Paul Pierce is a generational player. Not like Russell or Kareem or MJ, of course, but no less important to the thousands of fans who associate basketball with him.
I moved to Boston in 1999, like so many other Hub transplants for college. Despite all their successes, the Celtics have rarely, if ever, been the biggest team in Boston. In their Russell and Cousy hey day they still fell third behind the summer and winter New England mainstays of baseball and hockey. They may have briefly held the top spot in Bostonian hearts in the early 80’s before the Red Sox wrested it back into their grasp. By the time I arrived, they barely registered on the landscape.
For me, a Connecticut kid riding the wave of a first UConn national championship and the cresting of Pedro Martinez as the best pitcher in baseball history, the Celtics were an occasional distraction. Going to see the Celtics was what you could do if you didn’t have the money for a movie. You’re bored on a Tuesday night? Spend $0.85 on the Orange Line over to the home of the Bruins and you could pick up $5 upper deck seats out on Causeway to see the Celtics lose. It was warm and killed a few hours and they weren’t as bad as the season before, at least.
I’ve never been able to tell if I’m in Gen X or Gen Y or even a Millenial. What I do know, is that I’m the first year of the Paul Pierce generation. If you showed up in 1997 or 98 you wore an Antoine Walker jersey. If you showed up in 1999, it was Paul Pierce.
Paul was a different animal for Celtics fans. Antoine was a sideshow; a shoulder shimmying, three point shooting, point forward was not something we were equipped to understand. Ron Mercer was a grinder. Chauncey Billups a missed opportunity. Pierce was just a baller. He was the one who could go toe-to-toe with Kobe or Vince, T-Mac or Peja or Shawn Marion, and give you a show. He could drive and finish or hit the turnaround, and when Mike Gorman told you Antoine kicked it, you knew Paul would stick it.
Watching a young Paul Pierce was to know the restoration of sports hope. This was before Tom Brady and David Ortiz when Boston was the team everyone else would beat on the way to glory. Paul was just enough swagger and skill to make you believe that didn’t have to be the case forever. On your way back out into the January cold after another close loss, “that play” that you just saw Paul Pierce make was all you really wanted to talk about.
Of course, it was far from smooth sailing. The stabbing “incident” is well documented but for kids like me, returning to Boston from our summer break, it was a seminal moment in our Celtics fandom. Because sports talk is what it is, there was more than enough victim blaming to go around, but never in my circle of friends and fans. “Why was he even out a place where fights break out?” Because he’s 22. For a bunch of 19 year olds, ending up at a club where Paul Pierce goes was a dream. Paul Pierce goes out at night and sometimes sees a fight? Join the club. He gets stitched up and plays a week later? Well now he’s a legend. We didn’t want to hear any angry old jackasses on the radio tell us that Pierce wasn’t reliable. He was our Celtic.
That never really changed. He was the constant for my generation. Through the gray years of the early 2000’s where the Celtics were a medium sized fish in a very small pond, Paul was the draw. Through the rebuild and tank he was the touchstone. The one thing that we could hold on to, the one thing we were afraid to lose, the one person we thought deserved better.
When Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett arrived he finally got what he deserved. Still, Ray was too smooth for my generation who grew up with Paul’s grit. Kevin was an untouchable monolith. We all knew the was the greater player, and all heard that he was a great teammate, but he wasn’t exactly relatable. For those of us who saw the Patriots and Red Sox reach the peak of their respective sports and make Boston into a city of champions, Pierce was a connection to a different time when dread still hung over everything. When misfortune even laid the mighty Celtics low.
That Paul didn’t always deliver is, ultimately, part of what makes his legacy. Paul doesn’t sit above us all. He isn’t a civil right hero like Russell, the GOAT like Jordan, or a king like LeBron. He’s the Truth of sports and fandom. He missed a lot of potential game winners, but he was always there to take them. He got himself ejected and made a fool of himself, but sometimes 20-somethings mess up. It’s how you come back from it that defines you. He thought about leaving, but didn’t until the job was done.
I don’t have any grand proclamations to make here. Prior generations of Celtics fans had Russell, Havlicek, Cowens, and Bird. The generation coming up now will have Kyrie. What I can say is that Paul Pierce isn’t out of place in that list of greats. He’s the Celtic of my generation. He’s the player who collected all our hopes and dreams through a decade where Boston became the nexus of American sports, and then delivered on them all.
I’m a part of the Paul Pierce Generation, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Thank you Paul, for all that you gave to all of us.