In an era in which All-Stars demand trades and abandon their original teams because circumstances aren’t optimal, the Celtics have Paul Pierce, whose 13-year tenure in Boston began with a series of setbacks but in its later stages has had lots of accomplishments.
Pierce already was considered one of the franchise’s all-time great players, but perhaps he jumped onto the Mount Rushmore of Celtics legends last night when passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird for second on the team’s all-time scoring list.
A 3-pointer with 10:23 left in the third quarter pushed Pierce 1 point past Larry Legend with 21,792, more than Bill Russell, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Tommy Heinsohn.
The Celtics turned in a ragged performance in beating the Charlotte Bobcats, 94-84, at TD Garden. Yet the result paled in comparison to the accomplishment. Pierce has transformed himself from a face of a declining and underachieving franchise to one of the game’s best small forwards, and Boston won a title in 2007-08. While his No. 34 would have risen to the rafters here even if he did not pass Bird, it was a symbolic achievement.
Bird was the leader, the driving force behind the Celtics who beat Pierce’s hometown Lakers in 1984 as he grew up in Inglewood, Calif., just minutes from the Forum. Pierce went from Inglewood High to an All-American at the University of Kansas to a first-round pick of the Celtics in 1998.
His journey in Boston has been filled with obstacles but his desire to remain with the Celtics never waned. And his face filled with humility as he attempted to address last night’s milestone.
“It was a relief, so much was hanging over me the last couple of days just hearing about it,’’ said Pierce, who finished with 15 points (he now has 21,797 total) and added 9 assists and 8 rebounds. “So many people just talked about it. Definitely it’s a great feat knowing you are going to be up there with all the great Celtics. Larry Bird is probably one of the most important players to ever play in this franchise. To have your name up there with him is a great honor.’’
Pierce entered needing 10 points to pass Bird and it was apparent from the start he was pressing, trying to drain 25-foot 3-pointers at every opportunity. Finally, on his second shot of the second half and 10th of the game, he canned a 3-pointer from the right side of the arc for 21,792.
Play did not stop, so Jermaine O’Neal committed a foul eight seconds later to allow the crowd to acknowledge Pierce. He raised his hand several times and then began waving his hands up and down to encourage a louder response.
Teammate Mickael Pietrus held up a towel that read, “THE TRUTH,’’ Pierce’s longtime nickname, which is tattooed on his right forearm. And during a timeout at the 5:14 mark, the Celtics played a video tribute and Pierce acknowledged the crowd again at midcourt.
The celebration was not unlike many Pierce has watched over the years for retired Celtics, who are remembered in reverence for their contributions to the franchise’s 17 championships. Pierce has become passionate about the team’s history as his career has progressed.
“We have great fans. They’ve seen it all from my younger days, from my trials and tribulations, to this point today and it’s just a great honor for them to be able to stand up and give me that type of ovation,’’ Pierce said. “Being a Celtic all these years and understanding what it means to be a Celtic and the ups and downs you go through and just to come to this point in your career really means so much.’’
Although Pierce’s place in Celtics history could be debated for decades, the certainty is that a place is reserved.
“Here’s the part I wish people wrote more about Paul: Paul had a chance to leave us when we were bad,’’ coach Doc 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. And to me, I wish people talked about his loyalty more, because I think that’s special, especially in this day and time, when everybody’s jumping from team to team.’’
The Celtics did not win 50 games in a season until Pierce was joined by Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, 10 years into his career. By then he was considered a talented but inconsistent player more concerned with personal numbers. Following the arrival of Allen and Garnett, Pierce became a leader and a cornerstone.
“Just having confidence in the ownership and [team president] Danny [Ainge], just knowing how great this franchise can be, knowing the history, knowing that once this franchise gets back to where it needs to be and if I’m a part of it there’s no other franchise like this in all of basketball,’’ he said. “You knew eventually it would turn around. I’ve just always been the optimist just knowing eventually ‘the next year, the next year’ that’s what I always kept saying to myself that it would eventually turn around and it took one summer for us to turn this thing around and I’m just thankful that my patience was able to pay off.’’
And when asked about catching Celtics all-time leading scorer John Havlicek, who has 26,395 points, Pierce said: “I think the fans would really appreciate another championship more than me passing Hondo, so that’s my ultimate goal.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe