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The Read & React: a captain’s farewell

Paul Pierce is the franchise’s second-leading scorer of all time, and he hung Banner #17 in the rafters, but his legacy goes beyond the numbers. There are many great Celtics, but only a handful can represent a generation—the Truth is one of them.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Oh Captain, my Captain! (Jeff Clark): As a child of the 80s, my first love was Larry Bird (with amazing sidekicks Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish). I grew up in the 90s, though, and became an adult in the 2000s. So Paul Pierce defined my generation's Celtics experience more than any other player.

In an odd sort of way, it felt like we grew up together without ever having met one another. From the brash exuberance of youth, to the humbling stumbles of fate. From the long "character building" hours and months and years of waiting for the right chance. To the lightning-in-the-bottle chance of an opportunity that all came together seemingly overnight.

The lowest lows I knew as a sports fan involved watching Rick Pitino tarnish the legacy of the Celtics, and Paul Pierce was there for that. Obviously the highest exultation as an adult fan was watching that 2008 team win the title, and Paul Pierce was most certainly there for that too.

Thank you Paul Pierce, for what you are and what you've meant to this team and to me. You are a true Celtic, and I'm grateful to have followed you your whole career.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Goodbye to the guy who helped me more than he'll ever know (Keith P. Smith): As a kid who grew up in Massachusetts in the 80s, I was a Celtics fan since birth. To me, Larry Bird will always be the best ever, no matter what the numbers tell us. Some stuff just sticks with you, ya know? The 80s Celtics also taught me how beautiful basketball could be, but I didn't fully get it. Like most young fans, I was about highlight plays.

In the dark ages of Celtics basketball from Bird's retirement to Reggie's death to Pierce being drafted, it was painful that my team didn't matter anymore on the larger basketball landscape. At that point, I started to become a more general NBA fan. Throughout high school, I actually rooted for the Knicks (I know! I know!) because of a family connection to Patrick Ewing. Then in 1998, my buddies and I watched the NBA Draft and found ourselves riveted to the TV as Paul Pierce continued to slide. When Dirk Nowitzki went 9th to the Bucks, we actually held our breath until David Stern announced: "With the 10th pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select Paul Pierce, Forward, Kansas".

That summer I followed every single scrap of news I could get on how Pierce looked. Through a family friend, we were even able to get in and see part of a training camp practice and scrimmage. I loved everything I saw from day one. He was pudgy, but explosive—not unlike Jabari Parker in his first two years, for a recent comparison. He was brash enough to hold your attention. But most of all, you could tell he had "it".

When Pierce got stabbed, I remembered being taken back to waking up in the morning to my Dad telling me Len Bias died and sitting in the car before a summer AAU tournament and hearing Reggie had collapsed during an offseason workout. It seemed like the Celtics were cursed. When it seemed like he would make it through relatively unscathed, I was happy for him, but figured his basketball career wouldn't be the same. To see him back on the court in short order and not even really missing a beat was incredible.

The shocking run to the Eastern Conference Finals vs the Nets was amazing and coincided with me moving to Orlando. That Celtics team and Paul Pierce helped me get through some rough times of being away from my family, friends and home for the first time in my life. At least I had something to turn to that still felt familiar. After that run, there was always something missing. The Celtics could never hit the right combo of guys around Pierce to be a true contender. More often than not, they weren't even good. I feared it would be a disappointing end for a guy who had meant so much to me. Then it all changed.

On my birthday in the summer of 2007, the Celtics gave me the best present ever when they traded for Kevin Garnett to pair him with Pierce and the previously acquired Ray Allen. From moment one, everything clicked. And I mean everything. The next three years should have featured three titles, injuries be damned. And finally, for all the basketball world to see, Paul Pierce was getting his just due. His dominating performance in the 2008 NBA Finals was validation that never should have been needed, but always was.

I always felt Pierce would stick around forever, because he had an old man's game from the first day he hit the NBA. That herky-jerky style, where he would draw in the defender, hang just long enough to get the contact and score was always there. The awkward yet effective jumper, where he would land with the worst form possible, leaning at all sorts of odd angles, was money from day one. When necessary, to fire himself, his teammates or the crowd up, he would flash that explosion for a huge dunk, generally along the baseline over an unwitting opponent. And you knew when the game was on the line, the Captain was getting the ball, backing down his defender to the elbow or free throw line and burying a huge turnaround jumper. Everyone knew it, yet no one could stop it from happening.

Paul Pierce helped wake back up the Celtics fan in me. He showed that if you stick it out (yes I know there were bumps along the way), good things will happen. When I knew no one in a new place, Pierce was there. When I lived in California for most of the 2008 title run, Pierce helped stick it to pretentious Lakers fans who called him a traitor. Most of all, Paul Pierce helped me to understand that basketball doesn't have to be flashy highlights to be beautiful. The NBA is best when it has all different kinds of guys, and none were more different than Paul Pierce.

Black, red and blue weren't his colors. Green fit him just right. Maybe the Celtics can get in as the third team in a Carmelo Anthony trade and bring the Captain back home to finish it. That would be the most fitting end. If not, Sunday is the last time we'll see one of the truly great Celtics of all-time on the floor in the new Garden. I'm not even gonna say it will be dusty around the Smith house. Those will be straight up tears.

NBA Finals Game 6: Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Truth (Bill Sy): I have to echo so much of what Jeff and Keith have already said. Maybe it’s because we’re all roughly the same age, or maybe it’s just because we love Paul Pierce so much.

