Truth be told: It was a great ride

Truth be told: It was a great ride
June 28, 2013, 11:15 am
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BOSTON — A first-round playoff exit was not how Paul Pierce would have scripted an end to his playing career in Boston.

But then again, things not going as planned has been part of this Celtics-Pierce marriage from its inception.

"A lot of emotions, a lot of things go through your head about the season . . . about the future," Pierce said moments after the Game 6 loss to the Knicks last month that ended the Celtics' season and, as it turns out, Pierce's career in Boston. "You know it's a lot of mixed emotions right now."

The same could be said for Celtics Nation now that Pierce's run as the face of the franchise, is over.

Along with Kevin Garnett, Pierce was part of a blockbuster trade agreed to in principle on Thursday night that will send the duo to the Brooklyn Nets, along with Jason Terry, for the following: three first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018, along with Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Marshon Brooks, Keith Bogans (via sign and trade) and former Celtic Kris Joseph.

The C's now have a total of nine first-round picks in the next five drafts, the kind of assets that provides them with the potential to be on the fast track towards rebuilding.

Regardless, Celtics Nation is in mourning as Pierce takes his talents to Brooklyn and the C's go forward into a Truth-less future.

Here's a look back at one of the most iconic players not only of his generation, but of NBA history . . . a ride that began in Vancouver on June 24, 1998.

DRAFT NIGHT SURPRISE

The Celtics, fresh off a 36-46 season, went into the 1998 draft hopeful of landing a solid player who could contribute right away.

"We’re looking forward to this draft," Rick Pitino, then-head coach of the Celtics, said at the time. "This draft is probably the most unique I’ve seen since following it because you normally know 1-5 and 1-8 and then the next 10 or so are fairly close. This draft, 10 could be just as good as 1."

As NBA commissioner David Stern rattled off one name after another, there was one that was ominously absent - Paul Pierce.

After Larry Hughes went off the board at No. 8, the Celtics were downright giddy at the prospect that they were going to land Paul Pierce.

They loved Dirk Nowitzki, but the Mavs had made it clear to the C's that they had every intention of swinging a deal with Milwaukee -- holders of the No. 9 pick -- for Nowitzki, which left Celtics feeling quite lucky . . . a far cry from where they were the year before, when they came up short in the Tim Duncan sweepstakes despite finishing with the league's worst record in 1997.

"We certainly didn’t expect this because we thought Paul Pierce would go number three," Pitino said. "We obviously were very high on a number of basketball players, but when Paul Pierce became available it was a no-brainer."

Pierce made no secret about being disappointed in slipping much further than he expected.

"I was sort of upset at the time but you know I just gotta move on," he said that night. "I’m glad Boston is giving me this opportunity. A lot of teams passed up on a good player, but I’m going to go out there and prove a lot of people wrong, that I should have been their pick. But I’m happy Boston is giving me this opportunity.”

And to his credit, Pierce made the most of his chance to play. He had a strong rookie season that set the stage for a career in Boston in which he ranks among the franchise's top 10 players in just about every meaningful statistical category.

"Oh there's no doubt. He's one of the greatest Celtics," former Boston forward Rick Fox told CSNNE.com.

His first experience with Pierce came during a pick-up game in Los Angeles prior to Pierce's rookie season. Fox was just months removed from having played in his fifth and final season with the Celtics. Like it or not, Pierce was for all intent and purposes, Fox's replacement in Boston.

And it didn't take long for Pierce to display the skills that would ultimately lead to him becoming just one of five Celtics (Larry Bird, John Havliceck, Bill Russell and Bob Cousy were the others) to be named to 10 or more All-Star teams.

"He made scoring look effortless," Fox recalled. "I could tell right away that scoring in our league, that wouldn't be a problem for him."

The same went for Pierce's confidence, which was still high as he competed against NBA players prior to ever playing in a game at that level.

"I was an (NBA) vet at the time, had been through a lot, seen a lot," Fox said. "But Paul looked at me like I was rookie or something."

And it is that same unshakeable confidence that saw the chubby kid from Ingelwood, Calif., who was almost cut from his high school team as a sophomore, evolve into a future Hall of Famer while playing for one of the most storied franchises in NBA history.

