(KJ.com PRESENTS) CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH: Saying ‘goodbye’ to Paul Pierce
Paul Pierce is one of the greatest Celtics of all time. His blood is just as green as Larry Bird’s and #34 will have a permanent seat among the legends that are immortalized in the rafters of the Garden.
That one isn’t up for debate.
For 15 seasons, Paul Pierce has worn his uniform with pride; committed to the franchise that first believed in him.
From the darkest pits of despair to the triumph of winning an NBA Championship, we watched as Paul Pierce grew. We grew with him. He made us believe again.
In an era of big money and even bigger egos, Paul Pierce showed us that he was different. Paul Pierce made us proud to be Celtics fans.
But now, it’s all over. Pierce will be playing for Jay-Z in Brooklyn and the man who revived the Celtic legacy, restarted the rivalry with LA and brought ‘The Big 3’ to Beantown…is gone.
In the wake of Pierce’s departure is a flood of nostalgia.
Many young Celtics fans were still messing their diapers as Larry Bird stole the ball and shoveled it off to DJ. For us, the gravely grumblings of Johnny Moise were only heard through sound bites in television programs.
Before Paul Pierce returned to his hometown to down the Lakers on their home court in 2008, memories of anything positive regarding the Celtics were as hazy as the cigar smoke that once wafted through the rafters of Boston Garden.
For us, Paul Pierce was the Celtics.
I first started watching the Celtics in the late 1990’s, when the C’s were Antoine Walker’s team and Paul Pierce was a superstar in the making. Watching Antoine and Pierce play together was what made me first fall in love with the Celtics.
You could tell they were both friends and you could tell they both loved the game. Despite not making the playoffs in their first two years together, Paul and Antoine were the best kept secret in the NBA. Only rarely would they get routed and they were capable of beating the best, on any given night.
Then was the worst day: September 26, 2000. The day I found out Paul Pierce had been stabbed 11 times and was struggling for life in a Boston hospital.
I cried when I found out Pierce had been stabbed. I was only a baby when Lenny Bias was drafted second by the Celtics and overdosed the next night, but I thought about his tragic story.
How could it happen again?
Why us? Why him?
Then, a miracle…despite having his aorta nearly punctured and with fresh wounds still clearly visible on his body, Paul Pierce fully recovered and became the only player on the 2000-2001 Boston Celtics to start all 82 games.
The Celtics didn’t make the playoffs that year but it didn’t matter. Pierce broke out and averaged over 25 points per game in 2000-2001. It was in that year that Pierce entered an elite class of NBA players and formally transitioned the Celtics from Antione Walker’s team to his team.
It was during the next season, 2001-2002, when the young Celtics would finally get their shot at playoff glory.
The Celtics obviously went down in 2002 but not without a fight from Paul Pierce. The only thing standing between Paul Pierce and a shot at the title that year was Jason Kidd’s New Jersey Nets. The Celtics didn’t get past the Nets but the Nets didn’t win the championship either.
Paul Pierce was a big factor in that.
Pierce exposed the New Jersey Nets for the paper tigers they were and, along with Antoine Walker, pulled off the largest comeback in NBA playoff history during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Celtics entered the 4th Quarter of Game 3 down by 21 at home. Antoine wouldn’t have it and unleashed a torrent of locker-room rhetoric on his teammates during a timeout, much to the delight of on looking television cameras.
Pierce sat in a trance on the bench as Walker impersonated General George Patton and pushed his troops to give something more.
When Jim O’Brien put Pierce back the game after Walker’s tirade, Pierce responded.
19 of Pierce’s 28 points during Game 3 came in the 4th Quarter, and it was The Great Paul Pierce who scored the team’s final 17 points in the game. In fact, it was during Game 3 that Paul Pierce first perfected his famed drive-to-the-rim strategy, completely killing the Nets at the foul line.
The Celtics didn’t win another game in the 2002 Conference Finals but, once again, it didn’t matter. Paul Pierce had arrived and the Celtics finally had their perennial All Star.
Maybe it was that hope which made the next six seasons so hard to endure. We knew we had one of the best and we knew we had the potential to reach the top but, year after year, it didn’t happen.
Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce would never again play together on such a large stage (minus a brief Walker relapse in 2005 that would end with an embarrassing suspension after an altercation with a referee during the first round against the Pacers).
For a while, it seemed that even Paul Pierce would never again play on a national stage.
