Paul Pierce Joining Wizards Pulls Ex-Celtics Star Further Into NBA Reality

Paul PierceHe’s not ours anymore.

That must have been the thought of many a Boston Celtics fan after beloved former captain Paul Pierce agreed to sign with the Washington Wizards on Sunday. After 15 seasons in Boston and one with the Brooklyn Nets, the 36-year-old Pierce is moving on to his third — and possibly not his last — NBA team.

Oh, he still belongs to the Celtics in the hearts and minds of the folks who rooted for him for years. But in the one-line summation of history, he will forever be “NBA forward Paul Pierce” and not “Boston Celtics legend Paul Pierce.” Maybe it’s a small distinction, and surely the Celtics will merit a mention in the second sentence, but to many diehards, it will matter.

This is how it goes for the vast majority of professional athletes, but for Pierce, it was supposed to be different.

Pierce did not truly live in basketball reality from 2007 to 2013. That was a fantasy, a land where future Hall of Famers flocked to play with him, and every year around May or June, it seemed some new magical thing happened. It was a deserved payoff after toiling for so many years in an organization that seemed to be going nowhere. Many fans assumed — hoped? — that Pierce’s reward would be to become one of the few players who can say he played his entire career for one franchise.

Reality arrived last summer in the trade that sent Pierce and Kevin Garnett, among other moving parts, to the Nets. Pierce took it hard. Boston took it hard. Pierce traded? For a generation of Celtics fans, it was akin to learning Larry Bird had been dealt. It was devastating.

By contrast, Pierce signing a two-year, $10.8 million contract with the Wizards had far less of an emotional impact, but that’s the shame of it. Once, Pierce donning a color other than green was unthinkable. Now it’s a near-perennial enterprise. Once, he recruited friends like Garnett to play with him in Boston. Now he’s the one being recruited.

Once, he was the foundation. Now he’s just another building block.

Pierce’s No. 34 will be raised to the rafters at TD Garden one day. The ceremony will be as emotional as any that has ever been held to honor a Celtic. On the list of the most influential players in Celtics history, Pierce belongs in the rarefied class of Bill Russell, Bird, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens.

Yet even if he will always be a Celtic in the truest sense of the word, Pierce will never officially be a Celtic only. More than a few fans dreamed of Pierce coming back to Boston to end his career, to make Brooklyn merely a one-season blip in a long career on Causeway Street. It could still happen, but it is probably at least two years off.

It now appears that a player who was supposed to be the exception is destined to play out the string like all the others. That’s not his fault; he’s entitled to keeping doing what he loves for as long as he wants. But it is jarring, because Pierce is no longer different. While the bulk of Pierce’s career was far from typical, the end of it is — hopping from team to team, searching for the right situation and the right price, trying to squeeze whatever basketball is left in his body before he finally calls it quits and goes home, to his closet full of different teams’ jerseys, not just one.