The sights and sounds from Paul Pierce’s last game in Boston would lead you to believe there were six Celtics on the court. What we saw on Super Bowl Sunday was unique to the world of sports – tying a bow on your farewell tour in front of your home crowd while wearing another team’s jersey with 30 games remaining in your season. Pierce’s legacy has a layer of plot armor that most athletes haven’t donned. His last three professional seasons being spent playing for other teams has not diminished any Boston fan’s opinion of him and his importance. In fact, it may have strengthened it.
Pierce’s 15 years in Boston had the makeup of a superstar career you would expect. First, the chip on his shoulder, inflicted by falling to 10th in the draft. He became the team’s captain in 2003 and the undisputed primary scoring option with Antoine Walker being traded to the Mavericks. He was bestowed a famous nickname, The Truth, by Shaquille O’Neal after Pierce dropped 42 on the Lakers in a losing effort. 10 All-Star appearances in 11 years, one legendary title run in 2008 and a Finals MVP award to go with it. But what Pierce did at the end of his Boston tenure is what set him apart.
In 2013, Pierce fell on his sword for the good of the Celtics franchise. He became a martyr of Danny Ainge’s rebuild by convincing Kevin Garnett to waive his no-trade clause and join him in Brooklyn with Jason Terry. Whenever Pierce would return to Boston, the competitiveness of basketball almost became secondary to the nostalgia festival of highlight reels on the jumbotron and standing ovations that occurred before, during, and after the games.
Pierce brought an old school mentality that aligned with his play style, which fit perfectly into a city like Boston — a place that takes pride in its loyalty to tradition. His disdain for the game’s current generation of young talent is well documented, as he shakes his walking cane in the air while shouting at passersby from his porch rocking chair about how young players interact today. They’re too friendly to each other, they’re not competitive enough for his liking, and they spend too much time playing video games. Pierce’s message that most resonated with his older fans is probably when he tweeted a picture of an emoji during the DeAndre Jordan Emoji War of 2015. It was an endearing moment, like when your parents say “the Google” or talk about “fax machines.” But it was Pierce’s on-court presence that made him a perfect fit for the Celtics uniform, a design that has gone relatively unchanged since its inception. Pierce played with swagger in his step, while displaying mental and physical toughness that rubbed off on his teammates and the fans. As fans, we took solace in knowing that we had a star player that was dedicated to bringing the city a championship at all costs, so long as the franchise was invested in helping him. It’s part of the symbiotic relationship Boston has with its players, like the meteoric rise of Isaiah Thomas — the fans support the players, and the favor is returned. In that order.
In conjunction with winning over the fans, a major factor in remembering Pierce’s legacy was how he dug his heels into one of the most brutal media markets. If you don’t meet expectations, the Boston media will never (and I mean NEVER) let you hear the end of it. The media’s attitude cascades into the stands, where the fans are more than happy to let you know if you’re not pulling your weight. While some all-time legends such as David Ortiz and Tom Brady have flourished under the spotlight, some once household names like Antoine Walker and Manny Ramirez (both criticized for work ethic and not staying in shape) aren’t remembered so fondly.
The fairy tale ending to Pierce’s TD Garden career was appropriately the polar opposite of Kobe Bryant’s 60-point grand finale in the Staples Center. While crippled by his age, Bryant played in and started 66 games of his final season while hoisting 17 shots per game and only hitting 35% of them. Kobe was greeted by standing ovations and gifts around the league, and rightfully so, given the impact he had, but his spotlight growing bigger than basketball ultimately had a negative impact on his team’s development. Before his last game in Boston, Pierce hadn’t played any minutes since New Year’s Eve, which was only his 12th time seeing minutes this season. The Celtics crowd forced Doc Rivers' hand to put Pierce back in one last time, chanting "We want Paul" for the last four minutes of the fourth quarter. Even if his point total fell only 57 short of Kobe’s 60, his curtain call had the same impact. See for yourself:
Never in my life have I seen a crowd erupt when somebody in the away team’s jersey hit a shot like that. And of comparable importance, never in my life has Paul Pierce gone scoreless at the TD Garden.