The Celtics just got worse and, as they got worse, frustrations mounted. Almost as routine as the losses were leaked rumors about trading Pierce—and by 2006—even Pierce himself seemed to want out.
That’s when, in my mind, Paul Pierce fully became a Celtics’ legend.
The 2006-2007 season was a complete and unmitigated disaster. The entire season was a logistical train wreck and an emotional nightmare. Red Auerbach died. Dennis Johnson died. Pierce got injured. Tony Allen almost wrecked his career and the Celtics finished as the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
Then, just when it couldn’t get any worse, the basketball gods threw salt in the wound.
The Celtics entered the 2007 draft as odds on favorites for a top pick and, with Tommy Heinsohn representing the Celtics at the draft on TV, how could anything go wrong?
There was a less than 1% chance that the C’s would draft outside the top four picks in 2007, but what were the chances that Red and DJ would die the same year that the Celt’s would finish last in the conference?
It happened. The Celtics got the #5 pick, Tommy Heinsohn looked like he’d seen a the ghost of Red himself and, for the second time in my fandom of the Boston Celtics, I cried.
I wanted so much for Paul Pierce to get the help he needed. I knew it probably wouldn’t be enough to win a ring but it would make us relevant. Nobody would laugh at us anymore…but they were all laughing now.
For a split second, it looked like all was lost. It looked like the Celtics were officially done and would soon be transitioning from the second worst team in the league to the absolute worst.
It looked like the Celtics were cursed as a perpetually doomed franchise.
Maybe it was Larry Bird who cursed us…or the disenchanted Ricky Davis, upset that Danny Ainge never realized his full potential.
Curse or no curse, the reality was devastating.
The Celtics would be awful and if anything was going to convince Paul Pierce to leave Boston, it was the ’07 draft.
Rick Pitino’s words still rang true. Bill Russell wasn’t walking through that door. Larry Bird wasn’t walking through that door…but Paul Pierce still was.
But after the ’07 draft, the Celtics decided to control their own destiny. Paul Pierce got on the phone and convinced Ray Allen to waive his no-trade clause when Seattle opted to give their own unsung superstar a second musketeer.
The trio was completed when Kevin Garnett announced that he was coming to the sacred city. Somehow, someway, Paul convinced KG and Ray Allen to give Boston a shot; to give him a chance.
Pierce and the Boston Celtics won a championship the next year, dethroning the hated Los Angeles Lakers in 2008 to usurp the throne as the NBA’s best. Pierce walked out of the finals with an MVP award, proving that he, and he alone, was the league’s best.
I watched Game 6 in 2008 from a hookah bar in Western New York and–for my third time in my life as a Celtics fan–I cried.
As the Celtics dismantled the Lakers, I knew the importance of this moment to the franchise and I knew what it meant to Paul Pierce. In an era of big money and even bigger egos, Paul could have taken his talents to South Beach. He didn’t. He stayed here and he won here.
In my mind, that’s worth more than whatever happens in South Beach.
Paul Pierce wasn’t a politician, he was a fighter. He was committed to the game and he was a true Celtic. Paul Pierce was a winner.
Pierce won his championship and, if it wasn’t for a few minutes in LA, he would have won two. Who knows? If it wasn’t for a few minutes in Miami he might have won three.
After winning his ring in 2008, Paul Pierce was quoted as saying that he was happy because he “could finally look eye-to-eye with Celtic legends.”
You became a legend the moment you didn’t give up. You became a legend the moment you became a leader–and that was well before you won a ring.
Even if KG never decided to leave Minnesota and Ray Allen spent 2008 bombing 3’s alongside Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, you would still have been able to look eye to eye with the legends of old as a proud steward of the franchise that was once the greatest basketball powerhouse in the world.
Well before ‘The Big 3’ was even dreamed of, let alone assembled, Pierce represented everything that the legends of old stood for. Pierce represented toughness, Pierce represented dedication and–for 15 years–Pierce represented the name on the front of his jersey more than the name on the back.
I have never enjoyed watching anyone play basketball as much as I enjoyed watching Paul Pierce and it is with the heaviest of hearts that this Celtics fan says “goodbye.”
Thank you allowing us to be a part of your journey Paul. Whether you had won a ring or not, you were a Celtic legend…but thank you for the ring too.
Good luck and goodbye Paul. You will be missed.