The first three seasons of Paul Pierce’s career in Boston were filled with personal success and team failure. Rick Pitino’s return to NBA coaching from the Kentucky sideline was a miserable experiment, so much so that he resigned in the middle of Pierce’s third season.
Yet, it was a miracle Pierce was able to even take the floor for that third season in 2000-21.
On Sept. 25, 2000, Pierce was hanging with teammate Tony Battie and his brother, Derrick, at the Buzz Bar in the Theater District when a conversation with a young lady suddenly turned into a fight for his life with one of her family members and his friends.
Pierce was stabbed eight times, including three in the stomach area. Meanwhile, one of the assailants reportedly calmly walked into the Buzz Bar bathroom and washed his hands of Pierce’s blood before exiting.
Pierce suffered a collapsed lung and spent three days at the New England Medical Center before walking out and vowing to play soon. Pierce played 82 games that season, but still haunted by the incident 21 years later, he said leaving Boston was never a consideration.
Pitino pulled him aside after the incident and asked Pierce if he wanted a trade.
“He was just like if you want me to trade you, I can trade you and I was thinking, if there was really somebody after me, it don’t matter where I go,” he said. “If somebody is after you, it don’t matter what city you’re in. I said we don’t have to go that far. I like playing on this team, I like playing with Antoine (Walker), Ron Mercer, and Kenny (Anderson). We were developing together. I told him I want to stay here. This is going to be a home for me.”
In reflection, Pierce said he remains unsure why he was targeted. He said he didn’t carry himself as some hot-shot L.A. kid who made Boston enemies with his bravado. He admitted he struggled with his mental health and paranoia.
“I didn’t even see that coming,” he said. “I didn’t have no beefs in the streets. Usually, if I’m in a club scene I’m not trying to fight nobody, If I feel animosity or something ... I didn’t even see it coming, I wasn’t even big enough like that, a star in the league to be looking at me like, ‘he think he all that.’”
Pierce continued his career, accomplishing All-Star appearances and even willing the Celtics into the Eastern Conference finals in 2002. But overall Pierce, along with Walker, were considered mostly me-first players who couldn’t lead Boston back to prosperity.
Celtics president Danny Ainge then hired Doc Rivers, which apparently was supposed to be the answer to the organization’s ills. But initially, it wasn’t. Pierce questioned Ainge’s decisions, the trade of Walker to the Dallas Mavericks, another rebuild, and pondered his future in the mid-2000s.
“It was rocky at first because I felt like I was starting to have some success as a player and I made the All-Star team before Doc got there,” he said. “But the thing that hurt me the most in my development was us starting back over when Doc came. We trade Antoine. We trade everybody away; I felt like we were in the process of building something there. And then I just wondered why we’re going backwards and then Doc’s coming in here and trying to tell me how to play but you’re putting lesser players to play with me.
“I know I’m already successful on the court. What are you trying to tell me?”
The times were difficult. The Celtics didn’t advance past the first round in a stretch of four seasons, including an 18-game losing streak when Pierce was injured in 2006-07. Pierce had no idea the ultimate success was coming.
“I had no punching chance my whole career,” he said. “My only fighting chance was making the playoffs. Have I not shown y’all that I can be that type of player on a championship team? I mean what’s up? Why (are) we holding on to each other this long if we’re not going to build nothing? Give me a chance. Give me a shot. That’s all I ever asked for, just a shot. That’s it. And then I finally got the shot. That’s all I ever wanted.”
The summer of 2007 again looked like another miserable offseason for the Celtics. They lost out on the draft lottery and dropped to the fifth overall pick, missing out on a chance at Kevin Durant. But Ainge was able to flip that fifth pick – Jeff Green – for sparkling shooter Ray Allen.
The Celtics then set their sights on acquiring Garnett, whom Pierce told two years ago to ditch his hopes of winning a title in Minnesota and sign with Boston. Ainge was able to work a deal for Garnett, and the Big Three was born.
The trio along with the likes of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins brought Boston its elusive first title in 22 years. That group also reached Game 7 of the NBA Finals and another Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was a glorious run, one which could have produced another title or two, but it also turned Pierce into an all-time great because of his prowess. Pierce will be the final of the Big Three inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Their issues have been well chronicled, but Pierce said he will play peacemaker this year, trying to gather the trio for a photo, to signify their achievements, the history they made in Boston.
“I’m down,” he said. “Me and Ray, we said our peace with each other. We settled our differences. I haven’t talked to him in a while but I have nothing against Ray. We hashed it out. If there’s something I can do to make that happen, then I’m willing to do it. If Kevin is in the room and Ray is in the room, I’m going to try to bring them together. I think it’s only right. It’s going to happen one day. Better now than never. If anybody can convince Kevin, I can. If anybody can convince him, it’s me.”
Pierce’s road to Springfield has been bumpy but illustrious, difficult but triumphant. He wouldn’t have it any other way. He still considers himself an underdog, that pudgy kid who was demoted to JV, that villain in his own hometown because he returned as a Celtic.
But he’s here now, an immortal, a legend, and a Celtic.
“It’s really hard, it’s starting to hit me more each day. I don’t think it’s really gonna hit me until I actually get there,” he said. “When you get to the Hall of Fame and you see your peers and the all-time greats and you know you’re going to be recognized amongst them, it’s starting to hit me more. I’m feeling it more from the people who are texting me and hitting me up on social media, just saying what an accomplishment it is. I’m glad to be here.”