For all the grief Celtics fans give Rick Pitino for a disastrous tenure in Boston and his quotable reminder that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish would not be walking through the door, thanks to him, one man did.
The former Kansas standout and future NBA Hall of Famer was a projected top five pick in the 1998 draft but on June 24 of that year, the man who has given us countless memories slipped to number 10. In time, it would become clear to those who passed on him for the likes of Michael Olowokandi, Raef LaFrentz, or Robert Traylor, among others, that he’s far more than a top 10 player in that draft – he’s a top 10 player in the history of the league’s most storied franchise.
With Thursday evening’s news that Pierce and fellow all-time great Kevin Garnett, along with Jason Terry and his Lucky tattoo, had been dealt to Atlantic Division rival Brooklyn in exchange for five players and three future first-round picks – a deal that cannot become official until July 10 – that closed the book on a 15-year chapter in Celtics history that simultaneously featured some of the organization’s finest and lowest moments.
Before recalling some of those tales, it’s tough to first think what may have been.
On September 25, 2000, Pierce was stabbed 11 times in the face, neck, and back, and also had a bottle broken over his head while out at a nightclub in Boston. Just as basketball is a game of inches, so too was the star guard’s life from potentially ending. It was then that he could have joined Reggie Lewis and Len Bias as tragic stories of wonder. Instead, he did not miss a single one of his team’s 82 games when the season started five weeks later. At that time, we began getting to know the mental toughness inside Paul Pierce.
Remember Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals against, coincidentally, his new organization? Pierce rallied the Celtics to victory from down 21 points in the fourth quarter. In that 41-point stanza, the eternally clutch scorer accounted for 21.
Or, how about Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when The Truth went toe-to-toe with LeBron James? His 41 points were shy of the King’s 45 but, more important, the C’s prevailed over the Cavaliers en route to Pierce’s biggest stage yet.
The 10-time All-Star and 4-time All-NBA selection, armed with a remodeled nucleus of stars, led the Celtics to their first championship in 22 years with a convincing series win over their arch-nemesis and his hometown team, the Lakers. Pierce was the Finals MVP, and he’ll forever be remembered for being carried off the court in serious pain in the third quarter of Game 1, before emerging from the tunnel minutes later and sparking a run that won Boston the game.
That success was a far cry from the 18-game losing streak he endured only one season earlier, when the loyal but frustrated captain was interested in leaving the Celtics if they didn’t put some quality pieces around him.
One of those pieces, more significant than any other, was Kevin Garnett.
Following 12 years in Minnesota, on July 31, 2007, a hesitant 31-year-old KG was traded to Boston in exchange for rising star Al Jefferson and several corresponding pieces. Like Pierce – then 30 years young – he was an aging superstar who had achieved everything there was to attain short of the ultimate prize. Along with Ray Allen, imported from Seattle, the trio formed the city’s “New Big 3” and Garnett made the shamrock his personal emblem from the second he landed in town.
KG’s off-court humor and candor with the media coupled with his on-court intensity that could be mistaken for insanity transformed a culture desperate for change. In practices, games, and even in life, he quickly became the Celtics’ emotional leader.
He had his quirks, sure, like banging his head against the stanchion before each game, or his apparent unwillingness to begin playing before receiving acknowledgement from each of the referees on the floor. There was the chest-pounding and that scoreboard-scream that could scare small children. Who could forget his love for Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” or how quickly his eyes went to the jumbotron when it was Gino Time? And, he never hesitated to make us smile, like when he hummed the Superman theme during a press conference, or reminded us that “anything is possible.”
But, on the court, that’s where the five-time Celtics All-Star and 2008 NBA Defensive Player of the Year was in his element. When he had to score, he did. When he had to rebound, he did. When The Big Ticket had to make a defensive stop, you can bet he did that too. If not for significant knee injuries in two of his six seasons in Boston, who knows if that lone Larry O’Brien Trophy would have company? As it was, the Celts were five points from a second ring in 2010.
It was supposed to be a three-year window for Pierce, Garnett, and Allen, but the belief that they had more to give stretched it to five. The beginning of the end came one year ago when Allen unceremoniously accepted less money for a chance to win – and he did – in Miami, and that was followed earlier this week when head coach Doc Rivers took similar flak on the way out the door.
At that point, and maybe it was the plan all along, Danny Ainge had little recourse but to make good on the promise few of us ever thought he’d keep: Just as he said Red Auerbach should have done, he pulled the plug before his stars got too old.
Sometimes, though, the right decisions are the toughest to make. With Pierce and Garnett back next season, plus a healthy Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green, and Avery Bradley, even a mystery coach could likely have guided the Celtics to the playoffs, a team too good to lose badly and too bad to win it all. That's NBA purgatory, and it’s the last place a franchise wants to be. The only way out may be to start over.
After six tremendously entertaining seasons, that process is in full swing with Rondo – the only holdover from the 2008 title team – as its centerpiece. In order to rebuild, a team needs assets to flip, a bit of luck and, potentially, a brief period of mediocrity. The Celtics have nine first-round picks over the next five drafts. Ainge has drafted well since arriving in Boston in 2003, selecting stars and serviceable players alike, such as Rondo, Green, Bradley, Jefferson, Tony Allen, Delonte West, and Leon Powe. Several others were involved in deals that gifted the C’s Garnett, Allen, and Kendrick Perkins. It may have been a blessing when the ping pong balls went awry in 2007, but it’s a big question what the future holds this time. Young draftees Kelly Olynyk and Colton Iverson became the first of the new faces for the coach-less crew on Thursday and, rest assured, Trader Danny’s not done dealing yet.
Garnett – no doubt with some disappointment – had to waive his no-trade clause to make this move work. But the man who claimed a few months ago to bleed green while expressing a desire to retire with the Celtics did so, both for his own future and that of the team that made him whole.
Pierce never expected to land in Boston when he was selected on that night in 1998. Now, he leaves the franchise as its second-leading scorer with 24,021 points – 2,374 behind John Havlicek – he ranks second in games played at 1,102, and he’s also first in both 3-point field goals made (1,823) and steals (1,583), and fourth in assists (4,305). For the first time, he’ll also wear another uniform. It’s a gut-punch to the nostalgic but a necessary evil for the future.
Eventually, Pierce will return to Boston to retire, though the act will feature nothing more than a signature on a piece of paper. Maybe Garnett will do the same. Either way, they will both ultimately raise their numbers to the rafters as two of the best to ever don the Celtic green, and they'll be sorely missed.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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