On February 15, 2006, I was on February break. I was a sixth grader on the cusp of puberty. I was just getting over the Patriots losing in the postseason to Denver and Spring Training for the Red Sox hadn’t started yet. I wasn’t yet a hockey fan and I was just starting to like basketball in a big way. UConn was good, but not great that year, and Georgetown, my mom’s alma mater hadn’t captured my attention yet. I was aware of the NBA’s existence but wasn’t a big fan. The night of the 15th, though, that all changed. I watched the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers play. It was a classic game that took 2 overtimes to finish. Cleveland won behind a 43 point triple double by phenom LeBron James. My eyes were glued to the guy wearing 34 for the Celtics giving James the business all night. After a 50 point game against the most hyped player of the day, Paul Anthony Pierce became my favorite basketball player, and eventually, my favorite athlete.
I watched the Celtics through the abysmal 2006-2007 season, got excited when Paul got help from Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, and celebrated when they won the Celtics’ 17th championship. I followed the team intensely ever since. I watched Glenn Davis hit a game winner in Orlando in 2009, KG and Rondo end the Cavs chances in 2010, and watched the Lakers break my heart the next year. I saw Pierce hit a three in LeBron’s face in 2012’s Conference Finals, and watched the Celtics bow out against the New York Knicks in the 2013 playoffs.
Once that postseason hit, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were traded out of Boston to Brooklyn. I was crestfallen, but I would still follow the Celtics through the rebuild, seeing my first ever Celtics game in February 2014, with no Pierce. I watched the Nets and rooted for my guys in the playoffs that year, loving Pierce’s block on Kyle Lowry, and being bitter with LeBron James and the Miami heat for beating my heroes again.
Pierce left Brooklyn and joined the Washington Wizards for the 2015 season. I liked the fit. He provided veteran leadership for a young team that was trying to learn how to win. He helped them to a playoff sweep over the Raptors and authored maybe his best playoff moment against Atlanta. In Game 3 of the Conference Semi-Finals, Washington lost a big lead and were tied with the Hawks late in the 4th. In the last seconds, Bradley Beal took the inbound and passed it to Pierce at the left elbow. Pierce called for Beal to clear out, dribbled, waited for the clock to wind down, put up a shot over two players, and banked in the game winning shot. In the frenzy afterward, he was interviewed by Chris Broussard. To end the interview, Broussard asked “Did you call bank?” Pierce answered “I called Game!” and he walked off to hype the crowd more and go to the locker room.
That play against the Hawks shows exactly why Paul Pierce is my favorite player of all time. He stayed confident through the toughest moments, always giving his team the confidence that they could win the game. He swaggered his way into big time shot after big time shot, on the basis of the ugliest game a superstar has ever played.
He didn’t have a pretty shot. He wasn’t smooth. Pierce played a brawny, brawly, physical style of game. Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, and LeBron James all played much more aesthetically pleasing games. Garnett was smooth, Dirk’s shot was beautiful, and LeBron’s athleticism was undeniably magnificent. Paul could spin in the post and be effective, but he was not smooth. Pierce had a good shot, but not a pretty one. And Pierce could throw down, but he was not the dominating athlete LeBron is. Instead, Pierce could switch speeds well with quick dribbles and a smart shot. Pierce played a grounded and effective game that depended upon old school confidence. He never wavered with the Celtics and he carried them through hard times. He lived through being stabbed in 2000 to become one of the most respected players of the decade. He represented the old school heart with a dash of modern flash and flair for the dramatic. And he did all of this while brazenly facing off against the best players of the day and being undervalued and underappreciated. He was a model of consistent confidence and he never wavered as an old school player in the modern day. I love that old school mindset that Pierce walked into the league with.
Despite my admiration for him, I had never seen Pierce play in person in a regular season game. I saw the Celtics played a preseason game at the XL Center before the 2009-10 season, but that was just a preseason game. The first regular season Celtics game I ever went to was the February 12th game of the 2014 season against the Spurs, after Pierce had been traded. I wanted to see him when the Wizards were in town, but I never had the chance. Before the 2016 season, he signed with the LA Clippers. Before this season, he announced that it would be his last. When I saw the Celtics schedule, I made it a point to go to the February 5th game against the Clippers, which would be (in all likelihood) Pierce’s last game in the Gahden.
When I bought the tickets and got in, I had an odd feeling I had only felt once before, at David Ortiz’s last game ever. I felt nostalgic, almost longing for more time to watch my favorite player in his prime, winning games and making the crowd go crazy. I cried when Pierce checked out, was tributes with a video from the Celtics, and received a standing ovation from the crowd that stopped the game. I yelled with everyone else in the 4th quarter when we wanted Pierce to come back in. And I cheered when Pierce hit a 3 pointer in the final seconds. It was a perfect goodbye to a legend, and a memory that I will hold personally forever.