Boston Loves Its Heroes: Paul Pierce, KG Return

Jackie MacMullan, for ESPN Boston, wrote about last night’s sentimental reunion that brought Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett back to the Boston Garden for the first time as opponents. The game was secondary to the reminder Boston gave Pierce, Garnett, and the rest of the sports landscape that Boston loves its sports heroes.

“Paul Pierce Goes Home Again”

BOSTON — Paul Pierce was coming home, but if the pillars have been removed and the foundation has been replaced, is it still his house?

The answer, in a TD Garden awash in memories and emotion, was unequivocally yes.

A capacity crowd pulsing with energy and nostalgia embraced both Pierce and his trusted friend Kevin Garnett upon their first return to Boston since they were traded to the Brooklyn Nets last July.

Paul Pierce

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
Paul Pierce salutes the Boston crowd after a tribute video to him was played.

On this night, the performance of the plucky Celtics team was of secondary importance. The fans not only cheered wildly as video tributes for each future Hall of Famer unfolded on the video screen high above the court (including a young woman who sobbed during the montage of the Truth’s greatest moments), they celebrated every time Pierce touched the ball, passed it to a teammate or simply checked into the game.

They even saluted him when he was on the bench. One of the more surreal moments of Sunday’s lovefest was when chants of “Paul Pierce” wafted through the building as Celtics forwardKris Humphries tried to shoot a pair of free throws for the home team.

It was not without irony that Humphries was one of the players traded for Pierce, although the real haul was the future first-round draft picks, the promise of a new day. That’s what convinced Danny Ainge to ship Boston’s second all-time leading scorer out of town.

It was a devastating blow to a proud, proud man who thought he’d earned the right to stay forever.

It was never his intent to step onto the parquet in black-and-silver Brooklyn colors, to dress in the opposing dressing room, to try to beat the only franchise he’d ever known.

“This was the toughest game I’ve ever had to play,” Pierce conceded. “Tougher than any championship, tougher than any Game 7.”

Although Pierce and KG had mentally prepared themselves for this trip and the inevitable emotional tug of war it would entail, it was completely and utterly disarming. All those No. 34 and No. 5 jerseys, all those “Celtic for Life” signs, all those standing ovations. How were they expected to concentrate?

The hearty New England welcome began the moment Pierce and Garnett touched down on Massachusetts soil. A franchise that is used to domination had lost 13 of 15 games. Pierce, its (former) captain, was a sight for sore eyes, but he tried valiantly to deflect the distractions of an adoring public that no longer roots for his team.

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Adrian Wojnarowski, for Yahoo Sports, has written about the return of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Boston, in last night’s Celtics-Nets meeting.

“For Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, a Boston goodbye comes with cheers, tears and a forever bond”

BOSTON – They had been slapping hands and hugging in the Boston Celtics‘ practice facility, a team transformed with word out of the general manager’s office that a trade had been agreed upon for Kevin Garnett. All around Paul Pierce, a forlorn franchise had been reborn. Finally, Pierce had the chance to have a historic Celtics legacy, a chance to be a champion.

As he walked into the locker room, Pierce discovered a familiar face ashen and shaken, slumping on a stool in a stunned silence.

Pierce walked over and asked Jamie Young: “What’s wrong, man?”

For seven years Young had worked for the Celtics as a video coordinator until he was promoted to the endless road life of an advance scout. And now in this moment of organizational euphoria, he tried to make sense of the telephone call that had come hours earlier: Without warning, his 56-year-old father died of a heart attack in the small Indiana town where he had raised Young.

“I’m going to pay for his funeral,” Pierce told Young. “I’m going to pay for everything.”

And Pierce did, the way he quietly had always been so generous with staff members who worked the longest hours and made the most modest of salaries. So here was Young, an assistant coach on Brad Stevens’ staff, standing and cheering Pierce in the middle of the Garden on Sunday night. This was a night when everyone came to deliver Pierce and Garnett the gratitude for hanging that championship banner in 2008, for making the Celtics matter again, making the Celtics the Celtics again.

Within the organization, Pierce’s generosity was legendary. He fought for the lowest of assistants and basketball staff to get playoff bonuses, and he used to give the team’s traveling party $1,000 each to spend on the annual trip to the Nike employee store outside of Portland. Inside and outside the organization, Pierce was generous with commitments of time and resources, relentlessly championing children’s causes and charities.

This was one of the best nights you’ll ever witness in sports. There’s less and less left of this kind of connection, this kind of bond between ball players and cities. In these cynical and transient sports times, here was a night to believe in the power of these sporting relationships. “This was the toughest game I’ve ever had to play,” Pierce confessed. “Tougher than any championship game, tougher than any Game 7.”

After watching on a television in Milwaukee Sunday night, Doc Rivers told Yahoo Sports, “It was incredible. I have no idea how they’re playing. The coolest part of the night was when they showed the lady crying in the crowd. Well, that lady was JoJo White’s wife. It exemplifies what that franchise is about: a family.”

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Watch the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett tribute videos here, via Deadspin:

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