The Huh of Paul Pierce: His Passing of Larry Bird
Kobe Bryant passing Shaq and moving up on the all-time scoring list–we saw that coming, probably even prepared for it, by storing up canned goods and digging underground bunkers. Every glacier melts, and Kobe’s got sunbeams for eyes; but Paul Pierce passing Larry Bird on the Celtics all-time scoring list is something that we didn’t so much not prepare for as much as we never even fathomed the possibility of it.
Down the road, people may not even remember a time when Kobe Bryant was clearly the first mate on Shaq’s merchant ship, and down the road, fair or not, Shaq might end up being merely a footnote in Kobe’s career, rather than the vengeful sea captain he sailed under; but only a short-sighted Celtic fan is going to place Pierce on par with Bird, Russell, Cousy, or Auerbach. And that act is probably simultaneously a little bit fair and a little bit unfair as well.
Other than the Lakers, no other franchise has so many quantifiable names. Red Auerbach lit cigars the way God did stars back in his heyday. Bill Russell is eleven rings to Wilt Chamberlain’s one. Bob Cousy is the point guard who orchestrated countless Hall of Fame Careers. And Larry Bird is 21,791 points, three championships, and 5,695 assists. These numbers spin webs, bars, graphs, and lists that measure the importance of each Celtic. But, despite his scaling of these green and white frosted peaks, what Paul Pierce means to the Celtics is difficult to measure.
The question of whether Paul Pierce was even the best player, or leader, on the 2008 Celtics team is highly debatable. What’s not up for argument is that he was the most dramatic, with his clutch shooting and wheelchair stage props, and that he was in Boston first. He was there before Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. He survived the various appetites of Antoine Walker, lived through Rick Pitino, and bore witness to Ricky Davis’ inscrutable greatness.
Russell, Cousy, Cowens, and Bird never had to live in Paul Pierce’s post-apocalyptic Boston. For them, the Garden was Mark Twain’s Hannibal: all endless summers, pirates, and treasure hunts. Paul Pierce had to deal with something else entirely: a raft ride of violence and neglect through all depths of the competitive spirit. Paul Pierce’s journey through Boston’s green rivers occurred as Jim would have told it–desperate, determined, and painfully lonely. This is not to say that Paul Pierce’s struggle was greater than any of these other players–Russell and others faced incredible battles against racism and prejudice–but in terms of being a basketball player Paul Pierce was alone on Jackson’s Island, between the departure of Antoine Walker and the arrival of Kevin Garnett, starving off of strawberries.
And that’s what makes the Paul Pierce story resonate in a way that is both alarming and endearing. His story is one about the heights of companionship and loyalty as well as the depths of their absence. Alone the Paul Pierce as a great basketball player story arc withers and dies, which in some ways makes him appear weaker than it rightfully should, but with a band of robbers and scoundrels to call his own, 21,860 points amount to something that can be woven into the fabric of how Hannibal isn’t a town chained to the past but is an ever changing idea of what a team and a franchise can be. All those other Hall of Famers in green and white can be romanticized and fawned over–praised for their cleverness and their adventures–but don’t forget how Paul Pierce forced Boston to live in the present, both in pain and in triumph.
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