Why Celtics ‘Panicked’ Before Picking Paul Pierce In 1998 NBA Draft

Rick Pitino remembers the moments leading up to Pierce's selection at No. 10 overall


September 7, 2021

Paul Pierce is on his way to the Basketball Hall of Fame, his number is retired in the rafters at TD Garden and the longtime Celtics star brought a title back to Boston after winning the 2008 NBA Finals.

But for former Celtics head coach and president of basketball operations Rick Pitino, as Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix wrote Tuesday, it was Pierce’s draft night which sticks out the most — and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki played a role in it.

Check out an excerpt from Mannix’s extensive feature story on Pierce ahead of this year’s Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement Saturday.

Panic. That?s what Rick Pitino remembers. It was June 1998, and Pitino, the Celtics? coach and president of basketball operations, was huddled in Boston?s draft room. A month earlier, Pitino was vacationing in Europe. Boston assistant general manager Chris Wallace called. Wallace had become enthralled with a 6? 11? German forward he had first seen at the Nike Hoop Summit. The player, Dirk Nowitzki, was available for a workout. Wallace asked whether Pitino could get to Rome to go and see him.

In Rome, Pitino watched the gangly 19-year old bang in threes like a guard. ?I was blown away,? recalls Pitino. At lunch, Pitino told Nowitzki: Skip the draft combine. I?ll take you at No. 10. Nowitzki asked Pitino how he could trust him. Pitino got Red Auerbach, the Celtics? vice chairman, on the phone, and, according to Pitino, Nowitzki was sold. ?I went home,? says Pitino, ?thinking we had our guy.?

On draft night, Pitino was relaxed. Michael Olowokandi went No. 1 to the Clippers . . . then Mike Bibby . . . then Raef LaFrentz . . . Antawn Jamison . . . Vince Carter. At six, Dallas took Robert Traylor. Wallace exhaled. He knew the Mavs liked Nowitzki. Dallas assistant general manager Donnie Nelson had a reputation for mining top international prospects. Wallace had Nowitzki in his sights . . . until Milwaukee grabbed him at No. 9, immediately flipping him to Dallas in a swap for Traylor. (Expletive), Pitino mumbled to himself. They got him.

From there, says Pitino, ?We were scurrying.? It wasn?t that they didn?t know much about Pierce. They didn?t know anything. Why would they? Every projection had Pierce off the board inside the first few picks. ?I hadn?t done my homework on Paul at all,? says Pitino. In the room, Wallace was reassuring. ?Rick got a little nervous,? says Wallace. ?He wanted to know what everybody knew that we didn?t. And I just said, ?Well, if he?s there, just don?t worry about what we know or don?t know. Let?s just take him.? And we did.?

Pierce went on to play 15 seasons with the Celtics and was named an NBA All-Star in 10 of those campaigns. He was also a four-time All-NBA honoree and was named to the 1998-99 All-Rookie team.

Yeah, it’s safe to say it played out rather well for both Pierce and the Celtics organization.

Former Celtics teammate Kevin Garnett will be the presenter for Pierce during Saturday’s ceremonies.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
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