BOSTON – Like most of the Celtics assistant coaches, Jay Larrinaga would arrive early to the TD Garden on game days.
GOODBYE TO PAUL PIERCE
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One of the first faces he would see was Paul Pierce, a well-established veteran who had done it all in what at the time was his 15th and final season as a Celtic.
And yet, there was Pierce, going through the kind of pre-game routine you often see being done by rookies or seldom-used reserves.
“It was interesting being in coaching conversations saying, ‘is he working too hard?’” Larrinaga, who at the time was in his first season with the Celtics, told CSNNE.com. “Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the constant discussions in our coaching meetings that year was, are they overworking themselves in practice? That’s foreign to a lot of people these days. I was saying to Jordan Mickey the other day, Paul’s routine was do whatever you need to do in the weight room, shoot pre-practice shots and grab someone to play one-on-one. [Former second-round pick] Kris Joseph that year, or Jeff Green, Courtney Lee...He [Pierce] is special.”
That was the beauty of Paul Pierce’s game, one that will be on display Sunday afternoon for one last time at the Garden with Pierce now playing with the Los Angeles Clippers.
He made things look so easy by easily avoiding the "been-there, done-that" mentality that veteran players tend to have once they’ve achieved a certain status.
That’s because as accomplished as he was in the NBA, there was always a part of him that felt he had something to prove.
It was the kind of thing that if you were go back and time to search for its basketball genesis, the 1998 NBA draft would be a good starting point.
‘THE CELTICS? COME ON’
Owners of the 10th overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft, the Celtics were hoping to add a talented sleeper to their roster. There were a number of players whose name was associated with the Celtics at No. 10, they had their sights set on this German youngster named Dirk Nowitzki.
As the draft played out, the Celtics were feeling better and better about their chances of having Nowitzki on the draft board when it was there time to pick.
But they knew not to get their hopes up, especially after having the best chance at landing the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft – Tim Duncan – only to wind up with the No. 3 pick, which they used to select Chauncey Billups and subsequently traded him in his rookie year.
But as the 1998 draft played itself out, they noticed something that was peculiar.
Paul Pierce, a player most pegged as a top-five selection, kept slipping and slipping inexplicably.
It didn’t matter.
He would be off the board by the time they picked at No. 10, right?
So, when the Celtics learned that Philadelphia was planning to take Larry Hughes with the eighth overall selection, it finally sunk in that Boston would be walking away from this draft with either Nowitzki or Pierce.
Nowitzki went off the board and No. 9 and from there, well, the rest is history.
“We were a little unlucky last year [in 1997]. We got very lucky this year,” said Rick Pitino, who was the team’s head coach and general manager at that time. “We will take from the University of Kansas, Paul Pierce.
The drafting of Pierce didn’t set off any kind of euphoric reaction among Celtics fans.
And Pierce, from Inglewood, Calif., wasn’t exactly thrilled to be heading to Boston after, not surprisingly, growing up a Los Angeles Lakers fan.
“When they called out ‘Celtic’ and the camera jumps to you, I gave out a good smile and hugged everybody,” Pierce said. “But inside my body cringed. I was like, ‘the Celtics?’ Come on. Rick Pitino, running you into the dirt. Celtics, I hated growing up. It was like, ugh!”
It didn’t take long before Pierce made his mark on the franchise, averaging 16.5 points in his first season, which landed him a spot on the league’s all-rookie first team.
But a promising start soon gave way to a series of events that speak to the highs and lows of Pierce’s career, one that has been equally shaped by tragedy and unexpected triumphs.
STRENGTH, PURPOSE FOUND THROUGH ADVERSITY
Pierce was just months away from his third NBA season and seemed on the cusp of making that leap from being a good, young player in the NBA, to a bona fide superstar.
But his future – not just his basketball future, but his life – was up in the air after an incident in the fall of 2000 in which he was stabbed 11 times and hit over the head with a bottle at a nightclub in the Boston Theatre District.
