BOSTON — Paul Pierce gave Jason Collins his game ball, everybody in the locker room clapped and that was pretty much that. A few days later, Pierce’s token of recognition for the veteran center’s hard work was all but forgotten for many members of the Celtics, who were much more impressed with the 40-point performance that earned Pierce the game ball in the first place.
But for Collins, the gesture spoke volumes.
“That was unexpected,” Collins said last week, after he had accepted the ball as an acknowledgment of his defense and screen-setting, which did not show up in the box score. “It says a lot about the type of person that Paul is, that he had a game like that yet my teammates still appreciate what it is I do out there on the court.”
Pierce giving Collins the game ball was a surprise, but not only because Celtics ownership had awarded it to Pierce on Wednesday for becoming the oldest player in franchise history to score 40 points in a regulation game, while Collins picked up all of one point, two rebounds and six fouls in the win over the Cavaliers. Pierce’s act was doubly surprising because the very practice of giving out game balls is rare in the NBA. Several players could not recall seeing a game ball ever awarded, going as far back as their high school days.
Courtney Lee remembered one instance of receiving a game ball, and it bore similarities to Pierce’s gesture. As a senior at Western Kentucky, Lee said he lit into teammate D.J. Magley after the then-freshman did not know a play. Lee barked that Magley should either learn the plays or get off the court, which he said led to a phone call from Magley’s father to Hilltoppers coach Darrin Horn to ask Lee not to be so tough on the young forward.
Things eventually got ironed out, according to Lee, when he was given the game ball for his performance against Michigan in the Great Alaska Shootout. Lee then handed the ball to Magley, who had shot 8-for-9 while setting career highs of 18 points, five rebounds and two blocks in the win. Apparently, Lee’s gift was appreciated. He and Magley were key players on that WKU team, which would reach the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament later that season. (Magley later transferred to Tulsa.)
“It was cool sailing from there,” Lee said. “It translated. It means something to the guy you give the game ball to. [Collins], it was different. J.C. didn’t get yelled at or call his father or nothing. But D.J., it helped him and got his confidence up so he knew I wasn’t a bad guy.”
Giving out a game ball is largely a football phenomenon, and while game balls earned on the gridiron are treasured, in basketball the trophy is even more meaningful. The last time Collins could remember a teammate receiving a game ball was with the New Jersey Nets almost five years ago, when Jason Kidd averaged a triple-double in the 2007 playoffs.
For those keeping score at home, that is two future Hall of Fame players receiving game balls in 12 years, both putting forth near-superhuman efforts to get one. Needless to say, role players like Collins and Lee long ago gave up dreams of collecting game balls in the NBA.
“Me? Getting a 40-bomb?” Lee said with a laugh. “Listen now, I know my role. If anything, I’ll get a game ball when I get a defensive stop on the last second in an NBA Finals game. That’s game ball-worthy to me.”
Collins told teammates he planned to take his spherical trophy home, get it framed and give it a prominent place on his trophy shelf. It was his first game ball, and unless NBA tradition suddenly changes, odds are strong that it will be his last.