I’m busy today with other, work-related, things — yes, a couple people have actually been dumb enough to employ me — but I still need to address Paul Pierce’s birthday. Jermaine O’Neal and Doc Rivers (not to mention Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose team hopefully loses this Sunday) were also born on October 13, but Pierce holds a place in my heart above even Doc.
So on the 34th anniversary of Pierce’s birth, I’d like to remind everyone how far Pierce has come. Back when Pierce butted heads with coaches, spatted with teammates, lost his cool at the worst times and occasionally went to press conferences with a bandage over his head — back when Bob Ryan called Pierce’s flagrant foul against Jamaal Tinsley in a 2005 playoff game against Indiana “the single most unforgivable, untimely, stupid, and flat-out selfish on-court act in the history of the Celtics” – who ever would have expected Pierce to grow into a selfless teammate, a true leader, and one of the few NBA superstars who cared enough to represent the players union at labor negotiations?
Sure, Pierce still settles for occasional ill-advised stepback jumpers at the end of close games. He sometimes takes a few plays off, I wish he would rebound more consistently, and his ability to grow facial hair leaves a lot to be desired. But he’s come 180 degrees from that day against Indiana, from the time when it was semi-reasonable for Celtics fans to hope Pierce would be traded. He was immature, a little bit of a gunner, a loose cannon. And now he’s matured into Paul Pierce, The Captain, the star who reshaped his game for the good of his team, the Celtic who grew in Boston perhaps more than any other.
I’ve written about my favorite Pierce moment before, but let me do it once more. It isn’t a game-winning shot. It isn’t him holding up a trophy. It isn’t him scoring 38 points and out-dueling Kobe Bryant in the ’08 Finals.
Against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals that same year, Pierce toed the foul line with 7.9 seconds left. The Celtics led 95-92 and realistically would seal the win if Pierce made one of two foul shots. Pierce had already scored 39 points and held his own in a mano-a-mano matchup against Lebron James. Just one make, and his Celtics would head to the Eastern Conference Finals to play the Detroit Pistons. The TD Garden crowd waited anxiously.
The first shot wasn’t one of Pierce’s best. Maybe a little overeager, he put more power behind the shot than he would have liked. It hit the back rim hard, and had no chance to fall through the hoop. But it bounced straight up, then fell straight down. Later, Pierce would say the ghost of Red Auerbach guided it through the rim.
The free throw was good, the Celtics were moving on, and Paul Pierce stood at the foul line, his face adorned with a smile so big, so wide, so genuine, that it could only come from someone who treaded water in defeat for so long, someone who cherished every second of his team’s revival because he knew how badly it beat where he came from, because he knew how difficult championship opportunities can be to come by.
Happy birthday, Truth. We love you, my man, even if you’re locked out.