Paul Pierce wanted to win.
Inglewood High School wasn’t a contender at the time, but Crenshaw High, just ten minutes away, was a repeat state champion.
He was torn as he entered his sophomore year. Stay with the program and people he knew or take a chance and join a new team? Pierce chose option B.
“I actually left for about a week, but then my brother was like, ‘Why would you do that?’” he recalled to CSNNE.com. “‘Why would you go somewhere else where you don’t really know if the grass is really greener on the other side? The team isn’t good right now, why don’t you just stick with Inglewood and make them better? You started there, you grew up there, why don’t you see what happens?’”
Pierce considered the words of his older brother, Steven Hosey. Crenshaw was different. His friends were back at Inglewood. The only people he knew at his new school were the basketball coaches. He didn’t feel comfortable, and he didn’t feel right leaving Inglewood behind, either.
“I just knew that wasn’t the place I wanted to be,” Pierce said. “I really thought about it and I wound up transferring after a week, going back to Inglewood, and the rest is history.
“I think even since back then, the loyalty that I was able to show just by staying at that school and not giving up on them even though we weren’t that good at the time is something that’s just been instilled in me ever since I was a young kid.”
Pierce takes that sense of loyalty into his 14th season with the Boston Celtics – the only team he has ever played for, the only team he wants to play for for the rest of his career.
He could have demanded a trade. Pierce was approaching the prime of his career and the Celtics were struggling to put together a winning season. The team was trying to bounce back from their 33-win 2006 season when Pierce was sidelined with injuries, limiting him to just 47 games in the 2007 campaign.
As he watched from the bench, he saw his teammates go on an 18-game skid with young players like Al Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Ryan Gomes, Delonte West, and a rookie Rajon Rondo on the court. Pierce questioned the future of the team and their potential to win once he was able to play.
“It was definitely the most turmoil time for me,” Pierce, now 34, said. “I just remember going up in the office with (team owners) Wyc (Grousbeck) and Steve Pagliuca and (President of Basketball Operations) Danny (Ainge), trying to figure out what the direction of the team was.
“My biggest thing was, how close are we really? We were a 33-win team at the time and without me, I was like are we that far away when you miss just one player, you go on an 18-game losing streak? That really doesn’t happen to teams if they lose their one star player. Who goes on an 18-game losing streak after that? So that made me think we’re pretty much far away from where I want to be in this process.”
After finishing the 2006-07 season 24-58, the Celtics were in the running to land the first overall pick in the draft. Around that time, reports of Pierces unhappiness began to buzz. "Pierce's patience running out," read the Yahoo! headline.
With a young Kevin Durant entering the league, Pierce wondered what would happen if the ping pong balls fell in the Cs favor.
“To be honest, I think a lot of things hinged on that draft,” he reflected. “My loyalty or no loyalty, if Kevin Durant gets picked, I probably wouldn’t be here. Even though as much as Danny said he wanted to see that combination – because we talked about it, we even talked about the scenarios and he was like, I want to see you guys play together – I thought that would have been a perfect chip for them to move forward without me because then you’d have Al Jefferson, Perkins, and then you would’ve had Kevin Durant.
“And so things kind of just fell into place when that didn’t happen, when we didn’t get that pick. I knew when we didn’t get that pick I probably would be here for the long run because the people that we got, I knew we would trade it for something better.”
Pierce and the Celtics front office talked. When the ownership and personnel shared their determination to improve the team, their eagerness resonated with Pierce. They were committed to winning in Boston, and so was he.
“They were able to convince me,” Pierce said. “They were new ownership. They showed just as much passion in wanting to turn this thing around as I did, and I felt that. That was the reason for me not really coming out trying to demand a trade or force my way into another franchise. I thought the ownership really showed loyalty, so that was just kind of my way of just showing loyalty back.”
At 29 years old, Pierce opted for the same decision he made early on – stay at the place you came from and help turn them into a winner. The commitment meant volumes to head coach Doc Rivers, who at the time had finished his third season with the Celtics.
