For most NBA players, winning a championship is the realisation of a childhood dream. For Paul Pierce, winning the 2008 NBA Finals with the Boston Celtics was closer to a childhood nightmare than you might think.
“I pretty much hated the Celtics,” Pierce told The Pick and Roll on Saturday afternoon, as he came to the end of his six-day “You’re a Legend Tour” across Melbourne and Sydney.
Growing up within walking distance of the LA Forum, home of the Los Angeles Lakers, Pierce grew up on the other side of the NBA’s most storied rivalry. Being so close to some of the game’s biggest stars helped to grow his passion for the game, and the Celtics legends that would become his peers were the enemy.
“That’s what pretty much got me into basketball, watching those early rivalries with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird,” he said.
Once the chance to play in the NBA came around, though, those childhood allegiances were quickly forgotten. By the time Pierce and the Celtics faced off against the Lakers in that 2008 Finals series, they had been well and truly banished.
“It was just like, man, I’m a Celtic, it doesn’t matter who picked me… being a fan of any team goes out the window, you’re a fan of whatever team picks you,” he said. “For me to get drafted by them was pretty ironic… and then I ended up playing against [the Lakers] in the championship and winning a title—it’s funny how things come full circle that way.”
That 2008 championship could have easily gone by the wayside at any number of points in Pierce’s journey. For starters, the ten-time All-Star says he didn’t expect the Celtics to even draft him.
“The crazy thing is I never even thought I was going to be on the Celtics radar coming into draft day because I never trained with them or talked to any management. It was all just fate,” he said.
Once that surprise wore off, he got to work turning around a franchise that was coming off three consecutive seasons without a playoff berth. The Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals in Pierce’s fourth year and followed that with three more postseason appearances. Just as quickly as they had risen, though, the team fell back into the lottery and won just 24 games in the 2006/07 season. As Pierce struggled with injuries and rapidly approached his 30th birthday, he became uncertain on the direction of the franchise.
“I just didn’t know if we had ownership or management that was capable of surrounding me with the type of players that could win a championship, and I started to lose confidence as the years went on,” he said.
History shows that it took just one offseason for those doubts to be allayed, as the Celtics added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and stormed to the title the following season.
“Eventually it happened, better late than never,” Pierce said. “I wish I could have had this opportunity earlier in my prime and maybe I would have won more championships, but I’m happy for the fact that I had the chance to play for a championship and win one.”
As he wraps up a whirlwind tour of Australia, Pierce has had the opportunity to see firsthand the growth of basketball in Australia. The 15-hour flight might not have been necessary for that, though, as Australian basketball continues to make waves globally and at all levels of the game.
NBL Next Stars LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton have grabbed plenty of headlines in the US since arriving Down Under, and Pierce says he expects more and more young players to consider playing in the NBL.
“You’ve got two guys that can potentially be lottery picks, so I think you’ll see more and more kids make that jump over to the NBL as it continues to get more and more competitive, bringing in better and better players and using this platform,” he said. “I can see this league potentially just growing and growing, and guys taking their future into their own hands.”
At the international level, the Boomers enjoyed a strong run in the early stages of this year’s FIBA World Cup before falling just short of a breakthrough medal. At one stage in the tournament, Pierce said that “they should be the favourite” on the back of the impressive play of Patty Mills.
With the focus now on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Pierce says that the Boomers should again be near the top of the pile pending some potential inclusions.
“I think they have a great chance to medal— obviously it all depends on if a lot of the top pros play,” he said. “I think they can add to what they’ve already had this year, with Patty Mills being the catalyst, and they can add guys like Ben Simmons and Dante Exum.”
While the Boomers soared at the World Cup, the United States slumped to seventh place and their worst ever international finish with NBA players. Pierce played on a similarly underwhelming team at the 2002 World Championships, finishing sixth, and he says he wasn’t surprised to see this year’s team struggle.
“I knew they were going to be an underdog, when all of the superstars started to pull out I just knew it was going to be an uphill challenge for them to try and win gold,” he said.
As far as advice for the players involved, he says it’s hard when many may not have the opportunity to redeem themselves at the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s all going to depend on if they get the chance, but you’ve just got to learn from this experience, move on from it,” he said. “I think next summer you’re going to have a lot of the top players, the superstars of the NBA looking for redemption and to show that the US have the top players in all of the world… those guys that played in these world games, you’re probably not going to see a lot of them at the Olympics.”
Now two years removed from his retirement from the NBA, Pierce is a regular on ESPN’s NBA Countdown and has become one of the league’s most prominent analysts. After a playing career that spanned almost twenty years, he says he’s enjoying his new role in the game.
“It’s been a great transition… I’m excited because I still get a chance to be a part of the game and talk about the game,” he said. “I don’t miss playing, but to be able to talk about it and be around it is still great.”
And, unlike many of his peers, he’s content with his standing in the history of the game. When Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey recently published his list of the top 50 NBA players of all time, it received plenty of backlash from players miffed about their placement.
Pierce himself was ranked 41st, but he says he’s just grateful to even be considered one of the greats of the game.
“There’s hundreds of thousands and even millions of ballplayers out there that have been through the NBA, for me to be recognised as top 50 of all time is a tremendous honour,” he said. “Only 50 guys can say they’re in the top 50… that’s an accomplishment in itself.”