Dear Mr. Ainge,
What are we doing here?
There are a myriad of reasons to look into trading Paul Pierce, and let’s be honest, it is something you’ve thought about nearly every year. Now it is getting both easier and harder to consider. His game has slipped, but there is still value in the market out there for him.
Then again, something else is weighing on your mind. Trading him doesn’t seem right. Because this league, this sport, it has to be about something greater at some point. Pierce deserves to finish here, doesn't he?
You see, Mr. Ainge, it is such a fantastic rarity in the life of a sports fan to be able to grow up with a single star player and have him be there throughout the major events in both of your lives.
For 15 years, Paul Pierce has been a part of the Boston community. His career has coincided with events in the lives of New Englanders young and old. As a minuscule individual in the large sea of locals whose lives have been affected by Pierce, I’d like to tell you a story.
In the summer of 1998, sitting on a Cape Cod beach was a nine-year-old boy, he heard on the portable radio that the Boston Celtics have drafted a man named Paul Pierce. Around that same time, thousands of others are hearing, through different mediums, this same news.
At the time, the Celtics were an afterthought in the Boston sports scene. A decade of bad to mediocre teams (only two division titles in '90s) did not appeal to the “Generation Y” crowd. Thus not a lot was thought of this pick; little did they know where they would wind up a decade later.
When you are nine years old, you don’t know a whole lot about the world. It is as your parents have shaped it for you. Outside your circle of experience is a vast and unexplored territory. Your potential is the major factor that people see in you. Maybe your parents see a future athlete, musician or doctor. Maybe they see you heading off to Harvard in 10 years. It is all potential in their eyes.
At 21 and with three years of college under his belt, this was a similar area that Paul Pierce was entering. Drafted with the 10th overall pick by the 36-46 Celtics, Pierce entered a world of uncertainty.
At Kansas, Pierce was all about potential. He was the MVP of the Big 12 tournament his sophomore and junior years and averaged over 16 points and six rebounds a game for his career. He chose to forgo his senior season and declare for the draft as a young man of barely legal drinking age.
The NBA is a lot different than the NCAA. It is a new world for a rookie. A scary place that you have very limited knowledge and experience with. Much like a nine-year-old boy, Paul Pierce’s view of his future was a vast unknown. All these two young men had to rest their heads on was that word—potential.
Moving along after a spending a few seasons toiling with a new life and an inexperienced body, Pierce and the 2001-02 Celtics were a surprise team. That was the year we saw a glimpse of the potential of Paul Pierce. He led a team nobody believed in through the first two rounds of the postseason and into the franchise’s first Eastern Conference Finals since 1988. Pierce announced his presence to the NBA’s elite by posting averages of 25 points, eight rebounds and four assists in the playoffs.
Similarly, in 2002, that boy we mentioned earlier turned 13. A whole new set of experiences await the newly titled “teenager.” He is suddenly a big fish in the small pool of junior high school. He hits puberty, and his body changes. He slowly begins his evolution into the man he will become. He matures, or at least he thinks he matures.
Pierce went through similar changes around that time. Along with his performance on the court, there were off-the-court incidences that continued to shape him as he became a man. This was his second season after the infamous stabbing incident.
Pierce was at a night club, and while allegedly trying to break up a fight, he was stabbed 11 times. He was rushed to a hospital and made a full recovery, learning important life lessons along the way. A bar fight—it doesn’t get much more Bostonian than that.
Paul racked up a string of All-Star nods from 2002-2006; many thought he was hitting his stride and on the way to becoming one of the greatest Celtics ever. However, not all of this was smooth sailing.
As was it difficult for our young boy to move on to high school and suddenly find himself a small fish in a large ocean, without much support and grasping for something to hold on to, Paul Pierce would find himself struggling with stardom and in a fight to mature.
Things were changing for Pierce as rapidly as they were for our teenager. You may remember best what happens next. In 2003, the Celtics were sold to new ownership. With new owner Wyc Grousbeck, came a new general manager. That would be you, Mr. Ainge. Eventually that meant a new coach, Doc Rivers.
Doc would be the fourth coach of Pierce’s six-year career. With the managerial overhaul came new ideas and new plans for the direction of the franchise. This lead to questions about Paul’s future in green.
Much like a new kid going through early years of high school. This was a tough time for Pierce, struggling as the lone star on mediocre teams, tasked with the burden of leading them while fighting inside his own head for clarity of his situation.
This all came to a head in a 2005 playoff game against the Indiana Pacers, Pierce knocked Jamaal Tinsley down with a forearm swipe and was ejected from the game. In a showing of boyish immaturity, Paul pulled off his jersey and swung it over his head to the jeering Indiana crowd.
This was the peak of Pierce’s interior battle. His ego had grown large and had gotten the best of him. A high school mistake that almost cost him dearly. But, you stuck with him. Through all of this, he was your guy, because you saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
Our young man at the age of 16 in 2005 was going through similar interior and exterior battles, dealing with his own views of his potential and where he wanted to go from here. Seminal moments for both this boy and Pierce occurred in the middle of this decade.
In today’s sports landscape there is so much uncertainty because it is all a business. For 15 years, though, Paul Pierce has been different. He has grown with us in Boston for his career and that is why the next part of this story far exceeds any sporting event of my lifetime.
Paul wasn't a hired gun like Curt Schilling or Zdeno Chara. He hasn't left either disgraced or simply because a replacement was found like Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez or Drew Bledsoe. Paul has been here, and he has stumbled, learned, stumbled again and grown with us.
In 2007, the boy graduates high school. He overcame a lot of difficulties and mistakes along the way to becoming a man. He was accepted to college and began succeeding at the next level in 2008. He grew more than he thought he ever would, when he met a new cast of friends and colleagues. He learned on the fly to live with new people, play with new people and learn with new people.
At this same time, Paul Pierce earned a new contract with his team. He stuck around through the mistakes, owned up to them and still played his heart out, enduring a 24-58 season riddled with injuries.
In 2008, Paul was supplemented with a slew of new teammates. With his new Celtics, Paul morphed into the leader you, of all people, knew he could be. The captain led his team to a 66-16 record in the regular season and raised his level in the playoffs.
His battle to the top was not easy, nor was that boy’s. Nor has most of New England’s over the past 15 years. It is a battle living, learning and growing in this corner of America. A decade-and-a-half is long enough to affect not just a nine-year-old boy, but an entire populace. For 15 years, Paul Pierce has been the Northeast’s greatest reality show. He has been the absolute mirror of our struggles and successes.
Sports has very rare glory, but this is what it can be once in a while. A remarkable journey and relationship between fans and a player. It seldom gets to be seen though, as players move with the frequency of the cars on the Mass Pike. They either wear out their welcome with a team or never realize their full potential while wearing that same uniform.
To see Paul Pierce raise that championship trophy was an accomplishment not only for him, but for the fans who grew with him over his decade in Boston. Sports simply cannot get any better than that.
You see, Mr. Ainge, even though it is hard to visualize that happening again, it is even harder to visualize Paul Pierce in different colors.
Not just the green and white Boston jersey, but the color of the blood and sweat in New England. The shade you recognize when an athlete truly bleeds the colors, after enduring the same hardships, triumphs, and tribulations that you yourself have.
If Paul Pierce doesn’t deserve to retire a Boston Celtic, then what are we really doing here?
Michael Walsh, the nine-year-old on the beach.