There was a familiar face in those Paul Pierce highlight tributes over the past few days, a constant presence during Pierce’s early years in Boston, his cohort in the reclaiming of respectability for a franchise considered an also-ran after the original Big Three era.
Antoine Walker was present for the first five seasons of Pierce’s 15-year reign in Boston, his frontcourt partner. And for his seven full seasons as a Celtic, Walker earned the same type of adulation Pierce received Sunday night at TD Garden.
Pierce’s No. 34 is sure to be retired by the Celtics. He is the franchise’s second all-time scorer behind John Havlicek and will never have to buy another cold beer in Boston.
Walker, on the other hand, is trying to find work in the NBA at age 37, having run into financial hardship. He averaged at least 20 points in five of his seven seasons in Boston and reached three All-Star Games. He watched Sunday’s Celtics-Nets game, in which Pierce and Kevin Garnett were saluted in their return, from his home in Chicago, without a tinge of bitterness but definitely with some what-ifs.
“I knew it was going to be difficult for Paul and KG just because you’ve given your all, especially for Paul, a guy who’s played 15 seasons in Boston,” Walker said Monday afternoon. “The Boston fans have seen him grow from being a rookie to probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His number is definitely going up in the rafters. I knew it was going to be emotional for him.”
Celtics fans’ appreciation for Walker has been tepid because he left Boston before the franchise turned around. He was traded to the Dallas Mavericks by team president Danny Ainge, who apparently felt Walker was less than a positive influence on Pierce. The trade netted the Celtics little — Raef LaFrentz, Chris Mills, Jiri Welsch, and a first-round pick that eventually became Delonte West.
For Walker, the trade started a five-year sojourn that led to the abrupt end of his career at age 31 — though he was briefly reacquired by the Celtics late in the 2004-05 season, appearing in 24 games before he was traded again. Walker is just 14 months Pierce’s senior but has not played in the NBA since 2008. Yet, over the last week Walker has thought of those years when he and Pierce were a dynamic combination on most nights.
“I think what I did in Boston was great; I think it was good for the time,” he said. “We accomplished what we could accomplish with the personnel that we had. Me and Paul did a great job of being a high-scoring duo. I don’t think our personnel was at a championship level. I think they did a great job of adding two Hall of Famers in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. I still feel like we were a few pieces away.
“Boston was great for me as an individual. As a player, the organization treated me great. I couldn’t ask for a better organization. I consider it my second home. When I came back with Dallas, just the standing ovation that I got, it’s heartwarming knowing the people appreciate the work ethic and the things you do.”
Walker won an NBA title with the 2006 Miami Heat. Just prior to the 2007-08 season he was dealt to Minnesota and played 46 games with the Timberwolves, averaging 8 points in his final season. His post-NBA career has been besieged by well-chronicled financial issues.
There appears to be no envy in Walker’s heart for Pierce, rather the same adulation he received from those fans who were a part of Pierce’s ascension in Boston.
“That’s always what you dream about [having your number retired],” said, Walker, who has completed a documentary on his life, to be used as a learning tool for current NBA players. “From the day I got drafted to the Celtics, to be part of that whole crew, to be part of that organization was great. You always want to finish your career in one place. To be honest with you, I believe I am a Celtic. I may not ever get in the rafters but I was still from my era and my time, from the city of Boston, I think I’ll always be remembered.
“I’m happy for Paul. As players we dream about that. A lot of people don’t have an understanding or clue how we dream about that. Believe me, Paul was hurting when he got traded. Even though I think he understood the direction the organization was going in, but not finish out your career with the place you love, it hurts sometimes. [Sunday night] I think saved the day and made him feel he was appreciated.”
Being part of the same AAU programs and close to the same age, Pierce and Walker were close during their Celtics years. Walker was there for support during Pierce’s stabbing incident, and the two took the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals in 2002.
Over the past several years, however, the bond hasn’t been as strong.
“We were very close when we played [together] but as our careers took different paths we lost a little connection there,” Walker said. “Paul’s gotten married. He has kids. I was going through what I was going through in my personal life, so we lost contact. I’m still very much connected to the game and watched his career grow and progress and still a huge fan of Paul’s. He’s still one of my top players in the league.
“Sometimes different directions in life, you lose contact. But the bond that we shared for the years we played together will always been special. We’ve had an opportunity over the last few years to bump into each other over the summer and it’s always the same. The love is still there. We always have the utmost respect for each other, so I’m happy for him. He will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”