BOSTON (AP) — With a deafening cheer and a shout of “Let’s go, Pats,” Paul Pierce was back in Boston on Super Bowl Sunday to give Celtics fans one last chance to celebrate the player who helped the NBA’s most-decorated franchise return to the top of the league.
Restored to the Los Angeles Clippers’ starting lineup by current and former coach Doc Rivers, Pierce was greeted with a long and loud ovation at his introduction, when the new Boston Garden rang out again with his nickname: The Truth. A highlight video at the first timeout appeared to bring him to tears.
“I’m glad Doc was able to get me out there one last time, knowing that this would be my last game as a player in the Boston Garden,” Pierce said after signing autographs before the game. “I’m just soaking it all in, enjoying every moment of it, giving it back to the fans what they gave me.”
A first-round draft pick out of Kansas in 1998, Pierce toiled in Boston through the down years of M.L. Carr and Rick Pitino, watching as the once-proud team lost a franchise-record 18 games in a row while he was injured in 2006-07. The next year, after the Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston won its NBA-record 17th championship, and Pierce was the finals MVP.
But as the New Big Three aged, general manager Danny Ainge traded them — and Rivers — off for the draft choices that would help them rebuild. Pierce spent time in Brooklyn and Washington before reuniting with Rivers in Los Angeles.
“The memories are always going to be with me,” Pierce said. “(I will) always have a relationship with these guys; it’s just something that when you win a championship, you know it forms a natural bond with you and your teammates that you share with each other forever. And so I’ll forever hold that.”
Pierce’s No. 34 Celtics jerseys filled the crowd — more even than the Patriots shirts worn by fans looking to rush home after the game to watch the football team play Atlanta in the Super Bowl. During a silent moment in national anthem — a shout came from the stands: “Let’s go, Pats!”
Fans held up signs thanking Pierce for his time in Boston. He left as the No. 2 scorer in franchise history and No. 3 in games, minutes, and baskets made.
Pierce spent Saturday visiting some old Boston favorites and recording it — including a chance encounter with current Celtics all-star Isaiah Thomas — on Instagram.
Even walking into the building, Pierce said, gave him chills.
“When you spend 15 years in one place, it’s hard to let it go,” he said. “When you come back to it, you just kind of go around and reminisce about it and enjoy the time that I had here.”
Pierce, 39, hadn’t played since Dec. 31 and has appeared in just 12 games this season for the Clippers. He started the game with a missed shot and was still 0 for 1 when went to the bench at the first timeout.
But that didn’t dampen the emotion of the highlight video that followed him from Kansas to the draft, showing him posing with Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, hitting game-winning baskets and raising the NBA championship and finals MVP trophies.
The sold-out Garden stood and cheered for more than a minute. Pierce waved, blew kisses to the crowd and appeared to lose his composure, taking several deep breaths and wiping his eyes with a towel.
“I spent 15 years here, and these people really appreciate what I was able to bring to the game,” he said before the game. “So it is, it is like my going-out moment.”
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