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Glossy finish on Pierce

Polished pro will end his career here as an all-timer

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / October 14, 2010

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The change was noticeable in Paul Pierce. After cashing in with a four-year, $61 million contract in July, ending his 12-hour tenure as an unrestricted free agent, he returned to Boston for a summer visit as a contented man.

Privately, Pierce has always wondered about his place in Boston sports lore. Any standout Celtic since the demise of the original Big Three has been compared with that trio or with the players on the great teams of the 1960s.

Pierce’s status was uncertain because the first few teams he played on didn’t succeed, despite his immense talents. Pierce could score, rebound for his position, and emerge as a leader, but the Celtics were an afterthought in the Eastern Conference and an afterthought for those fans who clamored for Bird, McHale, and Parish.

The emergence of the new Big Three, however, catapulted Pierce into a place among the Celtic greats, and the 2008 title cemented that. So when he decided to opt out of the final year of his contract — worth $20.8 million — there was a tinge of uncertainty and uneasiness among Celtics fans, who pondered the possibility of the franchise’s longest-tenured player leaving.

What those fans should have realized was that Pierce was not seeking a huge payday. He wanted the security of a long-term contract, the confirmation that he would finish his career as a Celtic, sealing his place as one of their all-time greats.

Yesterday was Pierce’s 33d birthday, and he is just 111 points away from the 20,000-point mark. Age, experience, and a painful growth process have allowed Pierce to reflect with a gratitude not seen in his early years.

“I came this close to photo-shopping myself in another jersey, but I didn’t,’’ Pierce said. “I signed to help with cap flexibility and also a longer deal so that I could hopefully retire a Celtic.

“And I probably wouldn’t be ending my career as a Celtic if I had to go through [rebuilding] again, so I am glad things went the way they did.’’

Diamond in the rough
Pierce arrived in Boston angry that, despite being an All-American at Kansas, he fell to 10th in the 1998 NBA draft, selected after Michael Olowokandi, Raef LaFrentz, Robert Traylor, and Larry Hughes. He had a large chip on his shoulder, and joined a team that was mired in the infamous Rick Pitino era.

Pitino, a brilliant college coach, was assigned the task of rebuilding the Celtics after the original Big Three retired. He was supposed to retool through the draft but missed badly with Ron Mercer at No. 6 overall in 1997 and unwisely traded Chauncey Billups in February 1998 after just 51 games. Pierce and Antoine Walker were left to lead the franchise out of the darkness.

Pitino resigned in 2001, after which Pierce and Walker flourished as All-Stars under Jim O’Brien, taking the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001-02. Pierce even survived a frightening stabbing attack in September 2000, an event that changed his ideas about trust and forced him to evaluate his behavior.

But while his attitude changed, the environment in Boston didn’t. O’Brien couldn’t build on that playoff run, and while Pierce had individual success, the Celtics fell out of the NBA spotlight, a downtrodden franchise led by a perennial All-Star who took the brunt of the blame for the team’s failures.

But some Celtics greats appreciated Pierce’s work when he was toiling in those losing years.

“The key to a player like Paul is he really hasn’t changed,’’ said Tom “Satch’’ Sanders. “From the beginning up until now. And the expectation is that he will continue to play the same way for the next three or four years.

“He could fit on 29 other teams as easily as he fits here. He’s a player. People tend to get excited because you haven’t seen Paul catch alley-oops or do the spectacular things, but neither did guys like Oscar Robertson, neither did guys like [John] Havlicek or Jerry West.

“Nothing spectacular, just continuous production at a very high level, and that’s where Paul belongs, in that type of category.’’

Robert Parish paid Pierce an even higher compliment.

“I think Paul Pierce, the way he manufactures points, is the best player the Celtics have seen thus far,’’ he said. “That’s saying a lot, because you are talking about John Havlicek was the best offensive player that the Celtics had, the way he manufactures points.

“But Paul Pierce has them all beat. And his number will be retired, once he retires. And if they don’t retire it, then it’s a travesty to justice.’’

“He’s got to be at the top,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “There with Larry and, you know, Russell. Russell’s got his own penthouse, though.

“But Paul’s one of the greatest of that group, ever to play in Boston.

“I was hoping I was going to be there with him for him to get there. I thought he was a hell of a player. But I don’t really look at it because for him, he’s still in it and he has some more to do.’’

Maturity on display
Unquestionably, the 2008 championship and Finals MVP award changed the perception of Pierce throughout the NBA and especially in Boston. The only drama he presents now involves his occasional dramatic reactions to injuries and swift comebacks.

This summer, he married longtime girlfriend Julie Landrum and returned to Boston in a reflective mood. With another NBA Finals appearance on his résumé, Pierce has taken a step back, inhaled, and understands his place in a city that celebrates its legends, especially those who never left.

Pierce is in the same category as Tom Brady, whose career has been defined by his loyalty and accomplishments. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence both signed lucrative extensions within months of each other, securing their places in team and city history.

“It means everything to me,’’ Pierce said. “When I cement my legacy in the game of basketball, just staying with one team, that’s everything for me. I’m happy for the opportunity. Not a lot of players get a chance to do it, especially in this era.

“I’ve been expressing it the past five, six, or seven years that I wanted to be here for life, and now I have the opportunity to.’’

The youngest of the Big Three has learned from Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. He no longer needed to be the lone face of the franchise. Sharing resulted in winning, and more personal respect.

“I know I matured,’’ he said. “When you get around guys who are grown, and are pretty mature themselves, you take things from them. I’ve taken a lot of things from Ray off the court. I’ve taken a lot of things from Kevin to the point where I am at a good, even keel in my life. I’ve got a good balance. I’ve got a family now.’’

The arrogance Pierce showed early as a pro has been replaced with a maturity and an understanding that NBA careers are finite. He watched Walker get felled by a swift decline and financial problems. What’s more, 18 of the 29 players drafted in the first round in 1998 are out of the game, including three of the first six selections.

“I guess I started thinking about [my legacy] now because my career is winding down,’’ said Pierce. “I see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I got four years left, and that might be it. I’m playing for a lot — myself, my team, memories. I have a lot of pride.

“I want to be known as one of the best players to ever play the game, so a lot is at stake. As long as we continue to win, everything will pan out the way I want it to.

“A lot of organizations don’t have the legacy and history the Celtics have. When you are talking your place among the greats, it means a lot, because there are so many players of the past and so many things in history that’s gone on with the Boston Celtics.

“So if my name is linked in that history, then it goes a long way.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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