“They don’t love you like that… You thought you was Kobe?!”
It was late February last season and Paul Pierce’s career was in its final days. Like most nights, he hadn’t even played, when Draymond Green decided to call him out on the bench. Pierce spent most of his nights on the bench those days, legs too worn-out from 17 NBA seasons to make much of an impact on the court for the Clippers.
When Pierce announced prior to the season that his 18th season was going to be his last, he knew it was going to be more of a leadership role. His days of making nightly highlights were over.
That is, except for one day.
Just a couple weeks before Green called out Pierce, the Celtics’ second all-time scorer returned to the TD Garden for the final time. I was in the crowd that day, perched high in the balcony where I had watched Pierce play so many times before. I cheered when he was announced in the starting lineup. I tore up when they played his career highlights on the jumbotron. And I damn neared bawled like a baby when he hit his final shot at the Garden, a three in the final seconds that would have made somebody walking along Causeway Street think the Celtics had won the Finals, it was so loud after.
Maybe it was just because the experience was so fresh in my mind, but when Draymond Green mocked Pierce a couple weeks later, I can guarantee it stung me almost as much as it hurt him; partly because he’s right.
Paul Pierce isn’t Kobe Bryant. Paul Pierce isn’t an all-time great. He’s probably not even top-10 all-time at his position. Pierce won’t be one the first names people think of when they think of the NBA in the 2000’s.
But to me, and just about every Celtics fan that grew up watching Pierce play, we love him like that.
When the Celtics drafted Paul Pierce with the 10th pick in the 1998 draft, they were in one of the worst positions the franchise had ever been in. The Celtic’s mystique was dead. They hadn’t won a playoff series since 1992, Larry Bird’s last season, and they hadn’t been able to find a franchise player since.
Len Bias was supposed to be the player to take the reins from Bird but he overdosed on cocaine just two days after being drafted.
Then it was going to be Reggie Lewis. Lewis was an All-Star in 1992 but a heart attack in the summer of 1993 cut his life short at 27.
Next, it was going to be Tim Duncan. The Celtics tanked the 1996-’97 season to get him but the ping balls didn’t roll their way, the Spurs ended up drafting the future Hall-of-Famer and haven’t looked back since.
Enter Paul Pierce.
The Celtics were still a mess of a franchise but Pierce made them at least bearable to watch. As the Celtics wallowed in misery with terrible coaching (Rick Pitino) and shipped talent out of town (Chauncey Billups and Joe Johnson), Pierce kept fans coming to the Garden to watch him torture opponents with an array of offensive weapons that Jackie Chan could only dream about.
When Pierce was stabbed 11 times outside a Boston nightclub in 2000, it probably seemed like the Celtics franchise was ending because Pierce was the franchise at that point.
Instead, Pierce played in every single game the following season. Including a 112-107 victory over the Lakers in which Shaquille O’Neal famously dubbed him “The Truth.”
After being named team captain, Celtics broadcaster Mike Gorman recalls that Pierce immediately bought several books on leadership and would pour through them on team flights.
Pierce was always the one to lead the charge. It’s not his fault the Celtics never got very far. The front office was never able to put a team around him. Pierce was clutch, one of the best pure scorers in the league but just never able to get over the hump. The Celtics were a mockery, a shell of themselves. From 2003 to 2007, the Celtics won 44 percent of their games. Most nights there were more boos than cheers, but Pierce just kept producing.
Pierce’s loyalty was rewarded in 2007 when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined him in Boston as part of dual trades. When the Celtics captured the 2008 title and Pierce won Finals MVP, the casual NBA fan discovered what Celtics fans have known forever. Pierce is a cold-blooded killer and one of the most clutch players this game has ever seen.
My favorite Paul Pierce memory I’ve seen live was a regular season game against the New York Knicks in 2012. The Celtics were trailing by three and had the ball with the shot clock turned off. Rondo kicked it to Garnett at the top of the arc who handed the ball off to Pierce like a running back. Pierce went to pull up but Iman Shumpert was practically in his jersey. Pierce double pumped and took a spine-bending fade away. It was a broken play. No way it should have worked. So of course, Pierce’s shot rattles home and the Celtics go on to win.
It was quintessential Pierce. It was awkward looking. It shouldn’t have worked. But it somehow did. Because he’s The Truth.
The Celtics are going to retire Pierce’s number 34 this Sunday and I probably would have done it myself if the Celtics didn’t.
I owe it to him. I owe it to him after all the clutch shots and classic games I’ve either seen in person or I watched huddled in front of my TV when I should have been doing homework. I owe it to him because imitating his patented double pump fake jumper gave me something to do on countless summer days. I owe it to him because when I’m having a bad day I watch him raise the 2008 banner and I remind myself that it always can get better.
The casual NBA fan doesn’t love Paul Pierce. That’s fine. But Boston does. Celtics fans watched Pierce evolve from a bright-eyed kid out of Kansas to one of the games deadliest scorers. We watched him become a leader that wouldn’t give up even when he had all the reason too. We cried alongside him as a title washed away two decades of heartache and pain.
Paul Pierce is a reminder you can’t measure leadership, grit and heart.
Paul Pierce is a reminder that 11 stab wounds in the back mean nothing when ball is life.
Paul Pierce is a reminder that the bad times don’t last.
Thank you Paul.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.