Paul Pierce was always taking chances. Before most games, the Celtics captain would shout over to the nearest teammate, assistant coach, or general manager to make a friendly wager on a shot.
“Hey Danny, you want any of this?” he’d yell, usually from out-of-bounds somewhere in the corner next to the team’s bench.
To minimize the risk of the investment, Pierce himself was always the shooter. I rarely saw him miss.
The Celtics took a chance on Pierce in the 1998 draft, selecting the small forward out of Kansas with the No. 10 pick when others had passed on him. Pierce took a chance on the Celtics, sticking it out in Boston through highs and lows, through Marcus Banks, J.R. Bremer, Bryant Stith, Ricky Davis, and Tony Delk, through Rick Pitino and Jim O’Brien. In Pierce’s first season, the Celtics finished last in the Atlantic Division. In the season before the arrivals of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, they suffered an 18-game losing streak.
Danny Ainge made a necessary trade Thursday in sending Pierce and Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for contracts and draft picks. Doing the right thing can be sad. In making a sound business move, Ainge is sending 21 combined seasons of Celtics memories to New York. No one can take them away, but it doesn’t remove the initial sting. The image of Pierce, all head and shoulders, faking his defender one way before barreling to the rim in the other direction, is burned into our collective consciousness. Seeing him do the same thing in a black jersey at TD Garden will be difficult.
Pierce’s tenure wasn’t perfect. After a playoff loss to the Indiana Pacers in 2005, Pierce wrapped a fake bandage around his head and walked into a press conference. In 2007, he told the Globe’s Jackie MacMullan, “I’m the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks.”
The bad times made the good ones sweeter. We watched Pierce grow up, watched him rein in the bravado of a 21-year-old kid and use it for good on the game’s biggest stages. He led a ragtag bunch to the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals. He took down LeBron, then Kobe, in 2008. After securing Boston’s 17th championship, Pierce, named Finals MVP, stated that he was the best player in the world. It was hard to argue with him.
“Paul had a chance to leave us when we were bad,” now former Celtics coach Doc Rivers said last February when Pierce moved past Larry Bird on the Celtics’ all-time scoring list. “And instead of moaning that he wanted to go to a championship team, he stayed. And he said, ‘I simply want to be a Celtic, and I trust that we’re going to win a title some day.’ He had no reason to believe that, at that time.”
In a statement now twisted up in all kinds of irony, Rivers added, “I wish people talked about his loyalty more. I do think it’s special that Paul Pierce decided that he wanted to be a Celtic for his life. And I think that’s pretty cool. In this day and time, in any sport, I think that’s special.”
The biggest irony here may be that of the three (Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers), the player most loyal to the franchise had the least amount of say of where he ended up. Garnett came from Minnesota and Rivers is going to Hollywood, but you don’t associate Pierce with any place but Boston. Garnett injected energy into the franchise and was integral in winning a title in 2008, but he did his suffering elsewhere. On many a cold winter New England night in the last 15 seasons, you could look at Pierce’s face and see that he was just as frustrated with all the losing as you were. No one would have blamed him if he had decided not to wait it out.
“You knew eventually it would turn around,” Pierce said the night he passed Bird. “I’ve just always been the optimist, just knowing eventually, ‘The next year, the next year.’ That’s what I always kept saying to myself, that it would eventually turn around.”
Pierce was finally proven right in 2008. In the video clip above, Pierce, Rivers, and Garnett are shown celebrating after the Celtics defeated the Detroit Pistons and earned a trip to the NBA Finals (hat tip to @MrTrpleDouble10 for finding the video). We’ve all seen the footage of the Celtics celebrating after Game 6 vs. the Lakers, but the Pistons celebration is one of unbridled joy. Pierce can’t stop bouncing. Rivers hugs anyone within site.
“I’m glad they stuck with me,” Pierce says simply.
Pierce said earlier this season that if he ever left the Celtics he’d come back and sign a one-day contract so he could retire as a member of the team. Talking to reporters the night the Celtics were eliminated from the playoffs, he seemed resigned to that fate. For the first time in a long time, the usually boisterous captain was at a loss for words.
We’ll miss the pull-up jumper from the elbow. We’ll miss the pump fake that gets the defender to bite what seems like every time. We’ll miss the player who never shies away from the spotlight, who after making a big 3-pointer turns to the Garden crowd with his palms raised as if to ask, “Did you expect anything less?”
The Celtics took a chance on Pierce, and he in turn took a chance on the team. He embraced the city, and in the end both the player and the fan base were rewarded. In today’s sports landscape, it really doesn’t get much better than that.