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Greatness, glory, and The Truth

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Before his induction into the Hall of Fame, we celebrate the career of Paul Pierce, a career of great accomplishment and worthy of more fanfare.

NBA Finals Game 6: Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Nobody knows where they’re at when they’re born.

It’s a realization that creeps on you slowly until it eventually becomes a defining part of who you are.

I was born in a small town—a town so small that it used to be the smallest state capital in America—in a state that is barely distinguishable from its neighbors, at least among most people I’ve met from outside the area, and only because it has Mount Rushmore in it.

I was also born in a decade marked by recessions, inflation and a pair of oil embargos.

But, again, I knew none of this at the time.

What I did know growing up was that I seemed to have missed out on a great many things.

My earliest memory connected with sports came in 1981, when I was five. My dad was watching football on November 23, and the Vikings were playing the Falcons. I must have had a vague awareness that people have teams they root for, and since I knew even at this age that Minnesota was right next door to South Dakota, I decided to be a Vikings fan.

The Vikings lost that game 31-30 by the way.

I subsequently learned that the Vikings I was cheering for had gone to the Super Bowl four times in seven years ... and had been blown out in all four games. Yes, Virginia, there was a time when the Vikings were famous for losing Super Bowls, not for failing to get to them.

And that was how I became a sports fan.

1984 Boston Celtics Championship Parade Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

At some point in time I discovered that my dad was also a Celtics fan, and naturally, I decided that I should be one, too.

My dad had a strict bedtime for us kids—8:00 p.m. when we were really small and 9:00 p.m. once we were around ten or so. There were eventually six of us, and it wouldn’t do for some of us kids to be allowed to stay up late and watch basketball while the others were forced to hit the sack. Because of this, I missed a lot of games when the Celtics were really good.

I have fuzzy memories of the C’s winning the Finals in 1986, but what I remember distinctly was the draft lottery, when an anchor on SportsCenter noted that the team with the best regular season record in the NBA had also landed the second pick in the draft.

I also remember the day after the draft.

My first very clear memory of the Celtics is the death of Len Bias.

I wanted to believe—in fact, I did believe—that the C’s would bounce back from that. I didn’t think that I had completely missed the primes of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, but that was how it turned out. My dad had grown up with Russell and Cousy, Heinsohn and Havlicek. I grew up with Dee Brown and Reggie Lewis, Rick Fox and Brian Shaw.

Later, Reggie Lewis died during a pickup game at Brandeis, and barely a year later he was retroactively declared a cocaine user by an incompetent doctor and an attention-seeking journalist.

All the while, I was coming to realize that the small town in the sparsely populated state that was the center of my universe was a place that barely registered with most people. When I was eleven, a guy who was born in Chicago and who was on the faculty at Rutgers in New Jersey, wrote a book with his wife called The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust. In this book, they argued that, essentially, more than half the state of South Dakota was unfit for human occupation and should be emptied as a matter of government policy.

I learned that Pierre was so far, in so many ways, from New York and Los Angeles that they might as well have been in different countries—or on different planets. South Dakota was an importer of culture. The movies and television shows we watched were all about life elsewhere. Even Sesame Street had a foreign tinge to it; we had no brownstones with stoops.

The difference between where I lived and where ‘everybody else’ lived was defined primarily in terms of things that other places had and we didn’t.

Boston Celtics Practice Photo by Tom Landers/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

And the same went for the Celtics—they were, as I was coming of age, more noteworthy for who they didn’t have than for who they had. I had already graduated from college and was out on my own when Rick Pitino delivered his famous “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door” rant, but it’s a pretty accurate summary of the Celtics that I knew growing up, even when Larry Bird was still on the team, but a shell of his former self.

During the 1990’s, I was more a fan of auto racing than I was of basketball. I was not just born into a Celtics family, I was born into a Ford family. My dad—like his dad—had owned a long succession of Ford cars and trucks, and when I got interested in auto racing, I naturally gravitated toward Ford-powered teams.

Here, too, was a sense of having missed out on greater things. Ford’s slogan, during the ‘60s was ‘Total Performance’, and from 1966 to 1969, Ford won what is, in some respects, the most difficult auto race on the planet, the 24 hours of Le Mans. All that happened before I was born. From 1968 to 1982, twelve of the winners of the World Driver’s Championship in Formula 1 drove Ford-powered cars, including seven straight years from 1968 to 1974. But by the time I got interested, Ford had long-since dropped out of Le Mans, and their Formula 1 efforts were mostly confined to teams which were, for the sake of comparison, the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves of the circuit.

Bit by bit, though, Ford went from powering cars that lost to powering cars that won. In 1992, Ford won a single Formula 1 race. In 1993, they won six, and in 1994, they won eight—and powered the driver’s champion, Michael Schumacher.

I got to watch that happen. And I learned something from that: even if you’ve missed out on a lot—or just think you have—you’ll still get your chance to be a part of something special, even if you’re just a fan.

Mary O’Donnell;Kevin Costner;Doris Leader Charge Photo by Ed Lallo/Getty Images

This was also around the time that Dances with Wolves came out. And for the first time, it seemed, instead of people in South Dakota watching a movie about New York or Los Angeles, people in New York and Los Angeles were watching a movie about South Dakota. And finally, they got to see what I had seen my whole life. The landscape of my childhood, the enormous vault of pale blue sky, the hills and buttes that are shaped like flesh over bone, the dips and swells of an ocean of grass, all this was there on the big screen for everyone to appreciate.

But that moment came and went, and things went back to normal. Once more, movies and TV so thoroughly saturated me with images of New York and Los Angeles that when I finally got to New York, I had the eerie feeling that I was, myself, in a movie wherever I went.

