BOSTON — Less than a decade after tears filled his eyes as he raised the Boston Celtics’ 2008 title banner, Paul Pierce was all smiles as his No. 34 went to the rafters at TD Garden during a jersey retirement celebration Sunday following the Celtics’ 121-99 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Surrounded by his family, Pierce watched his No. 34 jersey takes its place alongside other Celtics legends and Boston’s 17 championship banners. He then grabbed the Larry O’Brien trophy from the 2008 NBA Finals and raised it in celebration at center court as Celtics fans roared and serenaded him with a “Thank You Paul Pierce” chant.
“When you are forever with the Celtics, you’re forever,” Pierce said following the ceremony.
“If I never make the Hall of Fame or anything, to go up and make the rafters as a retired number for the Celtics, that’s just enough. That’s enough for me. Everything else is icing on the cake.”
Pierce is the 22nd number retired in Celtics history. He joined an eight-square banner that already featured the numbers of Dennis Johnson (3), Larry Bird (33), Kevin McHale (32), Reggie Lewis (35), Robert Parish (00), and Cedric Maxwell (31). There’s an open spot on the banner that seems likely to someday soon be filled by 2008 teammate Kevin Garnett, who was just one of the former Celtics in attendance for Pierce’s special day.
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During an in-game video, Los Angeles Lakers legends Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant both saluted Pierce. Johnson noted that Pierce “earned it and deserved” his retired number after helping Boston to a title, while Bryant noted how Pierce made “all the Celtics legends proud.”
Pierce seemed genuinely moved by their messages.
“I didn’t expect that at all, especially coming from rivals and it just helps me realize the impact that I was able to have and the respect that I was given throughout the course of my career,” Pierce said. “You’ve heard Kobe say it, you’ve heard LeBron [James] say it. I wasn’t a flashy player or had the commercials and top-selling shoes, but I was a player that was well-respected, and people know when I came into the gym that they had to be ready also. For them to give the praise they gave that means a lot because Magic Johnson was my idol and Kobe Bryant was my rival. It means a lot.”
Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers fulfilled a promise to Pierce by leaving his current team, the LA Clippers, for the day in order to be part of the festivities. Rivers, Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge each game speeches about what Pierce meant to the Celtics franchise and how his perseverance helped deliver the team’s 17th world title.
Rivers noted how, during that 2008 season, he huddled Celtics players in Los Angeles and told them that they were going to beat the Lakers in the Finals and that everyone would eventually reconvene in Boston for Pierce’s jersey retirement ceremony.
“Sometimes in life, you gotta dream first before it happens,” Rivers said.
True to their word, many from the 2008 team were in attendance, including Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Rondo’s New Orleans Pelicans had a day off after playing in Brooklyn on Saturday. Other members of the 2008 title team on hand included James Posey (now a Cavaliers assistant), Brian Scalabrine and Leon Powe.
Before Sunday’s ceremony, Rivers had noted how big of an honor it is for a player to have his jersey number retired in Boston.
“In basketball, I don’t think there’s any other place you could choose where you would want your number retired. It would be with Boston,” Rivers said. “When you’re in the practice facility you see the numbers every day. You see the banners and the numbers. It means something. Before I got here I didn’t realize it. You always hear about the Celtics lore, but you didn’t get it if you weren’t in it.”
Flanked by his mother, his wife and his three children, Pierce reveled in the ceremony. The only time he lost control of his emotions was when he thanked his family and the crowd lifted him up with a standing ovation.
“I got emotional when I talked about my kids because, for them to just sit here, they didn’t get a chance to see most of my career,” Pierce said. “My daughter was born April of the year we won it, my first daughter, so they didn’t really get a chance. For them just to see their dad and how appreciated he was in the city and to be able to leave a legacy to be able to come back years down the line and say, ‘That’s my dad. My dad’s number is up there.’ That means a lot to me.”
As part of the retirement celebration, the Celtics dubbed the tunnel their players walk out before games the “Paul Pierce Players’ Tunnel” and it features Pierce’s signature and No. 34 jersey number. The team said it hopes the designation “will serve as a reminder to all current and future players of what being a Celtic truly means.”
After Grousbeck detailed how watching Pierce during some of Boston’s leanest years helped inspire him to buy the team, Rivers gushed about Pierce’s fearlessness on the court.
“Someone asked me recently what is the one word you could come up with” to describe Pierce, Rivers said. The Garden crowd quickly roared “Truth,” to which Rivers added, “You would say, ‘Truth.’ I would say, ‘Clutch.'”
Before Pierce’s speech, Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn narrated a moving tribute video that closed with the legendary player/coach/announcer saying, “Inglewood made him. Kansas shaped him. But he was always a Celtic. And he’ll always be Boston. He belongs to us. We belong to him. That’s family. That’s forever. That is the Truth.”
“When you are forever with the Celtics, you’re forever. …If I never make the Hall of Fame or anything, to go up and make the rafters as a retired number for the Celtics, that’s just enough. That’s enough for me. Everything else is icing on the cake.”
The Celtics presented Pierce with a series of gifts during the postgame ceremony including a custom stained glass backboard with his No. 34, a framed collage including photos of Pierce with his 2008 Finals MVP trophy and a piece of the Garden parquet, and a replica of the banner that his number now adorns.
Pierce, resplendent in a green checkered blazer and blue tie, sat courtside for Sunday’s game. During stoppages in game action, the Celtics ran a series of videos celebrating Pierce’s basketball journey from Inglewood High to the University of Kansas to the Celtics.
When it came time for his celebration, Pierce ditched a speech he had written and decided to just go from the heart. And he did his best to keep things together when it came time to raise his jersey number.
“I was thinking about the last time I pulled ropes up there I was tearing up crying and I was trying not to cry,” Pierce said. “When we raised the championship banner, that’s when it all came out. It came out bad that day.
“I was just trying to hold it together and I just knew that when I first saw the banner lift and I saw it straight and I saw my number there it was like man all the years I walked into the gym everyday I looked up and I saw empty spots and I saw all the other jersey numbers. Now I’m on there, now I’m on there, and that’s forever. It’s just like, ‘Wow I’m there,’ and now I can say that’s the finish. I left a legacy.”