In the eye of Boston sports, surpassing Larry Bird is overtaking the golden deity of hard work, floor burns and triple doubles. It’s overcoming the patron saint of jump shots, floor vision and well-deserved cockiness. It’s taking a scalpel and engraving your name directly above the king’s.
Bird will always wear a crown in Boston, but it’s time to start fitting Paul Pierce for a matching diadem.
If you want an argument for why Danny Ainge should not consider trading Pierce, regardless of what happens with the Celtics during the remainder of Pierce’s contract, watch the highlight of The Truth drilling a three from the right wing with 10:23 remaining in last night’s the third quarter. Watch his hands rise to the rafters. Watch Jermaine O’Neal draw the best-timed technical foul of his career. Watch the crowd collectively rise to its feet and throw 14 seasons worth of cheers Pierce’s way, remaining on its feet well after play resumed. Watch all those things and measure loyalty against rebuilding from scratch, and think about what it would feel like to see Pierce wearing another jersey, suiting up for the opponent, and ask yourself if there are certain prizes more important than winning.
Before Pierce overtook Bird for second place on the Boston Celtics scoring list with a three-pointer over the outstretched (and lumpy) arm of Boris Diaw, Tommy Heinsohn tried to explain how players like Pierce make commentating fun. I’m paraphrasing here, but Heinsohn said something to the effect of, “I get to watch a lot of players grow, a lot of people grow up. When Pierce came to Boston, he didn’t know up from down. He played on bad teams, did some dumb things, but he kept growing. He fought through the bad teams, fought through his own ignorant comments, fought through being stabbed in the back, and found the time to master his craft. Want to know the type of guy Pierce is? When they asked him to be the captain, he bought books on leadership and studied how to better himself.”
Pierce is often methodical in his motion, so we underrate his athletic ability. He entered the NBA with a complete arsenal of skills, so we overlook the work he put in to add his present layer of polish. He instantly fit so seamlessly with the Big Three that we hardly noticed the transformation to his game, the changes he made to fit more easily into the machine. It has become easy to overlook Pierce’s greatness — he has never won a scoring title, never earned an MVP trophy, never been named to the First-Team All-NBA — but 14 years later, with a long bomb from the right wing, leaning to the side to wish it in just like he’s done so many times throughout the years, Pierce trails only John Havlicek on the scoring list of the world’s winningest basketball franchise.
Chris Herren, who you might know from the ESPN documentary “Unguarded”, or from his book “Basketball Junkie,” or perhaps you’ve heard of his drug troubles, or maybe you remember him from his days as a temporary starting point guard for the Boston Celtics, remembers more regrets than most. One thing he regrets is not learning from his former teammate Paul Pierce.
“This is your job. Treat it like your job. I look back in shame that I used to pull up to the arena and spend an hour and 45 minutes (there),” Herren said during a December speaking engagement in front of the NBA D-League’s Springfield Armor and Maine Red Claws. “You’re getting paid to work. There ain’t a job in this world that’s two hours long. There’s nowhere in this world you can go get paid for two hours. Paul Pierce showed me what it was to work. He turned those days into eight-hour work days. He worked like the guy picking up garbage. Not two hours.”
Herren said he would arrive at practice and see Pierce in soaking wet clothes, already having put himself through a pre-practice workout. And when Herren left the gym after practice, Pierce would be asking the equipment manager for another pair of mesh shorts, so that he could do more shooting drills by himself. He worked like the guy picking up garbage, when in reality he was already an NBA All-Star during just his third season as a pro, at age 24. This is how you average 16.5 points as a rookie and never below 18.3 in the 13 seasons since. This is how you become great. This is how you scale the Celtics history books. This is how you pass Larry Bird.
Havlicek remains 4,598 points ahead of Pierce, who now has 21,797. Though hardly a given, it is possible to imagine a day a few years from now when Pierce passes Havlicek to become the greatest scorer in franchise history. Then, like tonight, the crowd would be filled with memories both good and bad — Pierce asking for a trade; scoring 46 points after halftime to defeat the New Jersey Nets; wrapping a towel on his head during a postgame press conference; hitting a jumper over Ron Artest after getting his pants dropped to his ankles; standing at the free throw line during Game 7 against Cleveland and sealing a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals; leading the Celtics to a 17th NBA championship — and the overwhelming knowledge that Pierce has grown from a boy to a man in the City of Champions.
To set records and win championships in Boston is expected. To pass Larry Bird is to float above the clouds and proclaim yourself an equal to the shining sun. To mature and to grow and to become someone an entire city can be proud of — there are more than 21,797 reasons why the TD Garden crowd briefly refused to sit down.