Tuesday, July 16, 2024

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Paul Pierce Adds Own Hall Of Fame Chapter To Celtics Lore

Paul Pierce spent 15 seasons in Boston and led the Celtics their 17th NBA championship in 2008.

As the road to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame played out for Paul Pierce over the past nine or 10 months — from nominee, to finalist to actual, first-ballot inductee — he repeatedly referred to it as the ultimate honor for an NBA player. “That’s the end of your book right there,” Pierce would say. “That’s the final chapter.”

And that’s fine, since it’s his enshrinement and he’s allowed to catalog it however he chooses.

But for a lot of fans, most notably those at the former Fleet Center (now TD Garden) who variously screamed at and for Pierce during his 15 seasons with the Boston Celtics, his big night in Springfield probably will not outrank what happened during all those years 90 miles to the northeast. That road culminated when Pierce’s jersey number 34 was raised to the rafters in February, 2018.

“I was thinking about the last time I pulled ropes up there, I was tearing up crying and I was trying not to cry,” Pierce said after the ceremony. “When we raised the [2008] championship banner, that’s when it all came out. It came out bad that day.

“I was just trying to hold it together [this time], and I just knew that when I first saw the banner lift and I saw it straight and I saw my number. There it was, like, man, all the years I walked into the gym everyday, I looked up and I saw empty spots and I saw all the other jersey numbers. Now I’m on there and that’s forever. It’s just like, ‘Wow, I’m there,’ and now I can say that’s the finish. I left a legacy.”

Pierce will have Celtics company on enshrinement night, starting with Kevin Garnett, who will stand by his side as Pierce’s chosen Hall of Fame presenter. Ray Allen, the third and still estranged of their Big Three, will fill that role alongside Chris Bosh.

Legendary Bill Russell, a Hall member since 1975, will be inducted this time as a coach in recognition of his role as the NBA’s first Black coach and Boston’s two rings under him in 1968 and 1969. And longtime play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman will be honored with the 2021 Curt Gowdy Media Award.

Other teams have alumni; the Celtics have a pantheon. More importantly, reaching the Hall of Fame does not compare to the significance of gaining admittance to that special fraternity representing the NBA’s most storied franchise.

“In basketball, I don’t think there’s any other place you could choose where you would want your number retired,” former Celtics coach Doc Rivers said on Pierce’s jersey retirement day. “It would be with Boston.”

“When you’re in the practice facility, you see the numbers every day. It means something. Before I got here, I didn’t realize it. You always hear about the Celtics lore, but you didn’t get it if you weren’t in it.”

Pierce is just one of 22 Boston players whose uniform number has been retired.

Within that, there’s a tiny subset behind the ultimate red-velvet rope: Greatest Celtic players ever. That list, if defined by an all-time starting five, arguably has Pierce on it too.

No better authority than Bob Ryan, the Boston Globe’s longtime NBA writer and columnist, makes that assessment. If you start with Russell at center, add Bob Cousy at point guard and go with Larry Bird and John Havlicek on the wing, Ryan maintains, Pierce is most deserving of that fifth spot.

There even is one category in which Pierce vaults above the rest.

“They’ve never had a guy in this town who was such a consummate all-around scorer,” Ryan said in a 2013 interview. “They say, ‘What about Havlicek? What about Bird?’ Well, John was a run-around-without-the-ball guy, he wasn’t a 1-on-1 guy. And Larry, there were circumstances when he could be guarded or instances when he wasn’t able to get his own shot and needed help.

“The great thing about Pierce is, he could always get his own shot. And ‘his own shot’ meant that he could pull up and take a three, he had that great mid-range jumper, had that beautiful step-back when he cleared space. He could post up. Tremendous driver, ambidextrous driver, great finisher. And he gets to the line and he’s a pretty good free throw shooter. We’ve never had a more consummate all-around scorer.”

Statistically, Pierce ranks among his team’s best. He is the Celtics’ all-time leader in 3-point field goals, free throws and steals. He ranks second in points and shot attempts, third in overall buckets made, games and minutes played. Fourth in blocks (a post-1973 stat that neglects Russell), fifth in assists.

The 6-foot-7 native of Oakland, Calif. who grew up in the Inglewood section of Los Angeles was a 10-time All-Star and a four-time All-NBA pick with Boston. He methodically, eventually, pulled many of the league’s individual chips to his side of the table.

“When you come into the game, you work as hard as you can and at the end of your career, you see what the results are,” Pierce said. “Clearly I worked hard enough to be in this position.”

All the above underplays Pierce’s greatest achievement, though. His long, arduous climb up that Celtics ladder came not by racking up numbers, but by shouldering the expectations that fall on any Boston star. Dave Cowens took the baton after Russell left and the 1960s dynasty ended. Bird followed suit, and after he and McHale were done, it would eventually fall to Pierce to carry the torch.

That’s why his journey is so much more than this weekend’s destination.

“[Philadelphia] had the eighth pick in the draft when he came out and I told our guys, whoever we have on the board, if Pierce is available, we have to take him,” Larry Brown said.

The oft-traveled Brown, a Hall of Fame coach for his work in both the NBA and college, had won an NCAA championship in 1988, the last of his five seasons at Kansas. He knew all about Pierce and his three Jayhawks seasons as the 1998 Draft approached.

If Brown’s statement to the other execs and coaches in the 76ers organization had held that spring, Pierce and Boston would have an entirely different story.

“Well, I had promised somebody else [Larry Hughes of St. Louis University]) that we’d take him if he came out,” Brown, who served as the Sixers’ coach and GM that year, said. “So when it got to be the seventh pick, Pierce’s name was still there. He was the highest player we had rated, by far. Everybody got together and said, ‘Coach, you said we have to take the best player.’ But we took the other kid and Pierce went 10th to Boston.”

