Paul Pierce, The Unlikeliest Celtic, Embraced Franchise And Its Fans Like Few Others

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Paul Pierce

Photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images

BOSTON — The more you think about it, it really is crazy.

It’s hard to believe that Paul Pierce, who grew up in Inglewood, Calif., in the shadow of The Forum, achieved basketball immortality Sunday afternoon high in the rafters of TD Garden on Causeway Street in Boston.

The young boy who grew up rooting for Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and the Lakers is now a grown man who will forever occupy the same space as Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and the rest of the Celtics legends. For a generation of fans, Pierce is the face of one of sports’ most storied franchises.

Funny how it all worked out for Pierce, who seemed like he’s struggling to process it all himself.

“After I was done (playing), I was like, it could happen, but it happened so fast, and I’m like, wow, really?” he reflected after Sunday’s game. “A year after I’m out, first year after I’m out, I’m going up into the rafters and leaving a legacy. If you’re forever with the Celtics, you’re forever. It means so much.”

And it’s certainly earned.

Debates on where Pierce actually stands in Celtics history will go on forever. But he walked away with more than 24,000 points, 10 All-Star Game appearances, an NBA title and an NBA Finals MVP under his belt. The Hall of Fame should be calling before too long. His accomplishments with the Celtics are unlikely to be matched for quite some time, as he ranks behind only John Havlicek on the franchise’s all-time scoring list.

But if Pierce’s career needed any sort of validation, he got it Sunday.

“There’s no greater honor than having your NBA jersey retired for the Boston Celtics,” he said. “No greater honor.”

It was the fitting ending to a brilliant career that saw its share of ups and downs, and the occasional struggles. But it’s how Pierce overcame those struggles that endeared him to Celtics fans. They endured with him. They never stopped rooting for him, and he repaid them with unfaltering loyalty.

Celtics fans obviously loved Pierce for the joy he brought them in the form of wins and a championship. But they also adored him, quite simply, because he loved them back. He not only appreciated what it meant to be a Celtic, but he embraced it in a way few ever have, let alone a California kid who once bled purple and gold.

Both parties got a chance to tell each other how they felt one last time Sunday.

“Legendary players, Hall of Famers, history, and now I can be a part of that,” Pierce beamed. “My name is going to be mentioned in all of that. Players who won a championship. Players whose number goes in the rafters. I’m part of history. There’s no better history than this. This is a class-A, level-one franchise. The funny thing is I don’t say it (just) because I was here. I say it because it’s true. The Boston Celtics is the name you put respect with. The name with tradition, and now I’m part of it.”

It’s easy for New England sports fans, no strangers to good fortune over the last two decades, to forget just how lucky they were to even land Pierce. The swingman seemed destined to be a top-five pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, but he fell all the way to No. 10, where Red Auerbach and the Celtics jumped at the opportunity to draft the scorer from Kansas. Pierce never forgot that slight, and it motivated him to be the best player he could be, benefitting both he and the C’s in the long run.

“Things happen for a reason. I ended up a Boston Celtic, I mean, I ended up a Boston Celtic,” he said. “What are the chances? It’s like almost hitting the lottery.

” …. The irony in all that, being from LA, not liking the Celtics, this is where I am. It was meant to be. Things happen for a reason. It was meant to be.”

And in the end, the kid from Inglewood embodied Celtic pride more than just about any other.

“If you’re forever with the Celtics, you’re forever. It means so much.”

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