He carried the torch through the lean years. And now, in his 10th year in the league, Paul Pierce gets to carry the torch as MVP of an NBA champion.
"Knowing that you were at rock bottom a year ago today, and to climb all the way to the top, this is a dream come true," a teary-eyed Pierce told reporters minutes after the Celtics captured the 17th championship in the franchise's history.
During an exceptional playoff run in 2008, Pierce transformed his public perception from that of a good player on a bad team to the kind of player that can lead a team to a championship. He averaged 21.8 points per game in the Finals. His 10 assists in Game 6 were a game-high.
"I think Paul was only viewed upon as a scorer," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "And now I think people see him as a complete basketball player. He had eight assists the other night. The game before that he guarded Kobe and did a terrific job. He's, I think, one of the best rebounders at small forward in our league, and he's a lethal scorer, and he did it all."
The Celtics won 24 games last season, and while Pierce's individual numbers were at an all-time high, he couldn't help but shoulder some of the blame for his team's failures. Tommy Heinsohn has called him the greatest offensive player in Celtics history, but the compliment rang hollow until tonight.
There's nothing hollow about it now.
"I'm not living under the shadows of the other greats now," said Pierce. "I'm able to make my own history with my time here, and like I said, this is something that I wanted to do. If I was going to be one of the best Celtics to ever play, I had to put up a banner, and today we did that.
"They don't hang up any other banners but championship ones. And just all the years talking to Bill and John, Cousy, finally just I feel like we've come out of that shadow now and created our own, and now we can stand up and look them eye to eye and say, hey, we accomplished it, too."