LOS ANGELES — Paul Pierce does not know when he will retire. He does not know how he will announce said retirement. He does not know whether he will finish his Clippers contract.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the longtime Celtics great, the next to have his number hanging in the rafters of TD Garden, hasn’t planned life after basketball. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about being a business mogul in his native Inglewood, Calif., or teaming up with Kevin Garnett to check out a Celtics game as a fan.
He is pondering all those things at age 38. Pierce may be facing the Celtics for the final time in his career Monday at Staples Center, and it’s still strange to him to see other guys in green. Pierce played 15 seasons in Boston, is the franchise’s second all-time leading scorer. He became a man in Boston. He transformed himself from selfish scorer to New England icon.
His heart remains in the Northeast, although he plays just a few miles from his hometown.
“Not as strange as the first year,” Pierce said when asked about facing the Celtics as an opposing player. “But it brings back memories, just wearing that uniform and five, 10 years from now people are always going to remember me as a Celtic unless I win a championship here [in Los Angeles]. People probably won’t even remember I played for the Clippers. It definitely brings back memories. I always keep up with them. I watch their games. I like what Brad Stevens and [president of basketball operations] Danny [Ainge] has been doing over there. It’s just natural. It’s just like I keep up with [the University of] Kansas, I keep up with Boston.”
Pierce is averaging career lows is nearly every category. The Clippers have been searching for a productive forward for years and the prevailing thought was that Pierce would stabilize the position. Pierce is averaging 5.8 points and shooting 34.8 percent from the field. There are times where he sits in the fourth quarter, but as his career has progressed, the 6-foot-7-inch forward has become more of a March-April player.
The Clippers didn’t sign Pierce to score points in November. They signed him to score in the playoffs.
Does Pierce still have enough game left? Clippers coach Doc Rivers obviously has a deep bond with Pierce from their Boston days, and he admittedly is not shy about telling players when they’re physically done. He doesn’t feel that way about Pierce, despite the lack of production.
“If I have to have [the retirement conversation] at some point, that will be a hard one,” Rivers said. “He’s a tough one, though. I swear, a lot of guys, when they lose their athleticism, they just can’t play anymore. Paul has never used his athleticism, so he’s so difficult to judge.
“There’s days in practice where he’s one of the best players in the gym, today. Whenever that happens, maybe he’ll tell me. I like it better when they come to you first. He’s a hard one because he has game left in him. His is going to be the desire part.”
What drives older players out of the game is the preparation, not the games. The training, treatment, conditioning, and work involved to prepare for a game becomes too much. Kobe Bryant said it became too difficult to get game-ready. Pierce is 10 months older than Bryant, but the love remains strong.
“I definitely have fun. I still get [to the practice facility] early. I was probably the first one here this morning,” he said. “Getting my weights in, getting the things I need to do, maybe that’s because it takes me two hours to get ready, too. I still have fun with it. Even when I retire, I know it’s still going to be fun to me but I’ll probably be going to the local rec gym getting some shots up, taking my son, living through him.”
The difference, Pierce said, between he and Bryant has little to do with desire. It has everything to do with environment and situation. The lure of another championship motivates Pierce. He tasted that nectar in 2008 and has been searching for another since.
He left the Washington Wizards for a chance to come home, play for Rivers and join another Big Three in Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Losing would zap his love.
“I’m on a team that has an opportunity to win,” he said. “I can see where Kobe’s coming from. When you’re not winning in your last couple of years, it gets frustrating because where’s your motivation? Kobe’s a winner. I can understand that. You’ve got five championships and multiple playoff runs. What’s your motivation? I would probably be the same way if I’m on a team that has no shot.”
The Clippers announced Sunday that Griffin would begin his four-game team-imposed suspension for punching a team employee. When that suspension ends, he’ll return to the lineup after three months out with a broken hand and quadriceps injury. With Griffin, Pierce said he believes the Clippers can compete with the likes of the Warriors and Spurs.
