Pierce Reflects On Year In D.C., Where They Still Love Him
WASHINGTON, D.C. – As Paul Pierce walked out of the tunnel onto the court Monday night, a security member stopped him to welcome him back, telling him how much he was missed.
Hours prior, a red and green sea of road fans flocked to the Clippers’ tunnel to look for autographs or photos, namely from one player. The red, of course, came from Clippers’ jerseys. The green came mostly from old Pierce Celtics jerseys, apart from one fan donning a black and green Pierce Inglewood High School jersey he somehow got his hands on.
The way Pierce was revered – chatting with old friends in the media before the game and going through two separate media sessions, getting stopped throughout the night by stadium security members and in-arena personnel who knew him or wanted to thank him, having fans celebrate his presence the minute he arrived – it seemed more like a reception for a long-time D.C. legend.
This was a player who spent one season with the Wizards.
But that’s the legacy the big-shot veteran left behind on a team otherwise chock-full of young talent, from John Wall, to, Bradley Beal, to Otto Porter.
“I had a lot of fun, truthfully, just being around the young guys, teaching them every day, talking to them,” said Pierce, who described last season with the Wizards as one of his most enjoyable years as a pro. “Even though it was one year, I had a lot of fun being around these guys. They welcomed me with open arms. I embraced the city, they embraced me back, and I really enjoyed my time.”
They enjoyed it, too.
The big shots Pierce wasn’t afraid to take came to mind first as Wizards head coach Randy Wittman thought back to what stood out to him most from Pierce’s tenure with the team.
“Not only wanting to,” Wittman said, “but making them.”
The most notable, of course, was a game-winning bank shot in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Hawks. When asked if he called, “Bank,” Pierce delivered one of the money quotes of the year when proclaiming in his postgame interview, “I called game.”
He knew how to play, but he also knew how to enjoy himself, how to fit in and how to lead seamlessly.
Those are traits the future Hall of Famer would need playing in a different city each of the last four years following a 15-year career in Boston.
“He was really good,” WIttman said. “Obviously, his leadership and who he is, but he’s a quality person as well as a player. He was, I think, a really big part in some of our guys maturing.”
To do that, Pierce wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, even if it wasn’t always positive.
“I think everything I was able to give them was honest, whether you like it or not,” Pierce said. “But I understand at the same time, when you’re young, you enjoy the NBA season, you have fun.”
Young players go out and enjoy themselves, Pierce said, and that’s OK in doses. But Pierce saw greatness in the Wizards if they were willing to put in the work.
He saw a team that could challenge as one of the top teams in the East, and he wanted to teach the youthful squad sacrifices can get them that goal.
To do that, Pierce couldn’t slouch himself.
“He’s about his business,” Beal said this summer at Team USA minicamp. “It’s amazing, he’s 17-plus years in and he’s still the first guy in the gym and the last one to leave.”
That’s not a new trait for Pierce.
Pierce has an ability to both keep players in line and loose. He’s witty, capable of coming up with a quick remark to just about anything, but he picks and chooses those observations. After returning to Washington, D.C., for the first time, Pierce was told he was the first person to stand up and cheer when Cole Aldrich made a good play.
“You hear that, Cole, I’m one of the first to stand up when you make a play,” Pierce said as he turned to the center, “and I’m one of the first to sit down when you miss a dunk.”
Whether Pierce is in his prime in Boston or at the end of his career in Los Angeles, head coach Doc Rivers said he’s always known Pierce to have the ability to speak up when he needs to without overdoing it.
Talking non-stop, Rivers said, isn’t leadership. And Pierce gets that.
He also gets how to be a leader on a young team, and that if he was going to connect with those around him and get people to listen, he had to be accountable himself.
Back in Boston, remembers Pierce lining up his old Celtics teammates every morning before practice and challenging them 1-on-1. He’d have wars with Tony Allen, according to Rivers, which got to the point the coaching staff would have to settle them down before practice.
That tradition didn’t stop as he moved from city to city. When told by a reporter before the game that Marcin Gortat said he’d beat Pierce more often than not in 1-on-1, Pierce responded quickly.
“No way,” Pierce said. “I hope I get a switch on him. I’ll show you what I used to do to him.”
Beal joked what he learned most from Pierce was how to talk more trash, which Pierce is plenty capable of. But it was all part of Pierce’s competitiveness and how he pushed his teammates, who appreciated what he brought.
“He’s great,” Beal said. “He’s terrific, one of the best vets I’ve ever played with… His legacy is going to forever be known.”
That would make sense in Boston, but it doesn’t seem debatable in Washington, D.C., either.
Change In Scenery
Pierce averaged 11.9 points and 4.9 rebounds with the Wizards last year and came up clutch when it mattered most, averaging 14.6 points per game in the playoffs. It’s those postseason performances the Clippers brought him in for, hoping for anything to put them over the edge, though it’s clear in the journey to the playoffs Pierce’s role is significantly different than what he’s used to.
Pierce started for just the third time this season in his return to Washington, D.C., after the Clippers liked what they saw from him in the second half in a season-high 20-point performance at power forward against Utah with Blake Griffin down.
This is admittedly a new situation which comes with its own set of challenges for Pierce, who’d never been an NBA reserve before.
“It’s a different type of preparation,” Pierce said. “It’s definitely mentally challenging when you’ve never done it your whole career. It’s just something I’ve had to accept. It’s taken time, also playing a lot less minutes. It’s harder to get warmed up when you’re my age.”
Pierce joked by the time he’s warmed up, he’s done for the game. But he hasn’t complained.
He’s 38, and he signed up to play with the Clippers to be with his old coach and try to win a championship back home, and both of those hopes are still in reach. They’re also why Rivers thought he was in the driver’s seat this summer when Pierce, for a third straight year, pondered his future.
And Rivers was correct, only, the Pierce he’d be driving with at 38 years old would inevitably differ from the one he grew accustomed to in Boston. That’s most noticeable to Rivers when it comes to Pierce’s endurance and preference not to go 1-on-1, even if he still breaks those moves out at practice.
“When I had him in the younger days, I’d give him the ball at the elbow and it was basically a basket,” Rivers said. “Now, he’ll tell you once you move the ball, ‘I’ll pop and go that way.’ He’s figured out how to still play because of his IQ, and he still has some of that, but he just can’t do it over and over again.”
But Pierce is figuring out what he can still to do.
On Saturday in Utah, it was hitting big threes. He even busted out a dunk, showing he’s still got it in him. On Monday, back on the court in Washington, D.C., for the first time since last season, it was mostly jumpers inside the arc.
But as the Wizards know, Pierce’s true value will be told months from now.
The postseason’s where he’s always shined, and that was no different in Washington, D.C., where they haven’t forgotten.
“I just spent my one year here, but I feel like I really became a part of this city,” Pierce said. “Like I said before, they really embraced me, and I embraced them. I still talk to some of the coaches, some of the players over there. D.C. is forever going to be in my heart.”