After No. 1 pick Michael Olowokandi, after KU teammate Raef LaFrentz, after Robert Traylor, Jason Williams and Hughes, to name five. Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki heard their names before Pierce, too, giving him further motivation individually.

But the team challenge was bigger than that.

The Celtics had missed the playoffs in four of five seasons before Pierce’s rookie season and had not won a series since Bird retired in 1992. They were 108 games under .500 since McHale exited in 1993.

Pierce joined a team — late, after the 1998 labor lockout — built around Kenny Anderson, Ron Mercer, Vitaly Potapenko and Antoine Walker. That crew went 19-31 in the shorted season, and 12 games under .500 again (35-47) in 1999-00.

In September 2000, Pierce was stabbed 11 times in the neck, face and back at a nightclub in Boston’s Theater District, with one of the wounds puncturing a lung and coming within a half-inch of his heart. Surgeons at the Tufts New England Medical Center, according to multiple local reports, amazingly saved the then-22-year-old’s life.

After four days in the hospital, Pierce checked out and went on to play all 82 games during 2000-01, which started about a month later, and had his best season to that point (25.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 3.1 apg). About the best thing to come out of it, though, was a nickname, “The Truth,” bestowed upon him by an impressed Shaquille O’Neal after a big performance against the Los Angeles Lakers, in which Pierce poured in 42 points. He began a string of five consecutive All-Star appearances a year later in 2001-02.

Walker also was an All-Star in 2002 and 2003, but that was about all the Celtics had: Pierce and Walker taking turns with the basketball, divvying up about 40 shots each night and stalling out in the playoffs.

In Pierce’s first nine season in Boston, Walker’s two All-Star berths were it — no other teammate made it to the All-Star Game, never mind any All-NBA honors. Walker got traded before the 2003-04 season and back the Celtics slid to two first-round ousters followed by two seasons in the lottery.

Things got so dismal that when the Minnesota Timberwolves and their star Garnett (a friend of Pierce since their AAU basketball days) played a game against Boston in March 2007, it was clear the Celtics scoring star needed and wanted help. That day, reporters talked to Pierce before the game about hooking up with Garnett in one town or the other, then asked Garnett about the same thing afterward. Little did they know …

On July 6, 2007, Celtics GM Danny Ainge traded for Allen. On July 31, swayed by that move, Garnett assented to be traded from his beloved Wolves to form a new Big Three in Boston. The results were instantaneous. The Celtics won 29 of their first 32 games, finished 66-16 and ground through Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit and the Lakers to snag the franchise’s 17th championship.

Pierce, Garnett and Allen all were on the far side of 30 when they finally won in 2008. Their division of labor – Pierce as scorer, Allen as shooter, Garnett overseeing defense – and leadership was impeccable. After averaging 21.8 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 rebounds in the championship series, Pierce was named Finals MVP. And yet, he achieved something even greater that night.

“It means everything,” Pierce said after delivering Boston’s first title in 22 years. “I’m not living under the shadows of the other greats now. I’m able to make my own history with my time here, and this is something that I wanted to do. If I was going to be one of the best Celtics to ever play, I had to put up a banner.”

That crew might have won again in 2009, except Garnett got hurt in February and missed the postseason. In 2010, the Celtics made it all the way to Game 7 of The Finals before losing to the Lakers. Allen left in 2012, joining the arch-rival Heat, and after a dip to 41-39 in 2012-13, Ainge went for the rebuild.

He traded Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn for a season they both disliked. Pierce then spent a year in Washington before playing mostly off the bench in 93 games with the LA Clippers before retiring as a Celtic with a one-day ceremonial contract in July 2017.

As an individual player, Pierce’s reputation is secure. He was a versatile and persistent scorer, using his size and strength to get to his spots on the floor and doing it at his pace. His jump shots almost always eluded the reaching fingertips of his defender, and on his 3-pointers, Pierce often looked as if he were peaking over fence as he launched.

“He had an unbelievable feel for the game,” Brown said last week. “He was a great shooter. He could finish around the rim. He could stretch you out. I think he was an underrated passer as well.

“Carmelo [Anthony] to me is a lot like Paul. Maybe Carmelo posts up a little more than Paul, but Boston used to run a special post play for Paul that everybody calls ‘Pierce’ now. We’re even running a play at Memphis that we call ‘Pierce.’”

Brown then distilled Pierce’s excellence. “To me, he was somebody who never was afraid to take the big shot,” he said. “The special ones, they’re going to take the big shots and handle the responsibility. To me, he was as good a player in a crucial situation as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Said Pierce: “You can’t be afraid of the moment. You can’t be afraid to fail. I missed more game-winners than I made, but there were times when I missed, the thing I always told my teammates was, ‘I’ll make the next one.’ I showed that confidence. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, they won’t either.”

Pierce is proud of the time and effort he put in, sacrifices that he only recently has fully grasped. “To get to that point, you really have to have almost no life,” he said on ESPN as the Hall of Fame election played out. “For many years I had fun here and there, but it was mostly business and I’m happy [I did that].”

Happier still to earn his among the Celtics legends and to pay off for fans who came to love his game and him, even when he came back in visitors’ uniforms. So many will make the drive over to Springfield, un-retiring those replica jerseys.

“When I’m long gone and away,” Pierce said, “I always say it like, ‘Look, the Hall of Fame is forever. Having my number hung up in the Boston Garden is forever.’”

Ain’t that The Truth.

* * *

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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