BOSTON – Paul Pierce heard the pop. He had gone down, and he swore he heard something snap. No. No! Suddenly, the pain paralyzed him. He reached down, clutched his right knee and his instinct was unchanged: Get up, he told himself. Get up. Beneath the championship banners, the retired jerseys, the Celtic most relentlessly chasing a legacy could soon hear his team trainer turn to his teammate and tell him the two words that Pierce didn't want to hear.
"Carry him," Ed Lacerte barked to Brian Scalabrine.
As those words, as that pain, cut to his bones, Paul Pierce's face was buried in the sleeve of the trainer, an arm hiding the anguish, the tears, the fear rushing through him. The Garden had traded chanting Pierce's name for an uneasy silence that started sweeping the sellout. So, they lifted him into the air, carried him past the Celtics bench, and soon Pierce disappeared into the tunnel.
"I thought that was it," he said.
Pierce thought they were carrying him out of Game 1, out of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, out of his worst basketball nightmare. For years, he had waited through the embarrassing losses, and dreadful teams and perhaps the tears weren't so much for an aching knee, but a breaking heart. This had been 10 years of waiting for his chance to take a place next to Russell and Cousy, Bird and McHale. This was a life's work, slip, slip, slipping away.
"It can't be over like this," Pierce told himself.
Near him, the Celtics coach had tried to huddle, but teammates couldn't stop asking Doc Rivers, "Is he OK? … Is he OK? …" They had to get it back together in the third quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers, had to get over the fact that Pierce had blown his knee out, and Rivers told his players in the huddle to remember the speaker Rivers had invited to talk to his team. Cheetah, they called him. He was a South African man who had come to tell these Celtics all about the mantra that the coach had adopted for these strangers turned teammates.
"Ubuntu," is the word, and it represents a level of community and teamwork.
In the huddle, with uncertainty rising, Rivers blurted to his players about what that South African had told them about adversity, about the trials that are sure to come. Well, it had arrived. "This is it," Rivers confirmed to them. "Right here."
Right here, and right now.
Just then, Scalabrine and Celtic Tony Allen had plopped Pierce down in a wheelchair, rolled him into the trainer's room and soon the strangest thing happened. The pain subsided. The doctors checked Pierce out, and soon he was on his feet, testing it, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he could return to the game. Sprained meniscus, the trainer would declare. "Once I could put some weight on it, I had to get back out there," Pierce said.
So, there was Paul Pierce with his Willis Reed moment. Once again, it had been done to the Lakers. Back in 1970, it was Jerry West. This time, it was Kobe Bryant. Out of the tunnel, out of the rubble, Pierce marched back into the Garden and you had never heard such a roar, such voice. Here was the NBA Finals that everyone wanted to see, that everyone feared could turn quickly toward the Lakers, and this was a New England scene scripted straight out of Hollywood.
Two minutes hadn't elapsed on the third quarter clock when Pierce returned to the floor and checked back in and it wouldn't be long until he delivered back-to-back three pointers on the break, turning a 71-69 deficit into a 75-71 lead and ultimately a 98-88 victory.
Pierce delivered 19 of his 22 points in the second half, and with the assistance of his teammates, delivered the late game defense on Kobe Bryant that never let the MVP impose his will. Around Bryant, there was softness and uncertainty in Game 1. For a week, they had listened to the world not debate whether they'd win these Finals, but how quickly they would do so. They got pounded on the boards, sluggishly moved the ball, and maybe most of all, they let the emotion of the Boston night dictate the terms.
Once Pierce returned, there was no stopping the Celtics. "He gave everybody life," Kevin Garnett said. "Everybody was rejuvenated."
As for the Lakers, they were rolling their eyes, dubious of the entire episode. They exist within a world of actors and divas. Every night, they surround them in the Staples Center. To see Pierce carried out, and then return so quickly, left Phil Jackson at his sarcastic best. Reed had been his teammate on the Knicks in 1970, and well, Jackson didn't dare compare Pierce and the old Knicks captain.
"Guys can break a shoelace and go out," Jackson sniffed. "The pants break down. Drawstrings fall apart."
This was Jackson's way of telling Pierce: Get over yourself.
Nevertheless, the Celtics captain had one of those nights, one of those games that they'll remember forever here. Bill Russell was courtside. John Havlicek. JoJo White. There had been some suggestion that Pierce had gone a long way toward a place in Celtics lore with his Game 7 performance over LeBron James, but legends aren't made in conference semifinals.
"In Boston, they always talk about how many championships you won," Larry Bird said the other day. "I think it's very important for Paul to win one if he wants to be put up there with the great ones."
So there was Paul Pierce laying on the Garden floor, the pain paralyzing him and he heard those words – "Carry him" – and so much flashed through his mind. It can't be over like this, Pierce thought to himself. It can't end this way. Above him, those championship banners and retired jerseys suddenly hung like anvils.
"I think God just sent this angel down and said, 'Hey, you're going to be all right,' " Pierce said. For him, there was little else to explain it. He heard a pop, feared the worst and had been thrust into a wheelchair in the bowels of the Garden. Only, he climbed to his feet again, and climbed back into these NBA Finals.
Ten long seasons here, and Paul Pierce is determined that they'll honor him forever here. He had his Bird-Dominique duel in these playoffs, and his Willis Reed moment, but forever Celtics aren't born of snapshots. They're made of championships.
Get up, Pierce told himself.
For a moment, he feared it was the end of the NBA Finals for him.
As it turned out, it was just the beginning.