“It's a hell of a journey, man. You don't really understand it until you get close to where you want. There's times you want to give up and times you want to move on and you get so much satisfaction out of staying and sticking with it and seeing things turn around after all the things you go through. That's gratification for me. Those are the things I think about these days.”
This was Paul Pierce in June 2008, just before the Celtics and Lakers faced off in the NBA Finals. Pierce was speaking with the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy about the long, uneven road he’d traveled as Celtics captain; the ups and downs of his career in Boston and how, a year earlier, he was convinced that his days in green were numbered.
"I pretty much thought it was over,” Pierce said. “I thought I was going to be a Los Angeles Clipper. I thought I was going to be anywhere but the Celtics.”
Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead of trading Pierce, the Celtics traded for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, and in June of 2008, Pierce was on top of the world. Still four wins from glory, but, either way, he was in a good place. He was happy. And reflective:
“Me and Doc [Rivers] definitely bumped heads from the beginning. There were screaming matches, rebellion. I didn't think it was going to work between me and him. Doc would say, ‘Paul, your body language and your attitude says a lot for the guys around you. I know you're not happy not winning games. But you have to know how if affects the rest of the guys. When your body language is low and you're not getting extra shots, it rubs off on the other guys.' "
That first season with Doc was 2004-05. It was Danny Ainge’s second year on the job and the wheels were in motion on a full on rebuild. Meanwhile, Pierce was 27, in the prime of his career and, in his own words, “the classic case of a great player on a bad team.” The question had become whether the Celtics' best course of action was to build around Pierce or trade him.
“We had to go in one direction or the other,” Ainge said. “It was either go with Paul, or go young and start over. There was discussion. We decided we wanted to win with him here, rather than trade him and see someone else win with him. Our intention was to explore what we could do with Paul. I talked with him about it. I was sympathetic to the frustration he had, but I thought he dealt with it pretty well.”
And here’s how Pierce dealt with it.
“I just had to go home and grow up,” he said. “It was a difficult situation. It was time to grow up, stop pouting, go out there and help these young guys out and things will work out. And that was my mindset after the first year with Doc. So that was my attitude after that and I think that helped out my relationship with Doc and them wanting to keep me around because they saw the change in my attitude. Trying to get better as a Celtic, regardless of the losing that was going on here.”
Anyway, since it’s been about five minutes, let’s talk about Rajon Rondo. And first, let me say this: The comparison between “Rondo now” and “Pierce then” obviously isn’t a perfect one.
When Ainge got cooking on his first rebuild, Pierce had already been captain for four years. He’d carried the torch as the face of this franchise from the moment he put on a Celtics uniform. He’d also never won or even played for a title. His career was incomplete, and the window for him to achieve that level of greatness was starting to close. At the height of Pierce’s frustration and desperation, he’d been stuck in a losing situation for three long years.
Meanwhile, for Rondo, it’s been about three months. He’s played 14 games as the lone wolf and presumed leader of the rebuilding Boston Celtics. He hasn’t proven that he can lead this team yet, but that’s mostly because, before this season, Rondo was never expected to assume anything more than a secondary role — he was just one of the guys, instead of being THE guy. Regardless of what anyone said, THE guy was always KG.
Unlike Pierce, who had to wait so long, Rondo was a champion at 22 years old. He didn’t have to wait at all.
And, okay. I’ve proven my point. The situations aren’t identical. Pierce and Rondo are two different players. They’re two different human beings. But that said, they both are human beings. Real people. People who make mistakes. People who sometimes have to do things wrong before learning how to do them right. They both have grown up in green, under this city’s watchful eye and the media’s crap-stirring tongue. In his day, Pierce was skewered on sports radio and in the press the same way Rondo is now. In many cases, by the same people.
Ultimately, as different as they might be, it’s almost impossible to read those quotes from Paul Pierce, reminisce about the bad times, and not feel the connection between what he was going through then and what Rondo’s going through now. It provides at least a little more perspective on the craziness that’s currently swirling and an added sense of optimism surrounding the likelihood that Rondo will pull through.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. Rondo can’t do it alone. Pierce might have put the onus on himself to grow up and become a man, but if Ainge didn’t align his captain with Allen and Garnett, Pierce’s redemption would have never been fully realized. Likewise, Rondo needs help. He’s got no chance with this current roster. So many changes need to be made. But first, like with Paul, it’s on Rondo to grow up and prove to Ainge that Boston’s better off moving forward with No. 9 as the foundation, as opposed to a large pile of trade bait.
Hopefully he can do that. It would be nice if someday down the road, Rondo’s giving an interview like Pierce did back in June 2008. Smiling. Laughing. Thinking back on all he’s been through, and feeling so gratified for his own strength to persevere and come out on top.
But for now, Rondo’s journey is far from over.
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