Paul Pierce & The NBA’s New Take On Loyalty

You have Chris Paul, asking – demanding – for a trade, hanging suspended in limbo at the fingers of the master puppeteer David Stern, playing for a team with no talent in a city where no one shows up on game nights. You have Dwight Howard going back and forth, worried “Will this make them hate me? Will they call me names?” One day he wants out. The next he never wants to leave. You have J.J. Barea, who recently broke the traditional sports code: left a championship team for more money. He went for the cash, and wasn’t looking back. But then you have Paul Pierce, the old cowboy who never left his post, and survived the Antoine Walker era, coaching changes, a nearly fatal stabbing, an 18-game losing streak and the steely glare of Red.

As Jessica Camerato wrote on CSNNE.com, Pierce first practiced loyalty way back in high school. He was only a sophomore and thought transferring from Inglewood to Crenshaw – a state title team – would solve his problems. But he didn’t fit, missed his friends, had some unfinished business on the court, and after he took advice from Steven Hosey, his older brother, Pierce transferred back home just a week after his initial exodus. By the end of that season, he moved up to varsity and started to get minutes. In the words of his high school coach, Patrick Roy, a year later, “he was an All-American.” Two years later “he was off the charts.”

Pierce told CSNNE.com:

“I think even since back then, the loyalty that I was able to show just by staying at that school and not giving up on them even though we weren’t that good at the time is something that’s just been instilled in me ever since I was a young kid.”

I lived in Boston for 10 years, and every season following the hiring of Danny Ainge, it was the same script from the Celtics: Ainge didn’t like Antoine Walker at all and wanted him out ASAP. He believed in Pierce but only to a certain extent, and was constantly trying to trade him for younger, more athletic pieces. Even after signing Pierce to a $59 million extension in 2006, just a year later, Pierce fumbled through a disastrous season, playing 47 games and shooting below 44 percent. Boston finished with only 24 wins.

Around the time of the draft, Pierce thought he was gone for sure. Kevin Durant was coming into the league, and Ainge was one of only a few GMs rumored to like KD better than even Greg Oden. The Celtics had suffered through so much turmoil since their last championship 20 years early, so much heartbreak, tragedy and bad luck that pretty much everyone in Boston assumed the Cs were destined for the top pick. Arrogantly, it was their right. The sports gods had punished them enough.

Rumors swirled that finally, after years of stepping back from the edge at the last moment, Pierce was going to publicly demand a trade should Ainge not figure out a way to get another star (Shawn Marion, Jermaine O’Neal, Kevin Garnett) alongside him.

Pierce told CSNNE.com:

“To be honest, I think a lot of things hinged on that draft,” he reflected. “My loyalty or no loyalty, if Kevin Durant gets picked, I probably wouldn’t be here. Even though as much as Danny said he wanted to see that combination — because we talked about it, we even talked about the scenarios and he was like, ‘I want to see you guys play together’ — I thought that would have been a perfect chip for them to move forward without me because then you’d have Al Jefferson, Perkins, and then you would’ve had Kevin Durant.”

Boston felt they same way. They’d had enough, and even the eventual acquisition of Ray Allen seemed to be only a tiny plug in a sinking ship. The balls turned up No. 5 in the draft, Boston nearly collapsed from depression, and Pierce realized he might be around for good. Now after 13 years in Boston, Pierce is somehow still here.

J.J. Barea isn’t an All-Star and probably never will be. He jumped recently at the prospect of signing for $19 million. The lil’ Puerto Rican even admitted it afterwards, saying it was completely about the money. The Knicks were very interested, and would’ve represented at least a shot at a few playoff wins, but Minnesota’s offer was over twice as big. He couldn’t say no, and sacrificed wins for the chance to be paid. In his position, I would’ve done the same thing. But as we’ve come to define success more and more through one simple question – how many championships have you won? – Pierce believes more star players than ever get antsy when they find themselves stuck on a team in disarray in the middle of their prime. No one wants to be the next Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing.

Pierce says:

“This is a new generation,” he said. “You just didn’t see this the last 10, 20 years. This is a newer generation who understands that there’s only a short window for success, and they realize that it’s not always about the money with these guys anymore. These guys, they have other opportunities to make money off the court, with sponsorships and shoe contracts. It’s like, they have the money so what more do they want? It’s a championship. So when guys take less money for that opportunity, that’s what you’re seeing.”

Luckily for the Truth, he somehow survived and won a championship in the only place that would’ve mattered for him: Boston. But those opportunities are fleeting. There will always be the J.J. Bareas of the NBA – and trust, I would’ve done the same thing in his position – but as we continue to define a successful career through the amount of jewelry stacked up, stars asking out of bad situations won’t be a rarity. They’ll be the norm.

Should players get extra respect for staying with one team their whole career?

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