It must have felt like the NBA version of a high school reunion for Paul Pierce Sunday night at TD Garden — old stomping grounds, old friends, old times, old memories. The yearbook says Pierce is forever a Celtic.
He’s not the most popular, the most charismatic, or the most likely to be bronzed Celtic of all time. But he is one of the team’s all-time greats. His name is splashed across the team’s record books. He etched a place in Celtics history because, as Doc Rivers would say, there is a championship banner in the rafters with Pierce’s name on it.
Only John Havlicek and Robert Parish played more games in a Celtics uniform than Pierce. Only Havlicek and Bill Russell logged more minutes. Only Havlicek (26,395) scored more points than Pierce (24,021). Only Larry Bird (24.3) averaged more points per game for the Green than Pierce’s 21.8.
Pierce was never universally revered like Bob Cousy, Russell, Havlicek, or Bird. But he carved out his own place in Celtics lore one automatic elbow jumper at a time. Sunday night was the time to recognize that as Pierce returned to the Garden, along with Kevin Garnett, as a member of the Brooklyn Nets.
(It looked as weird as it sounds.)
The game, an 85-79 Nets win, was a footnote to the salute to Pierce and KG. No one will remember 10 years from now that Pierce was 2 of 10 for 6 points with five fouls.
They’ll remember the unspoken bond between Pierce and the Celtics that was vocalized loud and clear by the 18,624 Parishioners of the Parquet.
“I was telling Kevin. I was telling everybody that this is the toughest game I ever had to play, tougher than any championship game, any Game 7,” said Pierce.
“This game was so hard to just focus and really concentrate on what was at hand. At the end of the day, we had a game to play, but it was so hard to really focus. I saw so many friends, so many people I’ve known for years. It was hard to really get into a routine. I just never settled in. You just thought about the times, the friendships, the relationships.”
For the first time in his NBA career, Pierce was at the Garden facing the Celtics, not playing for them.
Only in sports could a kid who grew up in Inglewood, Calif. — once ground zero for Celtic hatred as the home of the Los Angeles Lakers — end up being branded a Celtic for life.
The emotion of the homecoming clearly was overwhelming for Pierce. Like his uniform, Brooklyn black and white, the 36-year-old Pierce’s shot just didn’t look right on the parquet. He was scoreless in the first half, missing all three shots. His first shot, a classic flat-footed Pierce 3-pointer, barely nicked the rim.
His first points came with 10:52 left in the third quarter on a pair of free throws that gave the Nets a 37-36 lead. He made his first field goal with 9:09 left in the third on a step-back jumper from the right elbow, vintage Pierce.
His only other hoop came with 2:38 left in the fourth quarter, another contested jumper, that gave the Nets a 78-70 lead.
When he was introduced last for the Nets, right after Garnett, he was greeted with a din of gratitude for his 15 seasons in green.
The video tribute to Garnett came with 2:25 left in the first quarter and the Celtics leading, 14-11.
Pierce’s electronic encomium came at the end of the first quarter to the strains of “Coming Home” by P. Diddy featuring Skylar Grey.
An emotional Pierce raised his hand to the crowd, said “Thank you,” and bowed twice. He then started clapping.
They showed the blank space on a retired-number banner for his number to be honored. He offered a military salute to the crowd, his eyes clearly red. As the cheering continued, he mouthed, “I love you guys.”
“It was tough. It was tough for me to swallow,” said Pierce. “I was probably about five seconds from shedding [tears]. It was five seconds. I admit to it. There are no words that can really describe the shower of love.”
A “Thank you, Paul Pierce” chant from the crowd echoed with 11:23 left in the second quarter.
Pierce and Garnett shared the night, bound by an era in Boston basketball.
“I think we will always bleed green,” said Garnett. “As long as we’re playing basketball, as long as we’re living, even when we’re buried 6 feet [under]. That’s just what it’s going to be.”
True, but this was a “This Is Your Life” moment for Pierce.
Pierce was a Celtic lifer. He could have asked out, and came close before that fateful summer of 2007, when Danny Ainge did his best Red Auerbach impression and turned flotsam, jetsam, and Al Jefferson into Ray Allen and KG.
Pierce was here for the dark days of the reign of Rick Pitino. He was here when Celtic Pride was just a whisper of history. As he said, he was the classic case of a great player on a bad team, or at least a mediocre one, save for one run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002.
He suffered, like us.
KG came to embody the chest-thumping zeitgeist of the New Big Three Era, but he was always Minnesota’s first. He spent six seasons as a Celtic. That doesn’t diminish his contribution to the franchise, but it does make it different from Pierce’s blood, sweat, and years.
Pierce was here before Tom Brady and began his Celtics career, a year after Nomar Garciaparra won the 1997 American League Rookie of the Year.
“My bad times, through my immature times, through my growing up and becoming a man in this city and winning a championship and everybody sticking with me, staying behind me, I just want to tell them thank you,” said Pierce.
No, thank you, Paul. The truth is we were lucky to have you.