Paul Pierce Soaking In His Final Stop In Boston

Paul Pierce Soaking In His Final Stop In Boston

Rowan Kavner

BOSTON – Paul Pierce tweeted just once in the span of a week, when suddenly eight tweets fired off in a three-hour span.

Each one referenced the Patriots’ AFC Championship win against the Steelers, including a selfie of Pierce in a Patriots sweatshirt and Patriots beanie, an outfit he still wore a day later as the Clippers walked onto the court at shootaround. Two weeks later, with the Patriots set to take part in the Super Bowl, pictures of Pierce in front of TD Garden and Fenway Park blanketed his Instagram account.

The Inglewood native, a kid who lived walking distance from The Forum and grew up a fan of Bo Jackson and the Raiders and Steve Young and the 49ers, never could’ve envisioned that kind of Boston support.

“It’s crazy how some things work in your life,” Pierce said. “When I get picked, 10th pick by the Celtics, a team I didn’t even have on my radar, you just knew it was for a reason.”

Nineteen years later, that reason is clear.

The city of Boston, once a foe, transformed into a home and a haven, as Pierce spent 15 years turning himself into one of the city’s all-time legends. The 2008 NBA Finals MVP brought a title to Boston, made 10 All-Star teams and ended his tenure with the Celtics ranked first in franchise history in 3-pointers (1,823), second in points (24,021) and third in games played (1,102).

In the midst of his final NBA season, Sunday morning will likely be the last time Pierce steps foot into TD Garden as a player – a fact not lost on Pierce, who said there’s no preparing for the magnitude of the moment.

“I can’t even imagine how it’s going to be,” Pierce said. “I know it’s going to be emotional. I don’t know what kind of emotions are going to come out, whether it’s a smile, a tear; I don’t know. It’s something you just can’t prepare for – my whole career, basically, in one building for 15 years.”

The Clippers arrived Friday night in Boston, giving Pierce two full nights to fully soak in what will undoubtedly be a memorable weekend, capped by his final goodbye Sunday afternoon when the Clippers and Celtics tip-off at 11 a.m. PT.

Pierce and his wife, who was with him when he won his championship in 2008, are using that extra time to reminisce, taking pictures in front of Boston’s most defining places. They visited the sports landmarks. They ate at the restaurants they loved, and they saw the people they’ll never forget.

“Just soaking it all in,” Pierce repeated.

Much like Kobe Bryant, Pierce announced his retirement before his final season began. But unlike Bryant, who received a tribute video in every arena during his farewell tour, there’s only one location for a real goodbye for Pierce, who’s no longer a member of the team that made him a legend.

“I know when I step foot in that Garden, this is the last time as a player,” Pierce said. “It’s just going to remind me this is it.”

“Bucking The Trend”

A title didn’t just get handed to Pierce. To get to 2008, he trekked through years of mediocrity.

Despite Pierce’s immediate personal success, his Celtics teams finished with losing records each of his first three seasons in the NBA. By year three, Pierce’s 25.3 points in 38 minutes per game only resulted in a 36-46 record.

Then came an immediate jump into relevancy, as the Celtics went to the Eastern Conference Finals led by head coach Jim O’Brien during the 2001-02 season. But that was followed by an Eastern Conference Semifinals exit, which was followed by a first-round exit under interim coach John Carroll after O’Brien resigned.

Looking a new direction in 2004, the Celtics brought in head coach Doc Rivers, and it wasn’t an immediate success story in the standings or from a personality perspective with Pierce. Rivers swiftly challenged Pierce to play differently, despite the All-Star’s gaudy numbers.

“We laugh now, it’s amazing how close we are, but that first year was not the smoothest transition,” Rivers admitted.

Boston got bounced from the first round in Rivers’ first year, then suffered losing records the next two seasons. Early on, Rivers thought Pierce too often caught the ball and held it, rather than catching it, moving it and receiving the ball in a position where the defense wasn’t already loading up on him.

“I asked him a question – a simple, setup question that all coaches ask players – ‘Are you a good shooter or not?’ They’re all going to say, ‘Good shooter.’ Then I said, ‘Well, why are you shooting 40 percent? If you’re a great shooter, you’re doing something wrong.’ He didn’t have the answer to that.”