ROOKIE SEASON

More than a decade later, Pierce still finds motivation in being selected 10th overall in the 1998 draft.

"That's what the greats do," Celtics guard Jason Terry told CSNNE.com. "You find ways to keep yourself going, keep yourself motivated to keep doing great things on the court. I know for a fact that Paul felt he was better than every guy drafted ahead of him that year. You have to have that confidence to play at this level, to play at such a high level that he has for so many years."

Pierce didn't waste any time putting the rest of the league on notice that he had indeed arrived and was going to be an impact player for many years to come.

His first season, he earned first-team All-Rookie honors as he averaged 16.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Vince Carter and Jason Williams.

But as quickly as Pierce's cache rose to superstar status, one night -- September 25, 2000 to be exact -- put him on the brink of losing it all.

STABBING

Like many young NBA players in a new city far from home, Pierce was still learning his way around the streets of Boston. More experienced players like Tony Battie were more than willing to show the young fella around to all the hot spots.

One of them was the Buzz Club in Boston's Theatre District, on Stuart Street.

Pierce was there just before training camp for his third season opened. He began talking to a woman and was soon confronted by three men, one of whom was her brother..

Things soon escalated and Pierce wound up being stabbed 11 times, with wounds to his back, neck and face, along with being hit in the head with a bottle.

And just like that, what began as just another night on the town turned into a life-altering, near-death experience.

"You can't take anything for granted," Pierce told CSNNE.com earlier this season. "Life, this game . . . nothing."

It wasn't until Battie and his brother Derrick had Pierce out of the club and into his car did they realize how serious Pierce's injuries were, as blood gushed from his body. Fortunately for Pierce, they were minutes away from a medical center. Doctors said some of the cuts to Pierce miraculously missed vital organs by inches, which literally could have meant the difference between life and death.

Just days after surgery, though, Pierce was back on the floor preparing for camp.

And that season?

He wound up playing in all 82 regular-season games, averaging then-career highs in just about every statistical category.

As for his attackers, two were eventually sentenced to jail (William Ragland for 7-10 years and Trevor Watson for one year), while one was acquitted.

At the time of Pierce's stabbing, Doc Rivers was head coach of the Orlando Magic. Like most people in the NBA, he, too, was concerned about Pierce's future going forward.

"Paul Pierce was not just almost out of the league," Rivers told the Orlando Sentinel. "He was almost dead."

BIG THREE FORMATION

Nearly a decade into his career as a Celtic, Pierce was slowly but surely coming to a crossroads of sorts.

He was a proven talent, a perennial All-Star in every sense of the word. But he was never going to be considered one of the greats because -- playing on a Celtics team that ranged from pretty good in the early 2000s to downright awful later in the decade -- failed to do what the greats do: win an NBA title.

Coming off a horrific 24-win season in 2007, the C's had to do something.

The Celtics' president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, had been gradually adding young talent around Pierce, but that talent wasn't good enough to put the C's in contention to win a title. And Pierce readily admitted that he was getting antsy.

But just as the C's showed faith in drafting him back in 1998 when nine other teams went another route, he would stay the course and continue to believe that someday -- soon, he hoped -- the Celtics would put together a team that could compete for an NBA title.

And fate struck.

Seattle had hired Sam Presti as its new GM, and Presti was looking to clean house and start from scratch. His goal being to use what he inherited and flip it for as many multiple assets as possible. So on draft night, Presti sent Ray Allen to Boston along with a second-round pick (that turned into Glen Davis, now in Orlando) in exchange for Delonte West, Wally Sczerbiak and the rights to the No. 5 pick, which turned into Jeff Green (who is now with the Celtics).

A Pierce-Allen combo was nice, but both players knew that there had to be at least another piece added in order to elevate the C's to being a legit title contender.

Weeks after the draft, the Celtics had their sights locked on trying to acquire Kevin Garnett, who was not all that thrilled about the idea of leaving Minnesota for a team that had gone 24-58 the previous season.

Even the idea of playing with Pierce, a longtime friend who he grew up with and played with during their AAU days, wasn't enough to lure him to Boston at first.

