to sell him. He stayed, bought into the franchise and he made the decision. He clearly could have left. He clearly could have got a ton of money somewhere else, and it didn’t matter. He wanted to be a Celtic.”

Rather than throw a fit like some of the game’s young stars of today, Pierce committed to the organization that made him the No. 10 pick in the Draft in ’98, risking a career mired in mediocrity for a chance to make Boston proud again. He didn’t hold a television special, he didn’t pout, he didn’t play chicken with management through the media. And his patience paid off.

Ex-Celtic guard Danny Ainge, the same GM who floated Pierce’s name in trade talks when he took over front office operations in ’03, pulled off a series of moves that brought Garnett and Allen to Boston prior to the ’07-08 season, finally surrounding P-Squared with Championship-caliber talent.

The Celts won the ’08 title over the L.A. Lakers, renewing basketball’s best rivalry, and Pierce took home NBA Finals MVP honors. In that, his 10th year in the League, Pierce’s scoring dipped below 20 ppg for the first time since he played his first full-length NBA season. He accommodated a pair of new additions in just one season in a way no superstar has done since (read: ’10-11 Miami Heat), and the Celtics birthed a revolution in basketball roster-building by dubbing themselves “The Big Three.”

Pierce added NBA Champion to a résumé that stacks up against almost any in the history of the sport—one that’s been built without a high-flying above-the-rim highlight reel or dazzling aesthetic appeal. Where others in his Draft class gave us moments to remember before fizzling out early, Pierce has played the tortoise, putting up consistent numbers from start to finish (a career 22/6/4 line on 45 percent shooting), whenever that may be.

Then again, he couldn’t care less about statistics at this point in his career. For Paul, trophies trump numbers.

“Every year, you want to accomplish trying to win a Championship. That’s been the goal each and every year,” says Pierce. “I have no more individual goals like I did as a young player. A lot of my goals are based on what the team does.”

His team enters the abbreviated ’11-12 campaign with a closing window of title opportunity, one that Rivers openly discusses with the vets—and uses as motivation.  Because while Pierce sees Garnett and Allen playing “past this year” despite contracts that expire next summer, the Celtics’ core is aging, their depth is dwindling and their young quarterback, Rajon Rondo, is rumored to be unhappy with his name appearing in off-season trade talks.

The trio of future Hall of Famers faces the added challenge of a jam-packed 66-game schedule following a four-month lockout that forced training camps and free agency to be rushed. Pierce, who faced the NBA’s last lockout prior to his rookie season, was forthright with his opinions this time around, garnering attention for his blunt remarks on labor negotiations.

“I just wanted to get it done. My whole thing is, guys really came to me for advice or came to me with questions,” says Pierce. “A lot of guys asked me about decertification. It wasn’t that I pushed it one way or another, but I gave out the information, I had a chance to talk to different lawyers about the consequences of it, or how it would hurt or help us. At the end of the day, we wanted to come out here and play. Nobody wanted to be a part of no lawsuits or anything, and we’re excited to be back.”

With the legal jargon finally on the backburner, Pierce can get back to basketball. Which, for one of the clutch players of his generation, is a boon for fans of the game, too. No matter how old he gets, or how tired his legs look, Pierce is there in crunch time. No matter how many fellow stars join him in the starting lineup, or how many young building blocks develop around him, the ball is still his with the clock winding down. Even when you know it’s coming, his patented step-back elbow jumper is impossible to stop.

And that’s The Truth.