Paul Pierce will see his number raised to the rafters of the TD Garden this Sunday, the 22nd player in Celtics history to earn such an honor. This will be the first such celebration since Cedric Maxwell’s number 31 was hallowed in 2003.
Pierce’s legacy is hard to overstate, even for a franchise as storied as Boston. For years he was a lone bright spot for a team down on its luck, only to become an NBA champion. Even today, he lives on in Jaylen Brown, Kyrie Irving, and Jayson Tatum.
These three pillars maintain the structure of Pierce’s legacy. As all of Boston takes a moment to give thanks to Paul, let’s revisit just what he offered the Celtics organization.
To understand the first part of Paul Pierce’s immense Celtic career, one must consider the tumultuous stretch the team faced in the 90s and early 2000s. Boston was the standard-bearer of the NBA for decades, but as the Larry Bird era came to a close, the franchise faced a cross-road.
The untimely deaths of Len Bias and later Reggie Lewis upended whatever next chapter was meant to unfold. The Celtics were a team without an obvious future. Rick Pitino, who coached the team from 1997-2001, put it best. Here’s what he famously said in 2000, two years after Pierce was drafted.
“Larry Bird is not walking. through that door Kevin McHale is not walking through that door. Robert Parish is not walking through that door And if you expect them to walk through the door, they’re going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hard-working, and we’re going to improve.”
All of that is to say Pierce wasn’t seen as the savior of the franchise in the early years. the 10th overall pick in 1998, he was an effective and exciting starter. But the second coming of Celtics past he was not.
Despite everything, Pierce lead Boston to the postseason in 2002, the team’s first playoff run in seven seasons. On to the Eastern Conference Finals the Celtics went, where Pierce famously scored 19 points in the final 12 minutes of Game 3 to erase a 21-point gap against the then New Jersey Nets. Boston would not advance to the Finals, but we learned that perhaps Paul was something special.
The franchise would continue to struggle in the early 2000’s, despite Pierce’s emerging stardom. He was a perennial All-Star, but closer to home, he meant something more. The proud Celtics had a hard-working, bonafide star, who, despite everything, stood as a beacon of pride. Boston sports fans are reliable and loyal, but losing can take its toll. I think Paul deserves a big chunk of credit for the relatively high attendance numbers below.
In an era of abject misery for a the league’s preeminent club, Pierce stood tall. Early in his career, Paul endured several new coaches as well as changes in team management. The team even flirted with trading him in 2005.
Still, Pierce maintained. I think that’s a special part of his legacy with the Celtics. Before the clarity and success of the Big Three era, the Celtics were marred with controversy and turbulence. There were moments of frustration, but given the drama we’ve seen with other NBA franchises, I think Pierce brought professionalism and stability to Boston in a time when it needed it most.
Being the face of the Boston Celtics is an important role in sports, but to have your number hung in the rafters alongside Bird or Bill Russell requires something more. Danny Ainge deserves tremendous credit for putting together the Big Three, but it was Pierce that made it successful.
Paul had been in Boston for nine seasons prior to the 2007-08 season, and the Celtics were decidedly his team. Sharing the spotlight, especially with a personality as big as Kevin Garnett, wasn’t guaranteed to succeed. And while KG was the emotional heart and soul of the revamped C’s, it was Pierce, the captain, that steered the ship.
Even from an Xs and Os perspective, such a radical change brought on question marks. Pierce responded in kind. He attempted just 13.7 field goals per game that first season, his lowest total since his rookie year on 46.4 percent from the field, his second highest mark as a pro.
What Pierce did that season and beyond, however, is so much bigger than making nice with new teammates or playing slightly more efficient basketball. Because down the stretch, he was simply spectacular. His performance in the Eastern Conference Semis alone bespeaks Paul’s status as a Celtics legend.
Pierce was nothing short of a hero for the Celticshttps://t.co/PKYaaRymp3
— Cameron Tabatabaie (@CTabatabaie) February 8, 2018
Boston would go on to win the 2008 NBA championship, and Pierce was deservedly named Finals MVP. This honor makes real the second leg of Pierce’s Celtics legacy. He was a consumate champion, without a shadow of a doubt. And although Boston would fail to raise another banner in the years that followed, Paul had brought the organization back to its former glory and esteem. The Celtics still hold the claim as the premier club in the NBA, and Pierce was an irreplaceable part of advancing that status.
Pierce’s living legacy
Boston would eventually trade Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn as the Big Three aged past its prime. That Pierce would agree to such a trade underscores how much he cares about the Celtics organization.
In the years that have followed, Boston has used the now famous Nets picks to reel in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kyrie Irving. It’s not often that a star can give so much to their team on his way out the door, but Pierce has his fingerprints all over this new crop of Celtics.
This extends beyond the transaction itself. No doubt Boston’s young core will be moved by Pierce’s ceremony this Sunday. Already Pierce has made an impact on young Jayson Tatum. Though his favorite player growing up was Kobe, it was Pierce’s game that meant the most to the future NBA player. Here’s what he told Pierce a few weeks ago:
“It started when I was younger because all I used to want to do was shoot fadeaways like Kobe. He was my favorite player. But my dad was always like, ‘Listen, you need to watch The Truth. Paul Pierce. He’s athletic but he’s not the most athletic guy, and he still found a way to get his shot up every time.’ He was like, ’That’s what you are. You have size and footwork.’ I started watching you, and I was like, yeah, I see that.”
What happens next for this young Celtics team is unclear. But even Kyrie Irving is just 25 years old. When they ponder their place among the Celtics greats, and who they may become with this historic franchise, they won’t remember staying up late to watch Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. They won’t remember stories about Havlicek, or Cousey, or Heinsohn, or Jones. They’ll remember Garnett and Allen beating L.A.
They’ll remember Paul Pierce.
Pierce’s number deserves to be in the rafters in Boston. He kept the team afloat amid it’s darkest chapters. He lead it past the hated Lakers en route to a hard-fought 17th championship. He embodies what it means to be a Celtic for this current generation and the one after that. Paul Pierce is the Truth, and now and forever after, he is a Boston Celtic.
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