Paul Pierce had just finished up his Junior season at Kansas University playing for legendary NCAA coach, Roy Williams. As one scout put it, Paul was a “tremendous all-around talent, with several NBA-level skills. Great size and physical strength for a small forward with his quickness; good ability to post up thinner opponents. Has an “old school game” with soft jumper, fluid movements, and adequate court vision. Lightning-quick first step and tremendous leaper with great explosion to the basket.
His medium range jump-shot is his most consistent weapon, but three-point ability is definitely there. Has improved on ball-handling since freshman season, but still needs a lot of work to play small forward at next level. Rebounds and block shots well when needed. He’s a very polished performer who understands fundamentals are more productive than 360 dunks. Pierce is sure-fire future All-Star who should blossom by his 2nd season.”
NBA draft experts predicted that Paul Pierce’s name would be announced as a top-5 draft pick in that class. But when draft night rolled around, David Stern (former NBA Commissioner) kept walking up to the podium and announcing a different name. There were nine players that walked across the stage to collect their new hat and enter the NBA before Paul that night.
Pierce waited anxiously as David Stern approached the stage and announced, “with the 10th overall of pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select Paul Pierce, from Kansas University.” This is where the story begins.
NBA scouts spend years perfecting the art of evaluating basketball talent. But every single year you see players selected in the lottery that just do not make it as NBA players. Some players never develop into a successful NBA player, some players take a few years before something clicks, but some players, like Paul Pierce, make an immediate impact on the franchise that was lucky enough to draft them.
But unfortunately for Paul, he’d have to wait to make his debut until February of 1999. A few days after the draft on July 1, 1998, an NBA Lockout began. The NBA Players Association and the owners of the teams could not agree on player salaries in the proposed new deal and the season was temporarily canceled. But on January 20, 1999, a deal was made and it was announced that the current NBA season would happen but would be shortened from 82 to 50 games per team and would begin on February 5, 1999.
It was on this day that Paul Pierce stepped onto the floor at the TD Garden in Boston to make his NBA debut. Pierce scored 19 points, grabbed 9 rebounds, and dished out 5 assists and started that game. He would go on to score 19 or more points in 10 of his first 11 games.
Fast forward eighteen years to the same exact day, February 5, in the same exact location and there he was. Paul Pierce walked onto the court as a starter for the LA Clippers. Even though he was dressed in a different jersey, the Boston fans recognized the greatness of Paul Pierce’s time in Boston. These fans had watched him grow up in his 15 seasons with the Celtics. When Paul’s name appeared on the screen at the garden during the player introductions, the ovation lasted for over a minute as fans cheered their heart out for their hero, chanting “Truth! Truth! Truth!”
An ode to the nickname (“The Truth”) that their hero earned during his time in Boston. The hero that scored 41 points against LeBron James in Game 7 of the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals. The hero that went on to win NBA Finals MVP that year as they took down Kobe and the Lakers in 6 games. The hero that restored a winning tradition to a great NBA franchise.
Paul Pierce entered this game having not played since December 31st. He opened the game as a starter but only played 5 minutes in that stretch. He took the first shot of the game but missed it and was 0 for 1 when he went to the bench for the first timeout. During this break, a highlight video played on the arena screen that followed Pierce’s career from Kansas to the draft, hitting game-winning baskets and raising the NBA championship and finals MVP trophies. The crowd cheered for more than a minute again. Pierce looked up, and tears started streaming down his face as he waved to the crowd.
Was this the last great moment for “The Truth” in the TD Garden? As the basketball gods would have it, it was not. With 19 seconds left in the game Pierce checked back into the game. He got the ball at the top of the key and was faced off against the newest Celtics star, Isaiah Thomas. It was almost as if the moment was an unofficial passing of the guard. With Isaiah in his place, Pierce set his feet behind the familiar three point line and fired. As he had done time and time again in the waning moments of games at the garden, he fricken’ drilled it. As he extended his hand into the air, the TD Garden went wild for Paul Pierce one last time as a player. It was amazing.
It will be interesting to see what Paul does in his post-playing days. Following the tales of former players can take you on some wild rides in the NBA. But for Paul, I hope he transitions into a Celtic-worthy front office man, one that Red would be proud of. Hopefully the Celtics leave that door wide open for him for what he did for them and soon as he enters the NBA afterlife.