NEW YORK — If there were any doubts as to whether Paul Pierce was sad that his time with the Celtics was officially over, his facial expression screamed disbelief Thursday when he, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry were introduced as Brooklyn Nets.
Pierce did not turn the page quickly. He showed no disdain toward the Celtics for trading him after 15 years to foster their rebuilding plan, he showed only love for the city, team, and its fans, laying the groundwork for what could be one of the more emotional returns in Boston sports history when Pierce visits TD Garden next season in a different uniform.
Pierce almost choked up when asked about that first game back. What makes Pierce a true Celtic is that even with his new Nets jersey wrapped tightly in his hand, he spoke about the team that defines him, regardless of how many trophies he lifts in Brooklyn.
“I’ve already pictured it in my head about 100 times, thousands of times, and every time I’ve pictured it, I’ve shed tears,” he said of his return to TD Garden. “It’s going to be difficult. Just seeing all the relationships, when I go there, I knew a lot of people that sat in the stands, sat in the front row, the ball kids I saw grow up that I give shoes to who come out to the arena early with me. It’s definitely going to be emotional. My life was there. I spent almost half my life in Boston. I’m 35 and I spent 15 years in Boston.”
Pierce’s place in Celtics history has been strengthened in the last six years, and it was cemented on Thursday. There was no hint of bitterness in his voice. For the last three years, he prepared himself to be traded. He knew he wanted to play longer than his contract stipulated.
Pierce was in his teens, starring at Inglewood High School, when the Celtics’ original Big Three were aging, unable to compete in the Eastern Conference. Pierce is a realist and understood team president Danny Ainge had no intention of allowing Pierce and Garnett to decline dramatically as Celtics.
The decline had begun, and as long as both still had value, Ainge was going to make a move. Pierce was asked whether he attempted to make one last plea to hold off on rebuilding completely, as Doc Rivers did last month when Ainge told the coach he planned on trading Pierce.
With Pierce and Garnett rejuvenated, Rondo returning from knee surgery, and a revamped roster, maybe the Celtics could compete with Miami and Indiana. But Pierce knew it wasn’t realistic.
“I thought the writing was on the wall,” he said. “You saw Doc was leaving. Rondo was hurt, probably not going to back until December or January. If I was a GM and I looked at the situation, one day I probably plan on being a GM if that’s possible, I think I probably would have made the same decision. There’s some sentimental things that go along with me and Danny being together for so long, but at the end of the day he works for the Boston Celtics, he doesn’t work for Paul Pierce. He works for a franchise that’s going to be around a lot longer than me, and he has to make the best decisions he can for that franchise. If I was in his position moving forward, I would have probably done the same thing.”
Pierce understood the trade was best for both sides. The Celtics had to move on, and so did Pierce and Garnett. It will take time for the duo to grow accustomed to new surroundings and teammates. Three weeks isn’t enough.
Interestingly, it was Pierce who pushed Garnett to waive his no-trade clause and approve the deal. Pierce said Thursday he knew he was being traded even before Nets general manager Billy King called Ainge. And when Pierce learned of the trade from agent Jeff Schwartz, he lobbied Garnett.
“[Leaving] definitely crossed my mind more than others in the last couple of years,” said Pierce, “especially when you look at the team and you look at the direction they were going, me getting older as a player and the amount of new, younger guys coming in, that maybe one day it could happen. Mentally, I kind of prepared myself for the last few years that this could be a possibility.
“Now that it happened, it’s real. I understand it, it’s the business, and between me, Danny, and the owners, there are no hard feelings. They’re going in one direction, I’m going in another. It’s just a mutual thing. I’ll always have love for Boston, but you figured maybe this day would probably come.”
It was inevitable but that doesn’t mean it was easier to swallow. And there doesn’t figure to be any dry eyes when Pierce makes his return to the Garden. And there shouldn’t be.