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Dan Shaughnessy

Pierce now belongs with the greatest

Statistically, Paul Pierce always has ranked up there. But the NBA title trophy has hoisted him into the Celtics' pantheon. Statistically, Paul Pierce always has ranked up there. But the NBA title trophy has hoisted him into the Celtics' pantheon. (Winslow Townson/Associated Press)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / October 31, 2008
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It was the night black high-tops walked with hip-hop. It was the night Paul Pierce finally joined the club.

There was great symmetry in the ring/banner-raising ceremony Wednesday night at the New Garden. Following the steps of trophy-wielding John Havlicek, Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn strode across the parquet floorboards they made famous when all this first happened in 1957.

Cooz, Heinsohn, and Hondo were there to connect Pierce and friends to the old generation of Celtic greatness. The trophy, the rings, the banner, and the presence of the old men signified that Pierce now belongs. An incomplete player no more, Pierce becomes part of the discussion every time we assemble our imaginary, one-game-for-the-ages, ultimate Celtics team.

Small wonder Pierce cried. And cried. Then cried some more. He cried me a Doc Rivers.

It was relief and recognition for the captain. After 10 years, 732 games, 16,945 points, and 1 playoff MVP award, Pierce finally joined the club. He was allowed to pass through the green gates of Celtic Heaven.

His résumé was incomplete until the championship was won. Sure, Pierce ranked in the franchise's top 10 in games, minutes, field goals made, shots attempted, free throws made, points, and assists. His 23.1-points-per-game average put him second all time behind Larry Bird.

But he was never in the discussion of All-Time Celtic Greats because there was not enough winning and there were too many bonehead moves. Pierce was often immature. He lost his composure. He sometimes put self ahead of team. There was the weird night he put the bandage on his head in Indiana. There was the unfortunate quote about being a great player on a bad team. There was the rift with Rivers and obvious pout. There was the diss by international basketball and his well-earned reputation as a spoiled scorer. Even at the beginning of the 2008 playoffs, the old stuff dogged Pierce when he was fined for flashing a gang sign.

It all went away in the Finals. Pierce did what Russell and Bird and Hondo and the Cooz did. He willed his team to a championship. He was the best player on the court in a series that included Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. He played ferocious defense. He won a championship, and when he said he was the best player in the world, nobody blinked.

So now he's in the discussion. Best Celtics Starting Five of All Time. Top Celtics team of all time. It's a popular parlor game whenever two or more Celtics fans gather around a table of green beer. The estimable Bob Ryan (wish he wasn't so shy on TV) remembers conducting a Globe reader poll on the subject in 1973 when Larry Siegfried was part of the discussion.

Sorry, Siggy, you're out of the mix. But Pierce is now trying out for a spot on the All-Time Celtics starting five - which is akin to joining Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle in Yankee lore.

Russell, Bird, Havlicek, and Cousy always get the nod. And please don't go all Comcast on us and try to bump Cooz from the starting five just because he was only 6 feet 1 inch and retired in 1963. Cousy was the face of the NBA for 13 seasons. He was Mr. Basketball. He's still the franchise's all-time assist king and he's top five in points, games, and minutes. Cooz never made a three, but that shouldn't work against him.

Pierce could be the fifth starter on this team - unless you'd rather go with Kevin McHale and move Havlicek to the backcourt.

McHale is one of the most interesting names in this argument. He's among the most underrated players in NBA history. Given his unique skills, there are some who would put McHale on a list of the top 12 players in NBA history, but that's a discussion for another day. For today, we'll let you choose between Pierce and McHale as the starter on the Celtics Dream Team.

The other six spots are easier than you think. How do you like Robert Parish, Dave Cowens, Heinsohn, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones, and JoJo White? This would leave out Frank Ramsey, Ed Macauley, Dennis Johnson, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders, and Cedric Maxwell - all worthies, all good arguments. Paul Silas wasn't here quite long enough. Reggie Lewis died too young. Garnett certainly goes down as one of the most talented individuals to wear the green, but he played 12 seasons before coming to Boston. And no Antoine Walker e-mails, please.

Red Auerbach was always the last word on these contrived rosters. He was careful not to offend anyone and tended to favor his guys from the 1950s and '60s. But something tells me even Red would be ready to put Pierce in his starting five.

It's a significant step for the captain. It took 10 long years. But now he belongs. No wonder the guy was crying.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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