Where will Paul Pierce rank among Celtics Hall-of-Famers?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"The only thing you take with you when you're gone is what you leave behind" - John Allston

If you ever look up into the rafters at the recently renamed TD Garden, you'll see countless banners, some dedicated to championships and others to players.

Far more than just fabric stitched with letters and numbers, those banners prove to be a reminder of the past, proof of the Celtics' best times and most cherished players. When you look up and see the number six, can you help but envision Bill Russell gracefully running the floor, extending his long, sinewy arms and blocking an opposing player’s shot? I never got to see Bill Russell play, but every time I look up and see his jersey number I never fail to imagine him playing one more game, blocking one more shot, or winning one more championship. Russell's career is over, but it will never be forgotten as long as his number remains in the rafters, as long as people still remember his career, the legacy he left behind.

When I look up and see the 1986 banner, I can't help but think about Larry Bird whipping a no-look pass to Kevin McHale, or Robert Parish's long-armed turnaround jumper. I think back to the tenacious defense of Dennis Johnson, the wondrous wizardry of Bird, and the gritty, bold play of Danny Ainge. When you see the banner, the past comes to life as memories of the great times flood your head. I wasn't even alive in 1986, but I'll always imagine what it would have been like to watch that team, every time I look up at its championship banner.

Now, you can look up and see a 2008 championship banner alongside the 16 others. At first glance, it might look like simple fabric adorned with letters and numbers. It might even seem like merely one banner out of 17, a banner that no doubt will get lost in the sea of Boston Celtics championships. But that banner is far more than fabric, far more than one of many. Just like the other championship banners and the retired numbers that came before it, that banner is proof that the memories made will last forever. That banner is the first sign that the 2008 team will be immortalized in Boston Celtics lore, the first sign that the team that returned the Celtics to glory will never be forgotten.

Long after the retirement of the Big Three, far beyond the time when Doc Rivers no longer strolls the sidelines, people will look up at that banner. Those who are old enough to remember the Celtics 17th championship will think fondly of memories made during the glorious title run, while those too young to remember, even those too young to even be alive for the title, will imagine what it would have been like to follow and root for such a terrific team.

Soon, Paul Pierce’s number will be up there in the rafters too. After his retirement, it’s a no-brainer that Pierce, the unquestioned greatest Celtic of his era, will be honored as an all-time Celtics great.

But how will people remember him twenty, thirty, forty years from now? It seems safe to say that Pierce will never receive the adulation and amazement inspired by Bill Russell and Larry Bird, the two greatest Celtics ever, but will he at least be in the next echelon?

To me, that next echelon is composed of two, and only two, players. On a franchise that has 22 players currently in the Hall-of-Fame for their professional basketball careers, it is difficult for a player to make a name for himself. To somehow carve a lasting legacy in a franchise entwined by legends and encompassed in history, a player not only has to be great, he has to sustain that greatness for a long period of time.

If you ask me, the only two players who have set themselves apart from the rest of the Celtics’ Hall-of-Fame pack are John Havlicek and Bob Cousy. Kevin McHale was close but, playing in the shadow of Larry Bird, he was never the best player on his team. Dave Cowens tried valiantly but, in the end, his career was not long enough to earn him stature at the top. Sam Jones, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, Bill Sharman… the list of great Celtics goes on, but Cousy and Havlicek were the only two Celtics, besides Bird and Russell, who became synonymous with the organization. If you thought of the Celtics in the early 1950’s, Cousy’s flashy ball-handling and flair for passing were what came to mind; in the 1970’s, it was Havlicek’s tenacious play and relentless consistency.

No other players have become synonymous with the Celtics, no other players defining an entire generation of the organization’s storied history…

Until Paul Pierce came along.

In 1998, Pierce was drafted by a Boston Celtics franchise struggling through the most dire seasons in the franchise’s existence. In little time, Pierce surpassed Antoine Walker as the C’s best player, in the process leading the Celtics from the depths of the NBA’s cellar to an Eastern Conference contender. By the time Pierce’s third year rolled around, he had established himself as one of the better all-around players in the NBA, averaging over 25 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists per game.

For most of his career, Pierce has been the lone face of the Boston Celtics. You could argue that, until the C’s resurgence, Pierce had been the face of the Celtics during one of the bleakest periods the organization had ever known. You could argue that he was only the best player on bad teams.

But how much bleaker would the early 2000’s had been for the Celts had they not drafted Pierce with the 10th pick in the 1998 draft? How much worse would those bad teams have been without Pierce? Even in 2006-2007, the worst team Pierce ever played for, the Celtics were 21-27 with Paul Pierce. That record seems pretty bad – until you realize Boston was 4-31 during the 35 games Pierce missed.

For many years, Paul Pierce carried the Celtics through tough times, lifting them onto his shoulders and making them more formidable than they ever could have been without him. Since he was drafted, Pierce has had the single greatest influence on the Celtics of any player. He spent many years toiling with lesser teammates but rarely complained and always soldiered on, ready to go to battle for the only franchise he’s ever known.

With a championship under his belt and likely a few more good years left, Paul Pierce should be remembered as one of the best to ever suit up for the Green and White, a legend even among other legends. Years from now, when Pierce is retired, he’ll leave behind a legacy, just like all the other Celtics greats have. And when people look into the rafters and see the number 34 hanging there, they should remember him as fondly as any other Celtic.

They’ll remember his pull-up jumpers, his methodical drives to the hoop, and the way he nobly led the Celtics through such low times. They’ll remember his loyalty through tough times, his passionate leadership, and the joy he radiated when he finally cracked through for his first championship.

And if John Allston is right – if the only thing you take with you when you’re gone is really what you leave behind – then Paul Pierce, even when he’s gone, will still have a hell of a lot.


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