Entering his third NBA season, a 22-year-old Paul Pierce was stabbed within an inch of his life, returned five weeks later and played all 82 games in the first of a dozen straight All-Star-worthy campaigns. Just imagine the adoration for a budding star surviving the same scare in the social media age. Instead, 21 years later, a generation of fans remembers Pierce more for a recent controversial turn at ESPN than his real-life valiance.
Well, I am here to remind you: Paul Pierce was much better than you think.
Pierce may not be better than he thinks. (We will get to that.) But he was definitely better than you think, and now he is a Hall of Famer who no longer needs to care what you think. He may never have, which is probably why he exceeded all expectations for his career, why so many players, pundits and spectators wildly underrate him four years into his retirement, and why his opening act as an analyst ended abruptly.
Shaquille O’Neal called Pierce “The Truth” on March 13, 2001, after the Boston Celtics forward’s 42-point performance against the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers, 64 games removed from the stabbing, and the nickname remains as applicable to his life as it is any validation of his game by a fellow Hall of Famer.
Pierce wears his emotions. Frustrated by a non-call late in Game 6 of an eventual 2005 first-round loss to the Indiana Pacers, he threw an elbow at his defender, earning an ejection. He removed his jersey, swung it overhead, feeding a Conseco Fieldhouse frenzy, and arrived to his postgame news conference wrapped in bandages, complaining of a broken jaw that was not actually broken. It was all an effort to show up the officials, only it had the reverse effect of losing Boston fans who considered his the act of a prima donna.
His immaturity was on full display, as was his dissatisfaction with an underwhelming roster he had led within two games of the 2002 Finals at age 24. We recall Pierce’s bandaged jaw more than his Eastern Conference finals run with a team featuring an inefficient Antoine Walker as its second-best player, Rodney Rogers as its only other double-digit scorer and a post-prime Kenny Anderson as its starting point guard.
Consider the flowers Trae Young received for leading a more talented Atlanta Hawks roster to the third round of this year’s playoffs, and imagine how Twitter might have reacted to Pierce scripting the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA postseason history to take a 2-1 conference finals lead 20 seasons ago.
For reasons he has exacerbated, genuinely or not, we also remember Pierce’s dramatic wheelchair exit from Game 1 of the 2008 Finals more than his performance on a championship run. He outdueled LeBron James in the conference semifinals and did the same to Kobe Bryant two rounds later, earning Finals MVP.
It is not unlike the lack of love for Isiah Thomas, who beat Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson en route to the 1989 title, only Pierce’s transgressions are far less problematic than those alleged against Thomas. Chris Paul‘s Point God reputation rose to new heights when he beat a hobbled James and lost to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Finals, and people are seriously debating whether Pierce belongs on the NBA’s forthcoming list of 75 Greatest Players when he bested two of the 10 greatest players ever in their prime.
As the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, and Pierce’s own family welcomed the first of three children later that same season, he matured into his role as captain of the winningest NBA franchise. His relationship with Boston developed into a mutual respect, because the city had experienced highs and lows along with him. The kid from Inglewood, California, grew up to be a Celtics legend before our eyes.
Pierce would be Boston’s all-time leading scorer if he had not signed off on the 2013 trade that has since facilitated three more conference finals appearances for the Celtics. Aging into his late 30s over four final seasons with the Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers, Pierce passed John Havlicek for 16th on the league’s scoring ledger. Even in those later years, he submitted game–winning plays to deliver playoff series victories for both the Nets and Wizards, adding to a career’s worth of clutch performances.
Pierce is one of 15 players with 25,000 points, 7,500 rebounds and 4,500 assists in his career. He reached four conference finals, two Finals and won one title. The list of players who can match that résumé includes only Garnett, Havlicek, James, O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Tim Duncan, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Oscar Robertson. Pierce is in the handful who spent their entire prime with one team. His legacy is unlike any other player not considered among the 50 greatest players in history.
Yet, there was Draymond Green trash-talking a 39-year-old Pierce on the end of the Clippers bench in 2017. “Keep chasing that farewell tour,” said Green. “They don’t love you like that. … You thought you was Kobe?” The clip went viral, accompanied by headlines like “Draymond Green absolutely roasted Paul Pierce” and “Draymond brutally trash talks Paul Pierce,” so a legend’s career becomes the butt of a joke.
ESPN committed an entire “E:60” segment to the exchange, lauding Green’s trash talk, even though Pierce never asked for a farewell tour and never wanted to be Bryant. Pierce wanted to beat Bryant, and he did. He was the Finals MVP the only year Bryant won the regular-season award. Pierce does not need your love to validate his career. He took on the best the game had to offer and won. He has the hardware to prove it.
After leaving Game 1 of the 2008 Finals in a wheelchair, limping on a strained knee he thought was torn two minutes earlier in the third quarter, Pierce returned to score 11 of his 22 points and swing the series opener. Over the next five games, he helped engineer the greatest Finals comeback of the last 50 years and spark the most lopsided championship-clinching win ever. And for all anyone remembers, he pooped his pants.
This is the Paul Pierce experience. However he feels in the moment, you see it in ultra-high definition, as you did on his tear-covered cheeks when Boston raised its championship banner and in his short-lived tenure as an ESPN analyst. Living your truth is not always met with popularity, and that is fine by Pierce.
During his ESPN stint, Pierce’s takes on James often made headlines. There was the time Pierce called himself James’ greatest rival. Pierce left James out of his top five of all time. Pierce declared Kevin Durant better following the 2017 Finals. Pierce claimed players these days, unlike in his era, are afraid of James.
Pierce also suggested his career was better than Dwyane Wade’s, saying he would have won “five or six championships” if he had been paired with O’Neal and James, as Wade was. Pierce’s opinions were almost always met with derision of his own legacy, but we too often fail to consider why he thinks the way he does.
If you twice eliminated James, forcing him to join Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat, and then still took them to Game 7 with an injury-ravaged roster at age 34, you, too, might not think James belongs in the conversation for greatest of all time, because what would that make you? A Hall of Famer, for starters.
The stabbing, the bandaged jaw, the wheelchair game, the teary raising of a banner, the hot takes, even the stripper poker party that led to his ESPN exit, it is all evidence of Pierce being as human an all-time great as we have ever seen. The man once posted clip art as an emoji. Hall of Famer Paul Pierce really is The Truth.
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