HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Take a good look at Paul Pierce right now, the day after he etched his name in Celtics’ lore forever by surpassing Larry Bird for the No. 2 spot on the storied franchise’s all-time scoring list.
He’s a rarity in this day and age, a player that has toiled for the same franchise since the day he was drafted and endured all the ups and down anyone’s career could stand and is still thriving 14 years deep into what could very well end up being a Hall of Fame career.
There’s no question Pierce will see his No. 34 hanging from the rafters alongside the numbers of Bird, the game’s greatest winner ever Bill Russell, the franchise’s No. 1 all-time scorer John Havlicek, Kevin McHale, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and so many others. How he got there, however, will be even more compelling than the final destination.
Pierce is a case study for any player wondering how to redefine a legacy.
I remember his early days in Boston, when he and Antoine Walker formed a potent 1-2 punch for a feisty Celtics team that made plenty of noise in the Eastern Conference and even made the conference finals in 2002. But at the time neither Pierce nor Walker was viewed by the masses as the sort of player capable of leading a team to championship glory.
He endured all of the criticism that came when the franchise fell on hard times, when they dropped from the playoff scene to the lottery, when Walker departed and it was Pierce and locker room full of youngsters who couldn’t find their way out of the bottom of the standings with GPS.
When the franchise fell on hard times and Pierce had chance to escape via free agency, he stayed the course. He was loyal in a day and age when loyalty is strictly a seven-letter word in the NBA (and that goes both ways, for players and franchises).
His loyalty was rewarded with the arrival of both Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett and the formation of the Big Three. That loyalty was rewarded with that magical run to The Finals in that first season together, Pierce’s classic duel with the Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise he grew up rooting for as a schoolboy star in Inglewood, Calif., and The Finals MVP trophy he earned during that journey. That same loyalty is the one quality that Celtics coach Doc Rivers insists Pierce never gets enough credit for, as Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com made clear after Pierce reached his latest milestone:
“Paul had a chance to leave us when we were bad,” Rivers said. “And instead of moaning that he wanted to go to a championship team, he stayed. And he said, ‘I simply want to be a Celtic and I trust that we’re going to win a title someday.’ He had no reason to believe that at that time. I mean, we were pretty awful.
“To me, I wish people talked about his loyalty more because I think that’s special, especially in this day and time when everybody’s jumping from team to team. And that’s their right too; I don’t begrudge that with anybody. But I do think it’s special that Paul Pierce decided that he wanted to be a Celtic for his life. And I think that’s pretty cool. In this day and time, in any sport, I think that’s special.”
Pierce watched the team endure a franchise-worst 18-game losing streak during the 2006-07 campaign, just months before the Big Three was united the following offseason and set into motion the team capturing its 17th world title. But he said he always had faith he could help restore the glory days in Boston.
I had the opportunity to witness the start and finish of that ugly, franchise-worst 18-game losing streak the Celtics experienced that season. It was brutal to see up close, even for a writer from out of town who just happened to eyeball the carnage because of the way the schedule dropped.
It would have been easy for anyone with Pierce’s years of service to throw his hands up and say he’d had enough. But, to his credit, he didn’t do that. He’s had the sort of run with one franchise that even fans from other teams have to admit is impressive. And for that and all that he’s done in his career, Pierce deserves his due today.