Like Jeff and Keith, I idolized Larry Bird growing up, too. I bought the Converse, I copied his game, and I always tried to play as hard as him. He helped me fall in love with basketball and made me a Celtics fan for life. But when you’re a kid, it’s all so ethereal. Your heroes are untouchable, and the closest you’ll ever get to them is reaching for that poster hanging over your bed.

But with Paul Pierce, it was different. I grew up with Paul Pierce. He was drafted the same year I graduated from college, and even though he was a multimillionaire professional athlete, in a way, his life paralleled mine. We went through the same growing pains of youth and enjoyed the later successes of hard work, loyalty to team, faith in family, and sacrifice of self. While Bird inspired me to dream when I was a kid, it was Pierce that helped me grow up.

Paul Pierce will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest Celtics ever, but more importantly, he was my guy. I never got a chance to watch Russell or Havlicek, and my memories of Bird live in my childhood home. Paul Pierce isn’t just The Truth; he’s my truth and my captain, and today, I’d like to thank him.

Paul Pierce was the ultimate butt-kicker (Bobby Manning): Before the 2013 trade that swept up the Celtics, sending them into a short rebuild that culminated in the epic run the team has been on since late 2014, there was only one thing I ever knew of as a Celtics fan. Born in 1998, the year a young Paul Pierce was drafted, he was the face of the Celts from the day I started watching basketball until the draft day that the mega-deal formulated.

I was fortunate to be there the day he returned with Kevin Garnett in jet-black jerseys that read Brooklyn across the chest. It wasn't right, but everything else about that night was. There will never be a more emotional sporting event for me personally than that night. The glory of 2008, the only Celts championship I've experienced, mixed with the heartbreak of 2010 was too much to bear. Pierce had become Boston and the city became him. Relentless fight, passion and a comeback spirit. This was a guy who survived a knife attack thanks to a leather jacket. There was nothing stopping him.

With the tears flowing through the "you want the truth! You can't handle the truth!" soundbites and a furious roar of pure emotion from a crowd like I'd never heard before the scenes on the jumbotron finally shifted to one of Pierce's most famous moments: his back-and-forth, on-court feud with Al Harrington when the Celts faced off with the Pacers. Harrington and Pierce were jarring at each other all game long, vintage trash talk that is rarely seen today outside a burst of wind from the mouth of Lance Stephenson into the mouth of LeBron James. On one of the last possessions of the game, the trash talk reached its climax on Harrington's end, to the point where the ref almost had to intervene, but it was Pierce who would triumph, sticking a three-pointer about five feet behind the line in his face to win the game.

Those were the moments that made Pierce the captain. He defended the LeBrons of the world with grit, he made the toughest baskets in the game routinely, and he constantly fought through nagging injuries to produce. One of my favorite Pierce lines is that players today aren't as competitive because they're inside playing 2K instead of outside jarring in street hoops. He has a point.

There will never be another Pierce. People love to torch him with their hot takes that diminish his greatness. I've heard him call a glorified Carmelo Anthony, but the Melos of the world aren't hoisting Finals MVP trophies. As legendary as that ‘08 team was, Pierce was the one who made it happen the most on both ends of the court. The memory of him running out of the tunnel and nailing threes after his "wheelchair incident" is engraved in my head forever. Pierce just oozed passion. He fell in love with the city of Boston, and it returned the favor. It was the ultimate marriage that never turned into a divorce even as he had to move away and stick daggers in the hearts of opposing fanbases in different uniforms.

I can't wait for the day "34" raises to the rafters forever. Some rip the Celts for their ridiculous amount of retired numbers, this one is as deserving as any. Long live the Captain.

A Captain for all Seasons (Jeff Nooney): I'm originally from Jacksonville, so I became a Celtics fan because of my grandfather's influence. Never lacking in bravado himself, he loved telling Larry Bird stories. I heard all the hits growing up: "Who's coming in second?", "Merry f'ing Christmas", the duel with Dominique, and so on. What kid wouldn't latch onto the Celtics after that?

Around my 10th birthday or so, he bought me a subscription to "Sports Illustrated for Kids". As luck would have it, the first issue I got featured Paul Pierce. After crudely tearing out the insert poster, I now had a favorite player of my own. My grandad was never quite sold on those Celtics or their temperamental star though. He wasn't lucky enough to have a partially torn Paul Pierce poster from a children's magazine either, so it made sense to me.

Unfortunately, after the promise of the 2002 team faded, that era spawned some not-so-great moments for Pierce: The bizarre ejection and head-wrap press conference in the 2005 playoffs, the swirling trade rumors, and of course the 2006-07 tank. I always had faith that he could lead them to a title, but at some point even the most optimistic of us get worried.

Thankfully the Big 3 era brought hope. And it also finally gave me a set of stories I could tell for myself one day. That season alone, Pierce delivered the 41-point duel with LeBron, the wheelchair game, and best of all, a Finals MVP. There were plenty of great moments before and after that, but the 2008 season will always be special.

Pierce and that team bridged the gap between eras, and not a moment too soon for me. It was the first Celtics championship that I got to see; and my grandfather's last, as he passed away less than a year later. That all sounds a bit cloying, but so it goes with navel-gazing sports symbolism.

So thanks for the memories Paul. Now go out and nail a few more elbow jumpers in the Garden for old times' sake.

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