BOSTON, MA. — Paul Pierce is not a Boston Celtic.
I want to get that out of the way, because despite all evidence to the contrary from his response, from the fans in Boston’s arena drowning out the announcement of his name in the starting lineup, from his pained expression during a video tribute that somehow drew louder and louder cheers for minutes, from the way the raucous TD Garden crowd roared with every early shot, despite all that, Paul Pierce wore black and white to the green party. It was as plain as the jersey on his back, the jersey that the Nets have spent two seasons pushing in Brooklyn, hoping that one day it’ll ring as a piece of Brooklyn’s cultural heritage.
When the Celtics entered the court — complete with dimmed lights, P.A. announcement, and flagged fanfare — scattered, uncommitted cheers pulsed out from seemingly random sections. It was almost as if the crowd, as full as they’ve seen all season, wanted to placate their own fears about rooting for opponents. Boston’s not used to that.
But the Nets entered the court for pre-game warmups about one minute after the Celtics, and the crowd bubbled over in anticipation, finally seeing their former heroes in the flesh for the first time since last season.
It was only just getting started.
An emotional affair in Boston ended with an 85-79 Brooklyn Nets victory, an ugly game fought to the bitter end by franchises forever linked, yet pulling in opposite directions. Though Pierce and Garnett both had underwhelming nights overall — each finished with six points — they were at the forefront of the evening, well beyond the final score.
“This was the toughest game I ever had to play,” Pierce said, an exasperated, overwhelmed grin creeping across his face. “Tougher than any championship game, any Game 7, this game was so hard to just focus.”
It was the first time Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry had touched TD Garden’s historic parquet floor since the Celtics sent them to Brooklyn this summer. The Nets didn’t hold shootaround, and though they never said it outright, the implication is that it was for Pierce and Garnett’s sake: allow them to enter the arena they made history in when the city was ready to embrace them again.
And embrace them they did.
There was never a question what kind of response the two would get; Pierce was a lifelong Celtic before this season, Garnett joining him in 2007 to win the team’s only NBA championship this millennium. There was never any question because because there’s never been a question of what Boston has built. The parquet floor and Celtics green are interwoven with Boston’s history as a city, a connection built through people like Garnett, Pierce, and 17,565 screaming fans night in and night out.
“I didn’t expect anything like that for myself,” an emotional Garnett said after the game about the tribute and reaction. “It shows the first-class… type of organization that this is, and the appreciation from this organization for you. I couldn’t put it into words. Paul and I were joking before the game who was gonna tear up and drop a tear. I had lumps in my throat and I kept them under control, I focused as much as I could on the game and not take away from it, but man, this was over the top.”
Kevin Garnett is not a Boston Celtic.
“You build so much and not only on the court, but in the community,” Pierce said of his time in Boston. “I have relationships with organizations in the community that I’ve built, been able to change different lives, be an inspiration in this community. That’s a lot of that I thought about. Seeing a lot of the kids I brought to games, and that’s what I think matters the most. The lives you can change.”
Garnett knows that the emotion born from his six years in Boston can’t be duplicated or matched.
“It’s the culture here,” Garnett espoused. “When you come here, the first thing (Celtics VP of Media Relations) Jeff Twiss tells you, he takes you through the library. It shows you all the history here. You feel that. You feel the responsibility. Then to come back and be showered like this, it’s not even close. Not even close.”
The history will never die in Boston. The championship Pierce and Garnett earned with the 2007-08 Celtics will forever hang in the team’s rafters, next to the team’s other sixteen banners.
The fans know that. They rise and fall, year in and year out, with their Boston Celtics. They’ve got a history in the NBA that only the Los Angeles Lakers can compete with.
Brooklyn doesn’t have that. They’re knocking on the door, with a rapidly expanding national fanbase and a franchise valued fifth-highest in the league after ranking at the bottom in New Jersey. They may have traded for two of Boston’s biggest cultural markers, but they’re decades away from the type of clout in Brooklyn that the Celtics have in this city, from legends like Havlicek and Parish and Russell and Bird and Pierce.
The Nets are on the right track. You have to imagine they’ll get there one day. (After all, Paul Pierce is not a Boston Celtic.) But tonight’s outpouring of love for two of Boston’s legends was just another reminder that what Brooklyn wants isn’t Paul Pierce the Net, it’s Paul Pierce the Celtic.