I had just completed my freshman year of high school when Paul Pierce was drafted by the Boston Celtics.
Even then, I remember wondering how he had fallen to No. 10 in the star-studded 1998 NBA Draft, one spot after Dirk Nowitzki, but two spots after Larry Hughes and four after Robert Traylor.
“Inside, my body cringed,” Pierce, a Lakers fan from Inglewood, California, said at the time of being selected by Boston.
He was a Laker at heart. Now his soul belongs to Boston.
Reggie Lewis was supposed to be the Celtics superstar I grew up with. Once that was, tragically, no longer a reality, I suffered through rock-and-a-hard-place jersey decisions: Montross or Radja? Anderson or Fox?
By February 1999, when Pierce debuted, Antoine Walker was already an All-Star and Pierce would become his running mate. This was long enough ago Dunkin Donuts was advertising its latest menu addition, bagels, and Fleet Bank was still a thing.
Pierce and Walker, playing a 3-point heavy Jim O’Brien style light-years ahead of its time, improbably shot their way into the Eastern Conference Finals, taking a 2-1 lead but eventually losing to the Nets in six. For a kid who was 3 years old during the last championship in 1986, and four during the last finals appearance in 1987, it was the highlight of my Celtics lifetime up to that point.
From high school, through college, through my first six years as a young journalist, spent in Wyoming and Minnesota, there were few constants in life. As Benjamin Franklin meant to put it, there was death, taxes and Paul Pierce suiting up for the Celtics.
On Sunday afternoon, Pierce returned to TD Garden as they raised his No. 34 into the rafters, the first retired Celtics jersey in 15 years, since Cedric Maxwell in 2003. In many ways, that was apropos, as Pierce spanned generations, serving as the bridge between a franchise still reeling from the loss of Lewis into one reborn as The Big Three under general managers Danny Ainge’s guidance, then birthed again into its current incarnation.
Of the three iterations of the Celtics to reach the Eastern Conference Finals in my lifetime, he had a hand in each. The first came alongside ‘Toine, who was in attendance on Sunday in an ill-fitting white shirt whose buttons were holding on for dear life, the second as part of the Big Three era (when Pierce won NBA Finals MVP honors), and the third came last season involving Jaylen Brown, one of the draft picks acquired from the Nets when Pierce was shipped out of town in 2013.
Pierce’s game has always been a conundrum. He looks slow. Soft even. He never had the sinewy body of Kobe Bryant or the ripped physique of LeBron James. Undefined muscles and all, though, he would writhe and wiggle and pump-fake and stutter-step his way to his spots on the floor, especially at the elbow, where his fade-away was one of the most unstoppable shots in the game. His played with the rhythm of a 2-year old in front of a drum set. In a game of Formula 1 cars, he was a sedan, consistent and comfortable and you were happy to drive it for 15 years.
“He seems slow…but is quick,” Mickael Pietrus once said.
Pierce’s rise to the NBA didn’t come out of nowhere. He scored 28 points in the McDonald’s All-American game, although he lost out on MVP honors to Kevin Garnett. The two were later detained at Circus Circus in Las Vegas for trying to skip out on cab fare. Apparently, two NBA-ready teenagers had trouble hiding, even in a bustling casino.
After three years at Kansas he was supposed to be a top three pick in the 1998 draft. He was so far off the Celtics’ radar, they didn’t work him out or acquire his medical paperwork. Instead, general manager Chris Wallace and the Boston brass had their eyes on Nowitzki, but when Hughes went eighth, the Celtics realized they had a pretty good Plan B when Nowitzki went at No. 9.
In his NBA debut on Feb. 5, 1999, Pierce played 34 minutes and finished with 19 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and four blocks, with just one turnover.
A legend was born, yet none of us knew it.
I remember a sense of fear when I heard about the ugly incident at the Buzz Club, when Pierce was stabbed 11 times on the eve of training camp, reportedly for simply talking to the wrong women. Would he survive? Would he play again? If he did, would he ever be the same?
He laid all those worries to rest just a few weeks later, scoring 28 points in the season opener and going on to play all 82 games while averaging better than 25 points a game, earning him his first All-Star berth.
“If you used one word to describe Paul, I would use ‘clutch,’” Doc said during the postgame ceremony on Sunday.
It was one night in 2003, after a playoff game against the Pacers in which Pierce dropped 40 points, when legendary Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan first claimed that the then-26 year-old Pierce was “the greatest individual scoring machine in Celtics history.” At the time, it felt blasphemous. But he was right.
Bird may have been a more complete player. Russell won more championships and anchored defenses better. Havlicek may have scored more total points. But nobody could score at will like Pierce, who finished his time in Boston as the franchise’s second all-time leading scorer.
Then came some lean years. In 2007 there was an 18-game losing streak. It seemed he was destined to be traded, a superstar entering his 30s on a losing team. Then Ainge traded the No. 5 pick (Jeff Green) to Seattle for Ray Allen. Soon after, Kevin Garnett was acquired in a blockbuster deal.
A championship followed, one that solidified Pierce’s status among the all-time green-and-white greats.
On Sunday, when tickets reportedly cost more than any game at TD Garden since the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, Pierce got a little mushy during the maudlin ceremony, which featured video tributes from NBA luminaries such as Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Garnett and Russell, plus speeches from Rivers, Ainge, Wyc Grousbeck and Mike Gorman. During timeouts there were montages covering his years in high school in Inglewood, playing for Roy Williams at Kansas and his work in the community.
Then, after an ugly loss to a new-look Cavaliers team, Celtics luminaries from years past gathered on the court in a darkened arena as The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” played. Garnett and Rajon Rondo, who sat courtside with Doc Rivers during the game, were joined by Maxwell, Robert Parish and Satch Sanders, all of whose numbers hang in those storied rafters.
Finally, after a chant of “We want Paul Pierce,” the piano notes of Skylar Gray’s “I’m Coming Home” twinkled over the PA system and Pierce strode out from the player’s tunnel, now named for him.
After more speeches and memories, heartfelt offerings all of them, the banner now sporting Pierce’s No. 34 was lifted to the roof as Andra Day’s “I Rise Up” played to an enraptured arena. A club with 22 members suddenly has 23. There are no numbers left to be worn between 31 and 35.
That Paul Pierce became the first Celtics player in 15 years to have his number retired was altogether fitting.
He bridged eras. Spanned generations. Filled a void and vanquished a 22-year title drought. He did it all with a disarming smile, a flair for the dramatic (I nearly managed to go this entire column without mentioning the wheelchair) and a lifelong desire for greatness.
“Be the best you, no matter your position in life,” he said.
Stories are recounted of his 5:30 a.m. workouts, or showing up at two-and-a-half hours early for 11 a.m. practices. He would chant the names of the teams that passed him over the in the draft as he put up thousands of shots.
More than that, after all those days staring up at those star-studded rafters, he wanted to be remembered as an all-time great.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done for the Celtics,” Ainge told him.
“You’re a Celtic,” Rivers added, “and you’re a champion.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Follow Brendan Kurie on Twitter @BrendanKurieSCT