I always thought Paul Pierce had the perfect number, 34, right there between Larry Bird and Reggie Lewis.
A tragedy averted when he was younger, a legend made beyond, a brilliant performer always.
It’s been a fait accompli for several seasons now that the No. 34 will have a place in the Garden rafters someday.
During his joyous return to the Garden last night, his first game in his basketball home for 15 years as a player and eternally in franchise lore, we were offered a warm moment of foreshadowing when the camera panned to a banner featuring some of the Celtics’ 21 retired numbers. (Plus LOSCY for Jim Loscutoff. But you knew that.)
There was no spotlight, and one was not necessary — it was impossible not to notice two blank spots. One, of course, for Pierce. The other, presumably, for the co-honoree of the evening, Kevin Garnett, who made an indelible mark on the franchise despite a mere six seasons in Boston.
You bet KG belongs, too, for his restorative powers in 2007-08 alone, and if you have a problem with it, tell yourself the No. 5 is for Bill Walton, Ron Mercer, or, I don’t know, John Bagley. Whatever helps.
Man, the Celtics did that right, didn’t they? They all did. The tributes were perfect — not too long, not maudlin, just highlights and images that captured both players’ talents and emotions, the reasons both were so worthy of a salute.
Those videos — and their reactions, with KG peeking up from beneath a towel and out from behind his usual ferocious mask and Pierce smiling in a way that radiated pure happiness — made you remember everything, especially about the championship that was won rather than the opportunities that got away.
It almost made you wish they never left, though we should be grateful that the Celtics have a general manager in Danny Ainge who can shower them with appreciation without letting sentiment cloud the proper decision.
Last night was a reminder of how awesome it was to have a team that mattered again, and one that mattered in the right way.
The order of celebration was appropriate, too. For all that Garnett did here, all he meant in restoring Celtic Pride (that is not a cliche, because it’s exactly what went down), he was and should have been the opening act for Pierce’s tribute.
Pierce is one of the six greatest Celtics if not a member of the starting five — if you’re going big, Kevin McHale gets the nod. Bob Ryan — of course — perfectly captured the historical context of what Pierce means to this generation of Celtics fans.
Hard to top the scene at the Garden tonight. KG and Pierce deserve it. Pierce is this generation’s Bird or Havlicek. He’s THEIR guy.
— Bob Ryan (@GlobeBobRyan) January 27, 2014
Yet there’s more to it than that, more to it than just basketball. He could be petulant when he was younger — cue the video of the sock wrapped around his jaw during that mid-2000s Pacers playoff series — and he was a fraction of an inch from joining Len Bias and Reggie Lewis as unfathomable Celtics tragedies.
We watched him grow up here — as Mike Gorman put it perfectly during an interview on Toucher and Rich this morning, “Paul was a great kid. He became a great man.”
He didn’t do everything right, but he recognized what he did wrong, and it was a privilege to watch him grow. He went through a hell of a lot, and he come out a legend.
When he was younger, sometimes Pierce’s emotions got the best of him. As it turned out, his emotions were part of what made him one of the best, someone who, it must be noted, outplayed LeBron James and Kobe Bryant en route to that championship.
Celtics fans missed their chance to say goodbye to Pierce last year — he checked out of the final, decisive playoff loss to the Knicks last spring almost stealthily, and without the appropriate fanfare, which was either a missed opportunity by Celtics fans or a public refusal to acknowledge that he might be playing elsewhere.
I’d like to think it was the latter, but no matter. Paul Pierce, with his buddy KG, returned as a visitor to the place that will always be his home. The welcome back to a place he will never truly leave was authentic and mutually heartfelt, as wonderful as he deserved.