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On Paul Pierce And Family

As Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett arrive back in town tomorrow night, it gives us a chance to reflect on two of the greatest Celtics in franchise history. 

This post originally ran on CelticsTown.com the week of the trade.

As rumors of the trade that sent Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn broke, I had kind of a selfish thought: “What am I going to do about my wedding cake topper?”

I was getting married in about four weeks, and my then-fiancee (now wife) — a very understanding person — ordered me a Paul Pierce cake topper, knowing that to keep me interested in the wedding proceedings, she needed to cater to my basketball needs. I was forced to debate whether or not I should keep the topper and risk the pangs at my reception, especially if someone who didn’t watch sports as much came up to me and asked “Hey, didn’t he get traded?” Violence might have ensued.

Sports get tied up in our lives in weird ways. If it wasn’t for basketball, I probably wouldn’t have a Twitter account. If I didn’t have a Twitter, there would be roughly 30 people who I interact with on a regular basis (and many, many more who I interact with less frequently) who I never would have met. Sports brought us together. It creates families.

But it’s not just fellow sports fans. We end up adopting the players into our families as well, even if sometimes that relationship is a little bit one-sided. You want to know why it hurt Cleveland so badly when LeBron James left? It was because he was rejecting their family. He told them, in essence, their family wasn’t good enough.

But sometimes, the relationship isn’t one-sided. Sometimes, the player adopts the fans into his family as well, if not individually, then as a collective. The fans support and uplift a player like a family would, supporting and cheering for him unconditionally while chiding his mistakes. In return, the player loves a city. It becomes symbiotic, and at its best (Duncan in San Antonio, Dirk in Dallas, and — of course — Pierce in Boston), it becomes the kind of relationship where a fan base actually appreciates the player’s importance to the city more than anything. More than wins, more than losses, more than future assets.

Paul Pierce was that kind of player. There was a reason no one can quite process the prospect of seeing him in another uniform — he started here, and it was pretty widely assumed that he would finish here after he inked his last deal. Many fans (and “fans” is the important distinction, since it’s GM Danny Ainge’s job to make the franchise better emotionlessly) cared more about Pierce than the Celtics in a lot of ways, wanting him to retire with the team because…well…he’s family.

So really, no one is wrong here. The fans should be engaged with and supportive of their superstars. The franchise should be looking to improve whenever possible. But sometimes, those visions clash, and when they do, it can make for an extremely bittersweet goodbye.

Boston fans have a tendency to romanticize players’ connections to the city, in part because of the long history of excellence within the franchise. But it’s not exaggerating to say Paul Pierce is one of the greatest Celtics in the team’s history. I know, intellectually, that the Celtics did extremely well in this trade. But family isn’t about being intellectual, and this trade is about family. How are we supposed to support a draft pick, at least right now? A draft pick is an asset, not a player. Hopefully, someday, that pick will become a player, and if that player becomes a Celtic (not a “Celtics player,” mind you, but a “Celtic” like Pierce), then he will join the family as well. It’s happened before. But that doesn’t make it any easier right now.

Fifteen years ago on draft night, my dad and I watched disbelieving as Pierce’s name slipped further and further down the draft chart, and we yelled, high-fived and celebrated when the Mavericks took Dirk Nowitzki, acting like we had just won a championship.

And, as it turned out, we had.

Thanks for everything, Paul. You are sorely missed.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

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