The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame got a lot greener Saturday night, as four legendary members of the Boston Celtics were honored, each in a different capacity, as part of the 2021 enshrinement ceremony in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The class of 16 inductees was headlined by Paul Pierce and Bill Russell, the latter of whom was inducted as a coach after already being enshrined as a player in 1975.
Longtime Celtics color commentator Mike Gorman of NBC Sports Boston received the Curt Gowdy award for his role in electronic media over the last 40-plus years and was inducted into the Hall of Fame’s media wing.
Lastly, 2018 Hall-of-Fame inductee Ray Allen was recognized as one of three recipients of the 2021 Mannie Jackson - Basketball’s Human Spirit Award for his outstanding humanitarian efforts, particularly through his Ray of Hope Foundation.
Pierce soaked in every moment of the special night, greeting Celtics fans with high fives and selfies at the red-carpet ceremony before delivering a 15-minute speech in which he reflected upon his life and career.
“Never in my wildest dreams that I think I’d be a Hall-of-Famer,” Pierce began as he spoke to the sea of basketball legends seated before him. “The initial dream as a kid is to make it to the league; you don't really dream too far like, ‘I want to be a Hall of Famer,’ you don't say that as a kid. Now to be enshrined in basketball lore, it's more than I could have ever imagined.”
Pierce spent the first 15 seasons of a 19-year NBA career in Boston, where he earned 10 All-Star nods, four All-NBA selections, and a Finals MVP after leading the Celtics to their 17th championship in 2008. He remains among the franchise’s top 10 in just about every significant statistical category, ranking second in points scored, seventh in rebounds, fifth in assists, first in steals, fourth in blocks, first in 3-point field goals, and third in minutes played.
However, Pierce made it clear that his rise to the top of Boston’s legendary record books was not a product of natural athletic ability, but rather a result of hard work and dedication.
“The thing I want people to remember about me is, although I wasn’t the most athletic and I might not have been the most gifted, I competed every night,” he said. “That’s the one thing people can say about me. I may have played against guys that were more talented, more heralded than me, but the one thing you weren’t going to do was out-work me ... I judged my game on my effort. I knew if I gave 100 percent effort that day, no matter what my numbers were, I could hold my head high when I left that gym.”
Pierce should also be remembered for holding his head high even when the Celtics were going through some of their lowest of lows as a franchise. He stuck with the team through trying seasons, and eventually, his loyalty paid off.
Following a 24-win season in 2006-07, the Celtics front office formed a super team around Pierce by trading for future Hall-of-Famers in Allen and Kevin Garnett, the latter of whom served as Pierce’s presenter Saturday night. The star trio gelled immediately, as they pulled off the biggest single-season turnaround in NBA history in the form of a 66-win 2007-08 campaign, which led the C’s to their 17th NBA championship banner.
The highlight of Pierce’s career came at the conclusion of that title run when he was named Finals MVP after defeating his hometown Los Angeles Lakers. The Inglewood native still marvels over the irony of the storybook scenario, noting how his initial disdain for the Celtics turned into everlasting love and appreciation.
“Going into [the NBA], I hated [the Celtics] because I was a Laker fan,” he recalled. “But once I was able to join the family and be around legends such as Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn on a night-in, night-out basis, it was a dream come true. Because me being a historian of the game, I couldn’t ask for anything better … I couldn’t have asked for a better place to land.”
And Pierce couldn’t have asked for a better honor than to enter the Hall alongside the greatest legend of them all in Russell. The 11-time NBA champion became just the fifth person to be inducted as both a player and a coach, joining former teammates Tommy Heinsohn and Bill Sharman along with Lenny Wilkens and John Wooden.
Although his coaching career spanned only eight seasons, Russell’s legacy as a coach will last forever. In 1966, he became the first Black head coach in the history of U.S. professional sports. As if that feat wasn’t remarkable enough, the start of his coaching career also overlapped with the last three seasons of his playing career, the final two of which resulted in championship runs.
“Coaching the Celtics was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I had through my 13 years in the NBA,” Russell said in a pre-recorded speech that was shown Saturday night as he sat in the front row of the audience.
It was rewarding not just because of the championships that he won, but because it opened the door for other Black coaches after him, such as Doc Rivers.
“Bill Russell allowed the rest of the world to know that if you’re qualified to coach, you can coach,” Rivers, also in attendance, said in a pre-recorded interview. “Without Bill Russell, I’m probably not coaching.”
Russell’s willingness to break barriers and also be an outspoken civil rights activist transcended his remarkable career as an athlete. As his Hall-of-Fame presenter, Barack Obama, stated: “As tall as Bill Russell stands, his example and his legacy rise far, far higher.”
All four Celtics honorees established unique legacies from the examples they set, whether it was through their hard work and dedication on the court, on the sideline, in the announcers’ booth, and/or in the community. Paul Pierce, Bill Russell, Mike Gorman, and Ray Allen have each represented the city of Boston and the NBA in a Hall-of-Fame capacity, solidified by Saturday night’s enshrinement among basketball's greatest legends.
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