Passing Bird, Pierce Grows Own Legacy

Peter Stringer
February 8, 2011

Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce poses with the game ball after eclipsing Larry Bird on the Celtics' all-time leading scorers list. Pierce finished Tuesday's game with 21,797 points.Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty

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When you play for the Boston Celtics, you've got big shoes to fill. There are large legacies to live up to. Some players can't handle it.

Paul Pierce is wired a little different than most. A kid who grew up in the shadows of the Great Western Forum idolizing Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers, he completely embraces the challenge.

Now in his 14th season with the 17-Time World Champions, Pierce is retracing the footsteps of some of the franchise's most iconic players and laying down a legacy of his own as he moves past them in multiple statistical categories. Pierce reached his latest milestone against the Charlotte Bobcats Tuesday night when he passed Larry Bird (21,791) on the scoring list for second all-time in franchise history.

Pierce now stands at 21,797 points – until Thursday night when the Lakers come to town.

"It was a relief," Pierce said in the locker room, engulfed by a swarm of cameras and microphones. "So much was hanging over me the last couple of days just hearing about it. Knowing that you've got a game to play and so many people talked about it and talked about it. It's a great feat knowing that you are going to be up there with all the great Celtics.

"You know, Larry Bird is one of the most important players that ever played in this franchise. Just to be up there and have your name up there with him is a great honor."

It's an impressive feat to say that you're better than Larry Bird at anything, but when it comes to scoring, Pierce may be the most creative and effective scorer to ever play for Boston. Team legend and TV broadcaster Tommy Heinsohn has long maintained that Pierce is the best scorer he's ever seen in Celtics green, and Pierce's latest achievement certainly bolsters the argument.

In surpassing Bird during Tuesday's 94-84 victory at TD Garden, Pierce struggled early but nearly posted a triple-double before the game was over. He came into the night needing 10 points to surpass Larry Legend, and as Pierce said, it seemed to hang over him in the first quarter. His jumper was off target, he hesitated at times, and he went just 3-for-10 from the field with seven points in the first half. Every time Pierce touched the ball, you could sense the anticipation from a Boston crowd that was ready for Pierce to pass Bird, whose very name is synonymous with the sport itself.

"You could hear them gasping with every shot," Pierce said. "I just wanted to get it out of the way."

After finally rattling home a 3-pointer from the right wing with 10:23 to play in the third quarter, Pierce looked skyward, then threw his hands up in the air. It was part relief, part exclamation. He then soaked in a lengthy standing ovation from the TD Garden faithful.

The game itself was almost secondary to the milestone, as teammates tried to find ways to get Pierce the ball so he could catch Bird. Typically unflappable, Pierce was a bit off his game in the otherwise mundane contest until he finally made history.

"I don't think Paul's nervous, ever. I just – he may have been but I just think he was just, you know, pressing. Maybe a different word; I don't even know that. I think our guys were pressing more than Paul," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I mean, Paul kept telling them, ‘Just play.' And they were passing up shots, so it was no fun for me early on because we've got to win the game."

The Celtics put away the game in the second half, although a depleted Bobcats team never really posed a genuine threat. The Celtics have now won five straight games and nine of their last 10, largely due to Pierce's return to form. The team stumbled out to a 4-8 record over their first 12 games, but the captain, last week's Eastern Conference Player of the Week, is proving again this season that he's still among the premier players in the league when healthy.

Pierce's rare longevity, and by his own admission, luck, has allowed him to ascend the rankings of the Celtics' record books alongside NBA luminaries like Bird, John Havlicek, Robert Parish and Bob Cousy. And if you look around the league, and pro sports in general, Pierce is a member of an increasingly rare fraternity. He's one of the few pro athletes who have only played for one team for their entire career. That fact is not lost on Pierce, who wept openly on Opening Night in 2008 as Banner 17 was raised to the rafters.

To Pierce, "I am a Celtic" isn't a marketing slogan. It's a way of life.

"These fans have been with me through a lot of ups and downs," said Pierce, who survived the turbulent Rick Pitino era and an 18-game losing streak on the court, not to mention a near-fatal nightclub attack off the court early in his career. "We have great fans. They've seen it all from my younger days, from my trials and tribulations, to this point today and it's just a great honor just for them to give me that type of ovation."

As loyal as the fans have been with Pierce, Rivers pointed out that Pierce dedicated himself to the Celtics organization at a time when he could have abandoned ship.

"You know, here's the part I wish people wrote more about Paul," said Rivers. "Paul had a chance to leave us when we were bad. And instead of moaning that he wanted to go to a championship team, he stayed. He said, ‘I simply want to be a Celtic and I trust that we're going to win a title some day.'

"He had no reason to believe that, at that time. I mean, we were pretty awful. And to me, I wish people talked about his loyalty more, because I think that's special, especially in this day and time, when everybody's jumping from team to team. And that's their right, too - I don't begrudge that with anybody - but I do think it's special that Paul Pierce decided that he wanted to be a Celtic for his life. And I think that's pretty cool."

In many ways, Pierce is a throwback. His game is predicated on fundamentals rather than athleticism, and while he'll probably need three or four more productive seasons to have a chance to catch John Havlicek's 26,395 points, another 4,420 points is not inconceivable. Havlicek played 16 years for the Celtics and averaged 20.8 points per game over 1,270 contests to set his mark. Pierce played in his 985th game Tuesday night, but he's already lost 48 regular season games due to a pair of NBA lockouts, something that's already cost him about 1,000 potential points.

At his current scoring clip of around 18 points a night, he'd have to play about 250 more games to surpass Hondo. In a perfect world, he could be closing in by the midway point of the 2014-15 season. Realistically though, accounting for potential injuries, wear and tear, missed games and a likely decline in scoring over the next few seasons, it seems more plausible that Pierce may have to play into the 2015-16 season to have a realistic shot at catching Hondo.

For his part, Pierce has another goal in mind.

"The records are great, but there's nothing like winning another championship," Pierce said.