“We need him,” Pierce said of Griffin. “We can play with teams and compete without him, but I don’t know if we can win a championship without him. He’s our go-to guy, our leading scorer, a guy we can get the ball to down the stretch in the halfcourt. We need him, just to be honest. If not, it’s going to be tough on us to beat a Golden State or a San Antonio.”
Playing his role
The 10-time All-Star has had to humble himself as his age has progressed. He is the Clippers’ fifth or perhaps sixth scoring option. He attempts fewer than six shots per game, where during his Celtics heyday he was pumping up nearly 20.
Aging is humbling. Pierce is the old man of the Clippers. He is the sage, the voice of reason, figuratively gathering up Griffin, Paul, Jordan, and Doc’s son Austin around a campfire and telling old Celtics stories. He has embraced that role. He understands his skills have declined.
“That’s the mental hurdle you get over at this stage [and] I’ve gotten over it,” he said. “Even at the beginning of the season when I wasn’t starting, that was a little difficult for me. So you get over those mental hurdles because you ask yourself what’s good for the team. I want to win. I want to buy in to what they’ve got going on and what they believe. I’m going to understand my role at this stage. We’ve got our superstars in Chris, Blake, and DJ. I’m here trying to follow their lead and help them with my experience and hopefully it turns out to where we are on top.”
Pierce’s absence has greatly impacted the Wizards, who would miss the playoffs if the season ended Sunday.
“I understand there’s change [when you get older]. I experienced that in Washington and to tell you the truth, that was some of the most fun I’ve had,” he said of his season with the Wizards. “They’re a lot different in how their preparation is, how they go about every day and getting ready. Old-school guys, they don’t need to see the doctor, the massage therapist. We’d come in when we was 21, we’d go right to the court and start shooting. Now these guys take an hour before practice. I understand it. You just try to relate to them because you don’t want to be that old guy who the younger guys don’t like.”
Pierce wouldn’t say when he plans on retiring, but that day is coming soon. He has two more years left on his Clippers contract, but he also said it’s no certainty he will return next season. But his post-retirement plans are crystal clear. Being home has been just as rewarding off the court. Two decades after he grew up hooping on the schoolyards of Inglewood, he has returned a grown man, eager to reinvest in his community.
“It’s my home, this is where I’m from,” he said. “Maybe I can open up a restaurant. I’ve become good friends with the mayor of Inglewood [James T. Butts Jr.] and I’ve been able to go back to my high school and check out the team. It’s been all love since I’ve been back. Now hopefully I can give back in more ways than one, open up some businesses; give some opportunities, some jobs to some people. I just have a huge vision of things I can do after basketball.
“Just like Magic [Johnson] did it. Hopefully I can follow in his footsteps, just be a pillar in the community, especially in the urban community where I’m from, where I’m giving young black kids an opportunity.”
And of course, there will be returns to Boston. Pierce is still enamored of the Green, with the tradition and his place in franchise history.
“Boston is always going to be a second home for me,” he said. “And I’m always going to see myself coming back. Me and Kevin [Garnett] talk about when we go back, check out a game. It’s always going to be love. I’m always going to have a special place in their heart and they’re always going to have a special place in mine.
“I always embraced the history. Ever since I had my conversation with Red [Auerbach] and he helped me understand Celtic pride was all about. It’s like a family. Guys like Bob Cousy, [John] Havlicek, I always loved when they came back. I always wanted to talk to them. These are legends who created what the Celtics are all about, who created the banners, who created the retired jerseys. You just like to talk to them and [find out] how it was in their day and you respect it. I’m a historian of the game and I respect it. I became a fan. When Havlicek came, I was like, ‘Aww, that’s Havlicek.’ When Cousy came to announce a game, ‘That’s Bob Cousy!’ ”
The Celtics are seeking Pierce’s successor in Boston, a high-scoring, brash player who can team with Isaiah Thomas to help carry the franchise back to elite status. Pierce was asked whether Boston could ever attract a major free agent. And his answer was pure Paul.
“It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen,” he said. “Even though it hasn’t. It’s like a lot of things you thought wasn’t going to happen, like it wasn’t going to be a black president. It’s gonna happen. And Kevin Durant could be the first one, who knows?”