Pierce recovered from the incident and went on to play in all 82 games in the 2000-2001 season, the only Celtic to do so.
Surviving that was a huge victory in itself, especially when you consider how close the knife wounds came to vital internal organs.
“It was a miracle,” Pierce said in an interview with ABC, adding that one of the wounds was “a pinch or two short of my heart.”
That incident would help serve as part of Pierce’s life-long narrative, one in which he has often found strength in adversity, added purpose in the one pursuit that he never lost sight of despite all the mounting losses.
He wanted to win a title with the Celtics.
HELP ARRIVES RIGHT ON TIME
The Celtics knew Pierce was at a near-breaking point following the 2007 season, which was a historically bad season for Boston that included them losing a franchise-record 18 straight games.
So the plan was pretty clear: either get Pierce some serious help to turn things around, or look to trade him.
Then came a deal on draft night that netted Ray Allen from Seattle (now Oklahoma City). That paved the way for another trade that landed Kevin Garnett from Minnesota.
The Big Three in Boston was alive and well.
After having spent nearly a decade as a Celtics, Pierce finally had a crew to work with that had more than just a fighter’s chance at winning an NBA title.
They were everyone’s odds-on favorite to get it done.
And they lived up to the lofty billing, bringing home Banner 17 in their first year together.
Pierce was named NBA Finals MVP.
Injuries to Garnett as well as other ill-timed setbacks prevented the Celtics from winning a second NBA title.
But the foundation of excellence for this franchise had indeed been restored, with Pierce being a significant player in that happening.
“Paul Pierce, when I picture the Celtics in my head, Paul Pierce is what I think of,” said Celtics rookie forward Jaylen Brown.
For years, Danny Ainge talked about how he would have traded Larry Bird and Kevin McHale as aging veterans for younger talent to avoid the significant drop-off that came by letting them spend their final days as NBA players with the Celtics.
Ainge put those words into practice on the eve of the 2013 NBA draft by sending Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to Brooklyn for a slew of draft picks that are still flowing in, as well as a handful of players to make the money work.
It was a bittersweet end to Pierce’s playing career with the Celtics, but he has maintained all along that he holds no grudges or animosity towards Ainge for making the deal.
In fact, the two still keep in contact with each other and have made no secret about at least giving some thought to working together in Boston when Pierce’s playing career is over.
And as Pierce made known prior to the start of the season, this will be his final season in the NBA.
And for a player who is known for his in-game theatrics (he will never live the wheelchair incident down; never), Sunday will indeed be his final curtain call at the TD Garden.
He has appeared in just 12 games this season, averaging career lows scoring (3.8 points), rebounding (1.5), minutes played (12.3) and shooting (35.9 percent) from the field.
Even more telling is the fact that he has not played (coaches decision) in 17 of the Los Angeles Clippers’ past 18 games, which raises legit concerns as to whether Clippers coach (and former Celtics head man) Doc Rivers will even play the 10-time All-Star on Sunday.
Regardless of whether he sees action today or not (I can’t imagine Rivers won’t find a way to get him in the game at some point or possibly start him), Pierce will always have a special place in the hearts of Celtics fans - as well as have his jersey retired at the Garden - soon.
Because even after he was traded to Brooklyn and later signed with the Washington Wizards and most recently the Clippers, Pierce will forever be linked with Boston – a strange marriage of sorts considering he grew up a die-hard L.A. Lakers fan.
That’s the beauty of his time with Boston. Despite his affinity for the purple-and-gold, his loyalty to his teammates, to this franchise, was never an issue.
“The part I wish people wrote more about Paul: Paul had a chance to leave us when we were bad,” Rivers, then coaching the Boston Celtics, said after Pierce became the franchise’s No. 2 all-time scorer in 2012. “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 someday.’ He had no reason to believe that, at that time. I mean, we were pretty awful. 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.”
We do too, Doc.
We do too.