Monday, August 26, 2013

Tribute to 'The Truth': The Early Years

In the 1998 NBA Draft the Boston Celtics landed Paul Pierce with the 10th overall pick in the draft. I was 10 years old when they drafted 'The Truth. Understandably so, I was absolutely overtaken by Jordan Mania prior too the 1999 lockout shortened season, and was crushed by the retirement of the Greatest Player of All Time. It didn't take very long for me to latch on to Pierce as as a preteen NBA junkie, and soon the posters of MJ were soon replaced with ones of 'The Truth'.

So for me, and for many residents of the great state of Massachusetts my age or younger Paul Pierce IS the Boston Celtics. He has been the one constant on a team that have seen many come and go. Pierce personified what it was to be a Celtic.

In what has become very rare, especially in the NBA, he fought through the hard times of the franchise instead of looking for an easy way out. He's had many chances and many reasons to leave Boston and look for greener pastures. Yet Pierce stuck it out, and was finally rewarded in 2008 with an NBA Title for the most decorated franchise in the league.

It seems cruel that the Celtics would cut ties before Pierce is ready to retire, but at the end of the day the NBA is a business. The Celtics are staring down the barrel of another long stretch of championship-less basketball. Paul Pierce is a Celtics Legend, and should be remembered that way. For nostalgia purposes, it would be great to see Pierce have a farewell tour with one more season with the Celtics, then hang em up for good and retire a Celtic. Now whatever happens in the near future wont tarnish the Legacy Pierce has had here.

Throughout this week, we will be re-living the many highs and lows of Paul Pierces illustrious career in Celtics green. We'll take you from draft day to current day and reminisce all things Pierce.

The Early Years
1998-2000: Rookie year and Growing Pains

The 1999 season is remembered for many reasons. It was the first season post Jordan retirement #2. It was a lockout shortened season in one of the ugliest lockouts of any of the major sports. It was also the first season of three future Hall of Fame players. Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce.

In Pierce's first game, he showed a lot of promise. On February, 5th 1999, the Celtics traveled up to Toronto to open the 47 game schedule. Pierce finished the game with 19 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 4 blocks, and shot 50% from the field. That would classify as a great night for anybody, never mind your first professional game. In that game he outplayed fellow rookie Vince Carter, but in what would be a trend for the next few years, the Celtics lost in spite of Pierce's efforts. (Also a spry 37 year old Kevin Willis shredded the Celtics for 28 points and 16 rebounds)

Here's some vintage footage of the last game of the shortened 1999 season, against the Charlotte Hornets. Never mind the Hornets roster with a young Ricky Davis, but watch Pierce. Even from the start the guy was CLUTCH. With the C's down and under a minute left, Pierce drains back to back threes including a buzzer beater to force overtime.

Pierce would continue his young career off to a very hot start. He was voted Rookie of the Month in February. Pierce would round out his rookie year as a unanimous All- Rookie 1st team Selection, and was robbed of  Rookie of the Year honors by Vince Carter.  Statistically the two were almost identical.

Pierce : 16.5 PPG 6.4 RPG  2.4 APG  1.7 SPG  1.0 BPG  19.2 PER
Carter : 18.3 PPG 5.7 RPG  3.0 APG  1.1 SPG  1.7 BPG  19.6 PER

So when you line up the stats, there was no clear cut winner of the award, but it was quite evident from the start Vince Carter was ready to explode on the national scene. He was flashy and probably the most exciting player to watch. He was getting Jordan comparisons in his first year, and so Vinsanity was born.

So understandably, the always under control game of Pierce, although effective, was overlooked by many nationally. The Celtics finishing the year 19-31 did not help Pierce's stature in the league. The Celtics were developing a solid core to build on though. Pierce, 21, was showing promise. He, and second year man Antoine Walker, 22, were blossoming into what could be a legitimate scoring tandem that the Celtics hadn't seen in a while.

Pierce and the Celtics went into the 1999-2000 season with lifted expectations. Antoine Walker just signed a fat contract extension, and Pierce would be considerably better in his sophomore season. On paper it seemed like a team with a lot of young talent ready to burst on the scene.

What it was though, was a team with no veteran leadership or discipline. The oldest players on the roster that played valuable minutes were Dana Barros, 34, and Kenny Anderson, 29. It was also the third season of the Rick Pitino disaster. In typical fashion of the late 90's Celtics they finished below .500 at 35-47, and no playoff appearance.

In his second year in the league, Pierce was really coming into his own though. Pierce finished the season statistically improving upon his rookie year. Pierce was a proven scorer by year two, putting up 19.5 ppg. Boston had it's future superstar ready to burst on to the scene... then it seemed so close to slipping away yet again.

In the early to mid 90's the Celtics drafted Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. Two promising players and potential superstars in the league both ending in tragedy that shocked the city and the nation collectively. Paul Pierce was inches away from that same devastating conclusion and a promising life cut short.

On September 25th 2000, weeks away from the start of Pierce's third season in green, Pierce was stabbed multiple times in the back and neck when trying to break up a fight at a local Boston night club. Pierce, who was with fellow teammate Tony Battie at the time, was rushed to the hospital and had emergency surgery on his wounds and his lung.

Boston and the Celtics held their collective breath as they waited for details about the new face of the franchise. Many questions arose in the aftermath of the stabbing which happened just three days before the Celtics were opening training camp.

Will Pierce ever be the same again? Is Pierce worth the trouble off the court?

Pierce would emphatically answer all the doubters in the following months.

'The Truth' Is Born
2000-2001: Rise to Stardom

By all accounts, it would have been understandable for Paul Pierce to have a dip in his production, after his near death experience just weeks before the season started. It would have been accepted by Bostonians, if Pierce eased himself into the line up. Yet, there he was on Opening Night against Detroit in front of a sold out Fleet Center crowd.

Pierce was on his game that night, and so were the Celtics. In his first game back after the stabbing, only one month after his release from Mass General, Pierce put up 28 points and played a team high 39 minutes.

One of his most monumental performance of his career. Pierce showed relentless poise and composure in this game, getting to the free throw line 14 times when he realized his shot was not falling. This would be a game plan Pierce would master over his next ten years as a pro, getting to the lane and then getting to the line.

The Celtics won that game by 20 points and Pierce had arrived.

The season as a whole was a disappointment for the Celtics. Another year without a playoff appearance. The Celtics would finally fire Rick Pitino giving way to Jim O'Brien to fill in as the interim coach. Even though the season was a loss record wise it was the BREAKOUT season, for Pierce. (all caps for a reason)

Pierce was absolutely robbed of his first All-Star birth that season. Pierce had eight 40-point games that season and finished 8th in the league in points per game at 25.3. His play one night against the rival Lakers earned him the nickname that would stick with him for the rest of his Celtics career.

The Celtics went into Los Angles on March 13, 2001 to take on a Lakers team that was dominating the league to that point. The Celtics, came into the game at 27-37, and were realistically out of a playoff spot. Paul Pierce, a California native, apparently had a lot to prove in front of a crowd where his friends and family were in attendance.

Pierce went off. He went 13-19 from the field, scored 42 points and single handily kept the Celtics close in the overtime game. They did lose to the eventual 3-time championship Lakers team, but Shaquille O'Neal had some thoughts he wanted to share with reporters after the game. O'Neal was known as someone who didn't give praise to pretty much anybody in the league. His words about Pierce stuck with him for the rest of Pierce's career:
"Take this down. My name is Shaquille O'Neal, and Paul Pierce is the mother****ing truth. Quote me on that, and don't take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn't know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth." -Shaquille O'Neal

Sean Dutra

Pictures used via: Associated Press

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