EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 29, 2013

Departing Pierce made a generation of Celtics fans believe

Departing Pierce made a generation of Celtics fans believe

On Pro Basketball
David Willis

---- — First a confession: I don’t remember watching Larry Bird play basketball.

Sure, I remember the endless stories my father told me about the Celtics great. I do vaguely recall sitting on the couch with my dad, watching games played at the old Garden, and I have seen countless highlights of old No. 33.

But Larry Bird retired in 1992, when I was 8. So, in my mind, Boston basketball does not begin and end with Larry’s Legend.

When I see the Celtics’ logo, one name rises above all the rest in the history of the storied franchise.

Paul Pierce.

For a generation of bruised and battered Celtics fan, Pierce gave us hope.

He was our Bird.

He was more than just a tough-as-nails small forward, a 10-time All-Star and a career 21.4 points-per-game scorer. He gave us a long-awaited reason to cheer.

Watching No. 34 take the court and play his heart out every night made us believe, for the first time, that there actually was light at the end of the tunnel. That one day maybe — just maybe — the Celtics could be a contender again. That an NBA title wasn’t simply a story from the Bird/Kevin McHale/Robert Parish era.

So it has been an emotional 48 hours adjusting to the reality that Pierce is no longer a Celtic, traded by Boston to Brooklyn as part of a blockbuster deal to kick off the rebuilding process.

Is it sad to see Kevin Garnett leave? Sure.

But no exit of a Boston athlete has stirred up more emotions than the farewell to Pierce.

He is the Truth, and the Truth was supposed to be a Celtic forever.

Growing up a Celtics fan in the 1990s was not easy. We missed out on the greatness of Bird, McHale and Parish leading the C’s to the three NBA titles.

Instead, we were left watching the likes of Pervis Ellison, Sherman Douglas, Eric Montross and Dino Radja — legendary only as a chain-smoker — lead teams that were lucky to make it to the first round of the playoffs.

Sure it was fun to root for local guy Dana Barros, but he was still a 5-foot-10 3-point shooter. And while my “Walker Wiggle” remains sharp, watching Antoine Walker waste his considerable ability was more infuriating than anything else.

It was hard to root for the Celtics. Eight straight losing seasons have a way of weighing on you — they were 241-383 from 1993-2000 — as did the Rick Pitino debacle.

With legends like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal at their peak, the temptation to jump ship and root for another team was powerful. My brother defected to cheer on the Lakers.

But then Paul Pierce arrived with the 10th overall pick in the 1998 draft, slipping a bit after a stellar career at Kansas.

Was it magic right away? Nope. But when you saw him take the court, you believed that was a player that could do something special. Who can forget when he scored 19 fourth quarter points to lead the then greatest comeback in playoff history against the New Jersey Nets.

Sure, there were some bad times early on, like in any relationship.

I still remember exactly where I was when I learned that Pierce had been stabbed at a nightclub prior to the 2000-01 season. Then a junior at Pentucket High School, I preparing for football practice when a coach told me.

Would he live? We had no idea. But he was back in uniform in spectacular time. Then there was the infamous ejection in the 2005 playoffs against the Indiana Pacers and the ensuing bizarre press conference. The less said about that the better.

But Pierce grew up. He became a mature leader that you were proud to have leading your franchise. Even though the Celtics continued to scuffle, you still believed Pierce had championship makeup. It was the awful supporting cast holding him back.

Sure enough, that proved to be true when Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo arrived. With a real team behind him — and yes, he was the No. 1 guy — Pierce broke the years of misery and brought the NBA title back to its rightful home in Boston. And he did it at the expense of the hated Lakers.

Even then it was scary. My heart was in my throat when he collapsed under the basket during the Finals and had to be taken off the court in a stretcher. It wasn’t fair. It couldn’t be that way. And, of course, it wasn’t. He was fine.

Dramatics aside, he had finally done what many of us thought was impossible. He made the Celtics champs again.

He had gone through the pain with us. He had experienced the losing with us. KG and Allen were ringers. Rondo had just arrived. But Pierce has been a Celtic through the misery of failure and he brought us through it with a title.

He was our guy.

But, after 15 seasons, we now have to face the post-Pierce era in Boston. The next time we see 34 in green will likely be when his number is retired after he calls it a career. He is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, and it just doesn’t feel right.

Fans from the ’80s and before may not feel the full pain, and recent recruits seem to be drawn more to Rondo.

For a certain group of Celtics fans, however, the ones that trudged through the lowest of lows before finally seeing the top of the mountain, Pierce’s exit is a momentous day.

But while he may be gone, he will not be forgotten.

You know how a generation has been driven crazy by fairy tails of Larry Bird’s career?

Well, fair warning to the next generation: get ready to hear about “The Truth.”