Red Auerbach didn’t live to see Paul Pierce win an NBA championship with the Celtics, but Red knew what kind of a player he had a few years after the Celtics selected Pierce out of Kansas in 1998.
“He would absolutely fit in with the Celtic teams I coached,’’ an 84-year-old Red told me in 2004. “He’s the whole package, offensively and defensively. He’s respectful, and he doesn’t bitch. Old-fashioned. I really like him.’’
Red died a couple of years later, two years too soon to see Pierce named MVP of the NBA Finals when the Celtics destroyed the Lakers, 131-92, in the sixth and deciding game of the championship series.
Pierce’s No. 34 was raised to the ceiling of the Garden last February, taking its place alongside Red’s No. 2 and the other gods of Green lore. Pierce returns to the Garden Wednesday night to be honored at the 17th Sports Museum gala/fund-raiser we have come to know as The Tradition. Pierce will be feted alongside Jim Lonborg, Don Cherry, Deion Branch, Julie Foudy, and Richard Petty and will be presented by Kendrick Perkins.
Pierce’s Celtics résumé is lengthy and loaded with highlights. He was the 10th pick in the ’98 draft and spent his entire career trying to prove that he should have been a top-three pick. I remember a young Pierce doing a shooting drill in which he would take 20-footers from the perimeter, moving to his left after each made jumper and shouting the names of players selected ahead of him.
“Michael Olowokandi, this one’s for you!’’ (swish)
“Take that, Mike Bibby!” (swish)
“You can’t handle The Truth, Raef LaFrentz!” (swish)
On and on he would go.
“Antawn Jamison! Vince Carter! Robert Traylor! Jason Williams! Larry Hughes! Dirk Nowitzki!’’
And nothing but net after every name was yelled.
Nowitzki was certainly a Hall of Fame pick, and the inimitable Carter is still playing, but Pierce was a much better player than just about everyone drafted ahead of him.
“I remember that like yesterday,’’ Pierce said Tuesday afternoon. “I was supposed to be a top two or three draft pick, so that was me feeling disrespected by all the GMs. When I slipped to 10, I just used that as motivation.
“That was a steppingstone right there, my welcome to the league. I’m thankful now to have been drafted No. 10. It gave me motivation.’’
He certainly earned his place in the rafters on Causeway Street. Pierce played 15 of his 19 NBA seasons with the Celtics and scored more points than Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. Among all Celtics, he trails only John Havlicek in points, and ranks first in steals and free throws. Pierce is third in games and minutes, fifth in assists, and seventh in rebounds.
Most important, he won a championship in Boston. Pierce was captain and leader of the 2007-08 Celtics edition that broke a 22-year championship drought for the storied franchise. In a Finals that included Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, Pierce was MVP.
“There were so many highlights,’’ Pierce said. “Just being part of Boston history. There’s not many franchises where you can be part of something like that.’’
The 2008 Finals also gave Pierce a chance to demonstrate some of the theatrics for which he was famous. Celtics fans will never forget the sight of Pierce vaulting out of a wheelchair to rescue the Green Team in Game 1 at the Garden. It was the ultimate Paul Pierce moment.
For all of his ability and decorations (10-time All-Star), there was a level of immaturity about Pierce in his early years, and some Celtics fans had trouble including him on the roster of franchise all-time greats. He went through growing pains with all of his early coaches, including Doc Rivers. Pierce also famously found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time in September of 2000, when he was stabbed multiple times in a Boston nightclub and nearly died.
“It changed the way I approach each day,’’ he said later.
After he was traded, along with Garnett, by Danny Ainge in the famous Brooklyn Nets swindle of 2013, Pierce played four seasons for the Nets, Wizards, and Clippers before retiring in 2017. He has made a smooth transition to the broadcast industry as an NBA commentator for ESPN, and thanks to Ainge’s Brooklyn heist, he continues to have an impact on today’s Celtics roster in the persons of Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum.
“Look what I left behind for the Celtics,’’ he said with a laugh. “I’m still working for them!
“They have the talent to win it all. They have a lot of different guys who are still trying to find their niche in the league.
“It’s hard for young players to sacrifice. It was easier for us because we were older and we knew what we wanted. It was easy.
“These guys are still discovering themselves. That’s the reason I see the struggle. They’re going to be up and down until their guys figure out their defined roles.’’
Thanks, Paul. Now that you are a media guy, let’s play the hot-take game.
Name your all-time Celtics starting five.
“I would have [Bob] Cousy at the one,’’ he started. “[Bill] Russell, of course. Bird. Then I would have to say Tommy Heinsohn. I got to throw Tommy in there. I’ll put McHale as my last one.’’
I told him I have Russell, Bird, Havlicek, and Cousy as locks for starting positions. That leaves me with either McHale or Pierce as the fifth starter on the ultimate team of the most decorated franchise in basketball history.
“Oooh, I forgot about Havlicek,’’ he said. “Well, I still have to be loyal to Tommy.’’
I give the nod to McHale because of his unique, unstoppable low-post game — a game that no longer exists in the NBA.
The bench is deep, with Sam Jones, Dave Cowens, Garnett (only six seasons here), Heinsohn, Parish, Dennis Johnson, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders, Frank Ramsey, Bill Sharman, and too many others to name.
But Paul Pierce is right there in the discussion. One of the greatest Celtics of all time.
To be honored Wednesday night at The Tradition.