But eventually Garnett relented by signing an extension which guaranteed he would not bolt after just one season in Boston (he could have opted out of his contract in 2008 if he did not sign an extension prior to that).

Several factors helped the C's acquire Garnett, among them former Celtics guard Chauncey Billups who was traded away during his rookie season.

"The thing with Kevin is, he just wants to win, man," Billups told CSNNE.com. "And I just told him, straight-up, Boston's the best place for you to do that."

At the time, Billups played for the Detroit Pistons, which meant the path for the Pistons would be much tougher.

"But that's basketball right there," Billups said. "My friendship with KG is bigger, way bigger than this game."

And so the Big Three was in place, ready to take on the world Garnett and Allen in the fold.

But there was one more thing left to do — win a championship.

BANNER 17

To the surprise of no one, the Celtics opened the season in dominant fashion with eight straight wins and finished with a 66-16 record. Only the 1985-86 Celtics (67-15) won more regular season games than the '08 team.

After cruising through the regular season, the Celtics hit a bit of turbulence -- OK, a lot of turbulence -- once the playoffs arrived.

Rivers wasn't sure how his team would respond to the adversity, something that particular team knew nothing about, having sailed through the regular season with ease.

The eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks pushed the C's to the brink of elimination before Boston crushed them by 34 points in Game 7. Several players stepped up, but it was Pierce's play that once again stood out as he led the C's with 22 points . . . which included Boston being plus-33 in that game when he was on the floor.

Boston then found itself in yet another hard-fought series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Both players had big games, but nothing compares to the epic battle they waged in Game 7, which may very well be remembered as one of the more defining games in Pierce's Hall of Fame-worthy career.

James, now with the Heat, had more points (45) than Pierce (41). But as Pierce has shown throughout his career, often it's not how many points you score but when you score them.

He was efficient. He got to the free-throw line. He got teammates involved . . . well, about as involved as a guy dropping 41 points can do, mind you.

But more than anything else, the C's got the win and the dream was still alive for another round.

The final hurdle -- the Detroit Pistons -- wound up being the easiest series for the C's, who eliminated an aging Pistons club in six games to advance to the NBA Finals. Pierce scored a game-high 27 points in the series-clinching sixth game in Detroit.

From there, on to the Finals where they faced longtime nemesis, the Los Angeles Lakers.

Again, the contributions throughout the series came from many. But the play of Pierce once again stood head and shoulders above the rest as he scored 26 points in the series-clinching Game 6 win at the TD Garden to bring home Banner 17.

“This is what makes those other moments so sweet, knowing we were at rock bottom a year ago today, to climb all the way to the top, this is a dream come true," said a jubilant Pierce who was named NBA Finals MVP. "I’m going to cherish this forever.”

As the Larry O'Brien Trophy was passed on from one player to another, Rivers found himself in a moment of reflection when Pierce clutched it.

There were flashbacks to eight years earlier when Pierce had been stabbed, and no one knew if he would live let alone play basketball.

"And now he is the Finals MVP," Rivers said. "You tell me. Who else has had a turnaround like that?"

LEGACY

With his career wrapping up, thoughts about his legacy both within the Celtics and throughout the league becomes a talking point.

For just about any other franchise, Pierce's career accomplishments would be good enough to make him a lock for being one of the - if not the - greatest of all time.

But in Boston, things are different.

Celtics Nation loves points, rebounds and all that other stuff. But that's never the measurement of greatness.

It's championships.

Pierce has one, which is enough to get him through the door and into the room where all the greats reside. But if you want a seat with the likes of Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird, multiple titles isn't optional . . . they're mandatory.

However, basketball purists will contend that comparing Pierce's accomplishments with those of a different era  -- when there were fewer teams and, thus, an easier path to winning a championship -- doesn't do justice to what he meant to this franchise, to this league.

Debating his place among the all-time great Celtics is a worthy topic of discussion. But one thing that can not be questioned, ever, is his desire from the day he donned a Celtics cap in 1998 to above all else, be a Celtic.

"Paul had a chance to leave us when we were bad," Rivers said. "And instead of moaning that he wanted to go to a championship team, he stayed. And 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."

Rivers added, "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.”