What I learned from all that was that it doesn’t matter if other people dismiss or ignore the amazing things that you see every day—or if their recognition is fleeting at best and soon forgotten. I thought I needed the general reaction to Dances with Wolves to validate my own feelings toward this landscape, but then I realized that, no, it was what it had always been and that nothing about it would have changed if the movie had never been made.

And that brings us to Paul Pierce and the 2008 Celtics.

NBA Finals Game 6: Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

I was dimly aware of Pierce before he was stabbed eleven times, but honestly, I had lost interest in basketball by the time that happened. It had become a low-scoring sport marked by hideous uniforms and incredibly ugly courts.

The Lakers had emerged from the Jordan era in great shape. The Celtics? Not so much. I remember thinking that the C’s had made a daring move hiring Rick Pitino, but I figured it would work. I figured Pitino was so competitive he would do whatever it took to win.

Instead, he turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, and I just couldn’t stand trying to follow the fortunes of a team which seemed to consist largely of players whose presence on the court was due to contractual obligation as opposed to actual talent or love for the game.

From 1999 on, though, I took a renewed interest in the Celtics—I saw them come close to making the Finals in 2002, even though I knew they would almost certainly lose to the Lakers if they made it. I was there for Pierce’s remark about being a great player on a bad team, and frankly, how could you argue with him? The Celtics were a bad team, a team built deliberately to be bad years before “The Process.” The C’s wanted Kevin Durant, and they were willing to stop at nothing—and stay there—in order to get him.

Of course things worked out differently. If the C’s had snared Kevin Durant, it’s almost certain they wouldn’t have traded him for Ray Allen. Trading their pick for Ray Allen was a sort of consolation prize. But that was enough to bring Kevin Garnett over.

The rest is history.

Once again, I got to watch something special unfold.

I wasn’t there when the Celtics beat the Lakers in 1969—or even when they won in ‘84 or ‘86, but I got to see the Celtics come back from a 24-point deficit in Game 4 and I got to see the Celtics flat out dismantle the Lakers in Game 6.

Sure, that was the only title for Pierce. Three teams have won multiple titles since then. From that standpoint, what I got to experience doesn’t measure up with what those fans experienced—or what my dad got to experience.

But in other ways, it does.

And a lot of that comes down to Paul Pierce.

That title wasn’t part of a dynasty, but its singularity made it special. No team has ever come back from more than a 24-point deficit in a Finals game, and only two teams have come back from a deficit of that size: Boston and the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks. And no team has clinched the Finals with a greater margin of victory than the Celtics notched in that Game 6 massacre in The Garden. And as one who watched that game from opening tip, the final margin is an understatement of the difference between those two teams.

Even in their heyday, neither Russell’s Celtics nor Bird’s teams so thoroughly extinguished their Finals opponents. And since 2008, no team has come close to achieving what Pierce’s Celtics achieved in their singlehanded dismantling of the Lakers. It was just one title, but what a title!

Boston Celtics 2008 Championship Parade Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Pierce was never a media darling. Like Allen Iverson, his reputation is largely based on stuff that happened during testy public interactions. It’s actually kind of weird that what ‘everybody’ knows about Pierce centers on stuff he’s said and done since he retired—or one-off stunts while he was playing, like the bandage or the wheelchair, not what he did during over 1500 basketball games. But that’s about as good a picture of Pierce as most people have, and while it’s technically accurate (I mean, he did actually do all those things) it’s like the view you get of South Dakota from 30,000 feet, if you’re lucky enough to have a window seat: it’s far from a complete picture.

Pierce’s career is the basketball equivalent of ‘flyover country.’ For all his showmanship—the bow at Madison Square Garden, “I called game” with the Wizards, all that—he’s a guy that has, five years after his retirement, essentially slipped through the collective consciousness of the sport.

Pierce could score. He was drawing fouls on three point shots before it was cool, before it became annoying, and long before the NBA decided to officiate it differently. I, at least, forgave him for it because he was also more than willing to drive the lane and take a beating in search of free throws. Kobe had a higher scoring average, but Pierce was a more efficient scorer—and after careers of nearly identical length, that’s not a statistical fluke. If Pierce had taken as many shots per game as Kobe did, he would’ve retired with more than 40,000 points, instead of just 29,577.

And while we’re talking ‘what if’s’, I suppose you could ask what would’ve happened if Red Auerbach had found a guy like Jerry West to replace him—if Paul Pierce had joined a well-run Celtics team, not a train wreck. You could also ask what would’ve happened if he had become the face of Nike, if they had thrown their considerable weight behind him to make him their next star after Jordan retired.

But all that is as pointless as me wondering what it would’ve been like to have been born early enough to catch Bird’s best years—or what it would’ve been like to have been born somewhere else, someplace that people have heard of and know about.

That’s not the hand we were dealt. And this isn’t about Pierce making the ‘best’ of a bad situation. This is about how glory and greatness are not the same thing.

You don’t really have a lot of control over glory. If it comes to you, the only thing that you can be sure of is that, in time, it will leave. But greatness is something permanent.

The landscape I grew up in has changed little during the period that people have been around to appreciate it. For a brief window, people from far off were enthralled with it. But that moment came and went. Any glory that came from Dean Semler’s cinematography in Dances with Wolves vanished almost as soon as it arrived. But the beauty that was here long before the production crew showed up is still very much here to be seen. It would be the same if no one from the outer fringes of the continent ever saw it again or even gave it a second thought.

Pierce’s career was like that. His greatness requires no recognition. Sure, he basked in it in 2008, during that snapshot in time when it seemed that everybody finally saw the player we had been watching for years. But that’s beside the point. Pierce was, both before and after 2008, a great player, and it didn’t matter who knew it, who praised him for it, who put him up on a pedestal for it.

It was, quite simply, The Truth.