20,005 points later, I look back on Paul Pierce’s career and try to find my favorite moment.
I think about the time Ron Artest pulled down Pierce’s shorts and Pierce still drained a three-pointer. But that can’t be my favorite. Playing the Pacers in the playoffs reminds me of the time Pierce bandaged his head in a post-game press conference, which was perhaps the lowest point of Pierce’s Boston career. It was also the one time I thought that perhaps the Celtics should let Pierce go.
I think about Pierce’s 46 post -halftime points against the New Jersey Nets in 2001, after which I just stared at my father, eyes blank and in disbelief: 46 points. All after halftime. But that moment doesn’t work either. That was just a regular season game. No Boston Celtic great could ever have his signature moment occur in the regular season.
I think about the time Pierce led a 22-point fourth-quarter comeback in the Eastern Conference Finals. But that can’t be my favorite moment — I didn’t even watch it live. I listened to the radio broadcast instead, on my way home from an AAU basketball tournament, cheering like I was in the Garden rather than the backseat of a Plymouth Voyager.
So what is Pierce’s most shining moment? There are so many to choose from.
When the Boston Celtics selected Paul Pierce with the 10th pick of the 1998 NBA Draft (one pick behind some oddly-named nobody, Dirk Nowitzki, seven picks behind college teammate Raef LaFrentz, and four picks behind Robert “Tractor” Traylor), I had no idea what I was in store for.
I didn’t know Pierce would become a lifetime Celtic. I didn’t know he would score more than 20,000 points. I didn’t know he would win (at least) one championship, or (at least) one Finals MVP trophy. I didn’t know he’d compile eight All-Star appearances and counting, or be named to four All-NBA teams (also and counting), or that a growing number of people would come to call Pierce the greatest offensive talent ever to don a Celtics uniform. I didn’t know Pierce would be part of the crew that finally restored Celtic Pride to Boston.
Mostly, I didn’t know I would get the chance to watch Pierce grow up like he was my son. That’s what it feels like to have a player mature and blossom in your team’s uniform, to watch him grow from a young punk into a fully-formed, self-aware man. Pierce came into the Celtics organization as a young kid who didn’t appreciate anything. He felt like the world should be handed to him on a silver spoon, and it was painfully obvious. I already told you about the one time Pierce showed up to that post-game press conference with a bandage on his head, but the thing was, that wasn’t an abnormal display of immaturity.
Pierce was just a young kid acting out, a kid who didn’t understand that he was a professional athlete who lived under a microscope. Or at least, if he did understand, he never acted like it. Time after time, Pierce encouraged my father’s wrath. “He’ll never grow up,” my dad used to always say. “He’s nothing but a punk kid.” Pierce never did anything too harmful. He didn’t have any serious scrapes with the law and none of his mistakes could be classified as anything more than “annoying.” But those annoying mistakes sure added up.
Tossed on top of the off-court blunders was a disappointing on-court attitude. It was easy to see that Pierce was the most talented Celtic, by far, but his game also left so much to be desired. Pierce butted heads with his coaches. He expected an isolation each possession of every fourth quarter. He hardly played any defense and it was easy for anyone to see that he was frustrated to play alongside the Wally Szczerbiaks and Ricky Davises of the world. In retrospect, who could blame him? But still, we all did.
In the aforementioned game against Indiana, the one that Pierce followed with his bandaged-head performance, Pierce completed what Bob Ryan called “the single most unforgivable, untimely, stupid, and flat-out selfish on-court act in the history of the Celtics.” Pierce truck-sticked Jamal Tinsley, earning his second technical foul of the night and the automatic ejection that came with it, and almost singlehandedly blew the series. Even more importantly, he solidified his growing reputation as a malcontent. “Paul Pierce is a great basketball player,” my father would mutter, shaking his head. “But he spends a lot of time acting like a fucking baby.”
Just when Pierce’s career looked like it would one day end alongside a mountain of unfulfilled promise, Pierce grew up. I’m not sure whether he grew up in a single offseason, whether the backlash from that Tinsley incident was enough to encourage Pierce to change instantaneously. Maybe the maturation continued for years after, and maybe it had started years before. I’m not completely sure. But the Paul Pierce we’ve seen since the beginning of 2005-2006 has been far different from the whiny brat we had come to know. He became a complete player, a team player, and started limiting his childish mistakes both on and off the court.