“It was the dark ages,” Rivers told CSNNE.com. “But everyone goes through that. But that’s when Paul was the strongest. I thought he grew. Just think, he had a new coach who was trying to change the way he played, we were struggling, and he bought into what I was trying to sell him. He stayed, bought into the franchise and he made the decision. He clearly could have left. He clearly could have got a ton of money somewhere else, and it didn’t matter. He wanted to be a Celtic.”
The Celtics ended up with the fifth pick in the 2007 NBA draft, and the rest is history. They drafted and swapped Jeff Green for Ray Allen in a deal, and later traded for Kevin Garnett, leading to their 17th championship that season.
In a league today where players are demanding trades and selecting which teams they want to play for, Pierces desire to play for just one team his entire career is a rarity. While he stuck it out through the tough times in Boston, he understands why some other players are choosing a different approach. He was able to win with players who were traded to his own team, but not everyone is in that situation.
“It’s a player’s league at the end of the day, regardless of what you say about what all went on about the lockout,” he said. “At the end of the day, players are going to want to play where they want to play, whether they’re free agents or not, and they’re going to have that choice. And I think it’s a right. So I don’t really see too much wrong with it. I don’t know if you can create a system to kind of change it or not because obviously we didn’t do it with this collective bargaining agreement (laughs).
“But at the end of the day, the great players want to be part of great teams, and when management and ownership isn’t putting out the product to help the great players, then they feel like their legacy is on the line. When you go through your prime years playing great basketball and you have no help, who knows what kind of player you could have been. That was one of the issues that I had. I was playing into my prime and it’s like you kind of feel like you’re wasting years away. If you got with other players, who knows if there’s a championship on the horizon. Obviously when we got the great players here, we were able to win a championship. So not all of my prime went to waste (laughs).
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword there. When you’ve got Chris Paul down in New Orleans and Dwight (Howard) down there (in Orlando) and not really a great supporting cast, I think they really think about their legacy. Around the league there aren’t a lot of great general managers, they make mistakes, and like Minnesota, they couldn’t put a team around Kevin and really get over the hump. And I think a lot of players are seeing that, what’s happened to the players in the past and they just want that opportunity for a championship.”
Pierce has noticed a shift in mentality in players over the years. Instead of going for big money, many are opting for bigger chances to win. After experience the joy of lifting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in 2008, he understands why. Pierce restructured his contract to create more opportunities for the Celtics to enhance their roster.
“This is a new generation,” he said. “You just didn’t see this the last 10, 20 years. This is a newer generation who understands that there’s only a short window for success, and they realize that it’s not always about the money with these guys anymore. These guys, they have other opportunities to make money off the court, with sponsorships and shoe contracts. It’s like, they have the money so what more do they want? It’s a championship. So when guys take less money for that opportunity, that’s what you’re seeing.”
As players around the league look for the best spot to help their championship aspirations, Pierce is happy right where he is. Finishing his career with the team he started – and won a title – with would mean everything to the man who learned the value of loyalty as a teenager.
“It would mean a lot,” he said of retiring a Celtic. “It would mean everything probably to my legacy as a Boston Celtic because it’s a rarity that you see that. It doesn’t happen in this day and age any more. I’d probably be looked at like one of the last of the Mohicans I guess (laughs), of the players who played ten-plus years with one franchise. Right now there’s only like four or five of us I think who’s done that, so it’s a rarity this day and age.”
Said Rivers, “I think Paul looks at himself as a Celtic, not as a brand. He’s not worried about his brand. He wants his brand to be connected to being a Celtic, and I just love that.”
Pierce leans back in his chair as he looks up at the banners that line the walls of the Celtics practice facility.
“To be here, it’s like how can you leave this?” he said, gazing around the gym. “All this history, all the great players, all the great teams, it would have been tough for me to even leave this knowing that I’m a part of Celtic lure. If you can win anywhere in the NBA, why wouldn’t you want to stay here and win?”