The year before Rivers took over, Pierce shot 40.2 percent. Then, in Rivers’ first year with the team, Pierce shot 45.5 percent.

It was the first of nine straight seasons Pierce shot better than 43 percent from the field while playing for Rivers in Boston.

“People think it was this thing where we kept butting heads,” Rivers said. “Really, Paul walked in my office one day and said, ‘You’re right, I’m going to do it, I’m fine.’ And that was it. It took a while, but it was just awesome that’s what he did. From that point on, he was great for us.”

And beyond everything Pierce brought to Boston from a statistical standpoint, what Rivers appreciated most about Pierce is the job he did “bucking the trend” of the typical superstar.

Through the many down years, Rivers never heard Pierce complain about wanting to be somewhere else, even after the Celtics went 33-49 during the 2005-06 season.

“He just hung in there, kept wanting the team to get better,” Rivers said.

Rivers and Celtics general manager Danny Ainge spent their time explaining a vision to Pierce, who continued to exhibit patience until the eventual breakthrough alongside fellow Boston legends Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Celtics went from a 24-win team in 2006-07 to a healthy contender a year later, capturing the 2007-08 title on the back of Pierce.

“For me, personally, that’s what I always think about with Paul,” Rivers said. “He just wanted us to keep pushing and getting better, and it turned out for him.”

That’s something Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell, who spent the end of his final season in the league on the title-winning Celtics, knows the Boston fans won’t forget about Sunday afternoon when Pierce returns for the final time.

“I know how it’s going to be,” Cassell said. “You get a championship in Boston, you’re always going to be a part of the community and tradition.”

One Last Time

Rivers isn’t sure how he’ll use Pierce, who hasn’t played in 2017, in Sunday’s game. But he knows the Celtics legend will play, and he knows the Celtics legend will be emotional.

“We were born on the same day, and we have a lot of the same traits,” Rivers said.

Pierce isn’t pretending Sunday will be just another game. It means a great deal to him, even if he’s not sure how he’ll react. When Pierce talks about the city of Boston, he does so with a reverence.

“There’s not a lot of franchises around the NBA that are quite like the Boston Celtics,” Pierce said. “You talk about history, you talk about tradition, you talk about winning, there’s not a lot of franchises like that.”

Pierce, despite his Los Angeles upbringing, wanted to be a part of that as soon as he studied up on the team’s history. When he got to Boston, he reached out to former players, including Bill Russell, and he spoke to the late Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach.

“I wanted to be mentioned with those guys,” Pierce said. “It was just like, I wouldn’t want to win nowhere else. That’s the reason for me staying and sticking out even through the tough times.”

While Pierce wishes he could’ve played his whole career in Boston, he’s also content with the legacy he left behind as a Celtic. He felt he embraced Boston, both on the court with his play and off the court with his foundation in the community.

Now, he feels he’s looked at by the people of Boston as one of their own.

“It’s almost like I grew up here,” Pierce said.

It’ll certainly feel that way for Pierce when he steps foot into the arena Sunday, surrounded by a plethora of familiar faces. From ball boys, to equipment managers, it’s the people behind the scenes who watched the work Pierce put in throughout his career he cherishes most.

They’re the ones who watched Pierce get to the gym four hours early for a game, and the ones who saw Pierce return to the gym at 10 p.m. after a loss.

“That’s the value of having people who have been there and seen it all with one franchise – your story never gets forgotten,” Pierce said.

How Pierce’s story will continue after this year remains a question. He’s worked in front of the camera, and a transition into television would make sense. He also said he’d consider a position with the Celtics, if an opportunity presented itself.

For now, though, his focus is on soaking in what will likely be his last appearance in an arena he’ll always consider home.

“I hope they do something special for him, because he’s a living legend,” said Brandon Bass, now a teammate of Pierce’s with the Clippers after playing with Pierce in Boston from 2011-13. “Knowing the franchise and what he did in his career, I think they’ll show him some love.”

That’s also what Pierce plans to do for the Celtics’ fans and their leprechaun logo at halfcourt, getting one last embrace before the final farewell.

“I want to give Lucky one last kiss,” Pierce said. “That’s one thing I know I want to do.”