Here’s what Bill Simmons wrote during that 2005-2006 season:
Maybe he just matured in his late 20′s like so many of us do. Maybe enough time passed since the stabbing and he stopped being bitter about it. Maybe he caught an old Celtics game from the Bird Era on Classic, noticed the Garden swaying and thought to himself, “It used to mean something to be a Celtic; I can do something about this.” Maybe he was partying too much and calmed down. Maybe it was something much simpler, like a “What’s wrong with you?” phone call from his mother. I even thought about calling him to find out the answer, but it’s almost more fun not knowing. I don’t want to know.
But I do know this …
For the most part, it sucks to be a sports fan. It’s a one-way street. Tickets cost too much. Jerseys cost too much. Executives and owners screw up our teams. Players let us down again and again. Just this week, the top sports stories were the shocking revelations from the Bonds/steroids scandal, the NFL labor agreement, and Kirby Puckett’s untimely death (as well as the obligatory number of “Just remember, he was a bad guy after he played!” stories). It’s a culture where bottomfeeders like Jose Canseco never seem to go away, where entire TV shows are built around sportswriters screaming at one another, where an abject failure of a human being like Bill Romanowski can crack the New York Times Bestseller list. Everything is out of whack. Even in the NBA, an egocentric gunner like Kobe Bryant receives 10 times as much attention as the great Tim Duncan, who’s currently limping around on one leg because that’s what champions do. I don’t know what’s happened to sports. I really don’t.
And out of this abyss comes Paul Pierce. Playing out of his mind. Saying all the right things. Coming through in the clutch. Doing everything with a smile on his face. He’s going to retire as a Celtic some day … and only because he wouldn’t accept anything less. Sounds like the makings of a fantastic “Sports Century and Beyond” show some day. In the meantime, in the words of Roddy Piper, Pierce will continue to chew gum and kick ass — Milwaukee you’re next — and Celtics fans will keep watching and caring and hoping and marveling at what happened here. That’s the great thing about sports: You never know.
Simmons wrote that the great thing about sports is that you never know. An even better thing about sports is something that, due to free agency and a growing lack of loyalty, very few fans will ever get to experience: watching a player grow throughout his entire career. Watching him shine. Watching him emerge from rough spots and grow into a leader and, more importantly, a grown man an entire city can be proud of.
There were times in Paul Pierce’s career when I hated him. Times when I wished the Celtics would trade him. Times when I wondered whether he would ever grow up. Times when I wished I could grab him by the neck and shake him into maturity.
But you know what? I wouldn’t change a single thing about his career. There’s something rewarding about seeing someone struggle through tough times and come away a better man. There’s something gratifying about seeing someone scrape the bottom, lose 58 games in one season, overcome a stabbing that almost cost him his life, earn the ire of a fanbase, feud with coaches and teammates, and still — somehow, some way, almost unfathomably – learn how to act like an adult in the process.
My favorite Paul Pierce moment?
It came during Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals, against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Pierce stepped to the free throw line with 7.9 seconds left to shoot two shots, and his newly-loaded Celtics led 95-92. As he toed the charity stripe Pierce had already scored 39 points, matching Lebron James bucket for bucket as he tried to move his Celtics to the next round. He needed only one more free throw to ice the victory.
Pierce’s first shot approached the rim. It wasn’t perfect at all, not by any means. Pierce, maybe overly excited, put a little too much strength behind it. The ball bounced off the back rim, then straight into the air. It shouldn’t have gone in, it had no business falling through the hoop. But it did.
Pierce, The Truth, watched the ball drop through the net. He took a second to let the scene wash over him, and then erupted in a smile that stretched from ear to ear. His team was moving on. Pierce’s long sought-after championship was finally a realistic expectation. It was finally in the works.
The smile just kept growing wider. All grown up, Paul Pierce’s career had finally been validated. All grown up, he could finally savor everything that he had earned.
And earn it he did.