Michael Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, Raef LaFrentz, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, Robert Traylor, Jason Williams, Larry Hughes, and Dirk Nowitzki, the nine players drafted before Paul Pierce in the 1998 NBA draft and nine of the biggest influences in his career.
Pierce was projected to be a top five pick when he entered the draft following his junior season at the University of Kansas. But those top ten picks proved to be one of the longest time periods in Pierce’s life as he sat there anxious and confused as to why his name hadn’t been called yet.
But while Pierce grew upset as each name was called off the list of draft entries, the Boston Celtics became filled with more and more excitement as they awaited their pick at the ten spot hoping that Paul Pierce would graciously fall into their laps. With Pierce still on the board after the first nine picks the Celtics wasted little time making the former Jay-hawk the newest addition in Boston, where he would be paired with Antoine Walker to form a formidable duo in the Eastern Conference.
Pierce took being the number ten pick as an insult to his ability to play the game of basketball. The nine teams that passed on him fueled Pierce to become a better basketball player. He strove to outperform the nine players drafted before him and all of those teams second guess their decision to pass on “The Truth.” He spent a countless number of hours in the gym saying a name of one of the players drafted before him and then shooting a jump shot. He did this over and over again saying each person’s name that was drafted prior to him in order to motivate himself to be the best basketball player he possibly could be.
All of the hard work Pierce put in paid off as the 1998 NBA season proved to show that Pierce had plenty of talent and that he would be a great player for years to come. While the rookie of the year was Toronto’s Vince Carter after his amazing year filled with highlights and spectacular plays, Pierce still averaged a very respectable 16.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game and showed that he was destined to be something special and the future of the Boston Celtics.
Prior to the 2000-2001 season Pierce was involved in a stabbing incident at a private party at the Buzz Club in Boston. Three men attacked him from behind, hitting him in the head with a bottle and then proceeding to stab him eleven times in the face, neck, and back leaving Pierce seriously wounded. Friends rushed Pierce to the hospital where it was determined that most of the stab wounds were superficial except for one in his sternum that was seven inches deep and punctured a lung, which required surgery to repair. Doctors and friends stated that a big leather coat that Pierce had purchased when first moving to Boston from California was the key factor in saving his life. Pierce recovered from the attack well and was informed that it wouldn’t affect his career at all.
The stabbing incident served to be more motivation in the career of Pierce as he came back stronger and more determined to be better than he was before knowing now that life, just as much as basketball, is something that’s not going to last forever. As ex-49er great Ronnie Lott once said, you need to “Exhaust life,” and get the most out of every situation you are placed in. A near-death experience is a pretty good way to get your head on straight and find out what’s really important in life, and that’s exactly what Pierce did. He realized who he was now and what his profession requires of him off the court as well as on the court.
Pierce came back from the injuries a more mature and determined player and person, being the only Celtic to play in all eighty-two games in the 2000 season. He had a few more good seasons individually, including becoming the first Celtic to score 2,000 points in a season since Larry Bird, and in the 2002 season he and Antoine Walker were able to lead the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals, where the were eventually defeated by the New Jersey Nets.
A few seasons passed and the Celtics were unable to match their efforts in the 2002 season, continuing to under-achieve. So, General Manager Danny Ainge decided to start making moves and trying to build for the future. Walker was traded away, along with many of the other core group of players from that Eastern Conference Finals run, and Boston began to suffer.
The team began to get younger as Ainge tried to put good, young talent around Pierce in an effort to find that right formula of team chemistry. But the team’s record and performance on the court steadily declined for a few seasons, and with each passing year Paul Pierce seemed to be more and more on his way out the door in Boston.
The 2006-2007 NBA season was the lowest of the lows for Pierce and Boston. The Celtics finished the season with a 24-58 record which included a franchise record eighteen game losing streak in the process. Pierce was unhappy and unhealthy as he missed thirty-five games throughout the season and his frustration with the franchise became so apparent that many experts and analysts didn’t believe that he would be returning for the 2007-2008 campaign.
With the face of the franchise and the city of Boston beginning to grow restless with the direction in which the team was going, Danny Ainge decided to make some changes for the present rather than the future. With the fear of losing Pierce and going through yet another abysmal season Ainge surrounded Pierce with the talent that the Celtics needed in order to raise that long overdue seventeenth championship banner up into the rafters.
Ainge traded away potential young talent with the fifth pick in the draft and two starters in Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak to the Seattle Supersonics for shooting guard Ray Allen. A guy who had always been the focal point of his team but had never been able to make it deep into the playoffs because of his team’s lack of success.
This made Pierce more content for the time being but the Celtics were still missing that final piece of the puzzle that would put them over the edge and give them that distinct advantage needed in order to win an NBA title. So Ainge gathered up five members of the roster, in Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, and Sebastian Telfair, and two draft picks and sent them to Minnesota for the low-post and defensive presence of power forward Kevin Garnett.
The trade formed Boston’s newest version of the “Big Three.” Compared to legends Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale; Pierce, Garnett, and Allen had a lot of expectations to live up to as the Celtics went from bottom-dwellers of the Eastern Conference to championship favorites almost instantly. The hunger and determination of the three men starving for their first NBA championship formed a companionship between them that was unstoppable throughout the 2007-2008 season.
The Celtics completed the biggest turnaround in NBA history as the took that 24-58 record from the 2006-2007 season and turned it into a 66-16 record in 2007-2008. They earned home court advantaged throughout the entire 2008 postseason and eventually won the NBA championship after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.
Pierce was the heart and soul of the Celtics throughout the playoffs after struggling in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks. Pierce ousted LeBron James in a dual in game seven of the conference semi-finals as Pierce went for forty-one points and James went for forty-five in a Celtic 97-92 victory propelling them to the Eastern Conference Finals where they would defeat the Detroit Pistons in six games.
Pierce and the Celtics moved on to the NBA Finals where they renewed an old rivalry from the Bird/Magic era by facing the Lakers. Pierce averaged 21.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 6.3 assists per game in the series en route to being named the Finals MVP, putting the perfect ending on the perfect season for him and the rest of the Celtics.
From having one foot out the door in Boston to being named Finals MVP one year later, Paul Pierce’s career completely took a turn for the best and brought the joy of the game of basketball back out in him. Now, as another season gets underway Pierce and the Celtics bring back the same starting five from the championship run one season ago including the “Big Three.” The question now is: Do they still have the drive to get back their again? They say that they do, and with their Captain Paul Pierce leading the way all the pieces are in place for the Celtics to play well into June again this year. And the question to the rest of the league is: Can they handle “The Truth?”