EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 29, 2008

Banner night for the captain

Bill Burt

BOSTON — With regrets to millions of Boston Celtics fans who were "aching" for 22 mostly embarrassing years for the raising of banner No. 17, it wasn't about you last night.

The same with future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, both of whom finally made it to the top after a combined 25 years in the league on their probable final NBA pit stops in Boston.

And ditto for underappreciated coach Doc Rivers, chief architect Danny Ainge and the gutsy ownership group led by Wyc Grousbeck and Stephen Pagliuca.

To understand whose night it really was, above all else, you had to follow the river of tears on the parquet floor.

This was, as we found out about 30 minutes before tipoff, Paul Pierce's night.

We should have been more prepared for Paul Pierce Night. Here's what the NBA Finals MVP said minutes after the Celtics clinched the title four months ago.

"I'm not living under the shadows of the other greats now," said Pierce. "I'm able to make my own history with my time here, and like I said, this is something that I wanted to do. If I was going to be one of the best Celtics to ever play, I had to put up a banner, and we did that."

Garnett and Allen could empathize, but they could never know. They never walked Pierce's shoes.

They weren't haunted by the ghosts of Celtics' past, which lingered, in particular, high above the parquet floor in the form of championship banners and retired numbers.

How many times had he looked up at those? A million?

"More than that," claimed Pierce.

Pierce had been through the wringer over his first nine years. Some of it was our fault — name-calling and unfair expectations — but most of it was his.

He could score. He could always score, to the tune of 15,000-plus points. But he, despite being the captain, couldn't lead. And, to be honest, too often than not he didn't appear to be a "Celtic."

We were wrong. Man, we were wrong.

"Paul was in a tough situation for a lot of years and, sure, there was some maturing on his part," said Rivers. "But he has always had his heart in the right place. He's always wanted to win. Now, he has people around him to make that happen."

The Celtics front office decided last night was going to have a Paul Pierce Night twist to it.

It started — the flow of tears — when one Celtics legend, John Havlicek, handed the Larry O'Brien Trophy to Pierce.

"(The tears) really started long before that," said Pierce. "So many thoughts were going through my head. I had to pinch myself wondering if this was really happening."

After the extraordinary ring ceremony, which lasted only 12 minutes, Pierce walked to center court with a microphone in his hand to address the sold-out Garden.

With tears streaming down his left cheek, he went off on tangents, thanking his high school coach, his mother, his two brothers, all of whom made the trip for "his" night, as well as thanking the Celtics for sticking with him when he wanted out.

"I thought that was special. Paul deserved that moment with the fans," said Rivers. "I know what he has been through. I know how low he was ... Yes, this really was a little extra special night for Paul."

As for the basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, as if it mattered, Pierce picked up where he left off last May and June. He outclassed another superstar, LeBron James, again, scoring 27 points, including 11 in the third quarter when the Celtics took control of the game.

But, more importantly, he officially joined the elite club, with Havlicek, Larry Bird, Bill Russell and so on.

From now on he can look up in the Garden sky and see Banner No. 17, which reads, "Boston Celtics, 2008, World Champions," which was won with his blood, sweat and, especially, tears.

"That's a dream I never thought would come true," said Pierce. "But it did."

You can e-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.