LOS ANGELES — The Boston Celtics will raise Paul Pierce’s No. 34 to the rafters nearly a decade after he helped them hoist their last championship banner. It’s curious what Pierce remembers from those title days, when he was young and invincible and convinced that magical 2008 season was just the beginning.
It’s not images of the scores or the baskets that linger; it’s the moments with those who shared his basketball journey.
And there’s one person who stood by him nearly every step of the way.
“I’ve said it a hundred times,” Pierce says over a bowl of lobster bisque at Fleming’s restaurant in Los Angeles. “Kevin Garnett and I were meant to be together. It’s just too bad it took us so long to make it happen.”
They met just before their final year in high school, when Pierce’s Inglewood AAU team, spanked routinely by L.A. high school legend Schea Cotton’s team every summer in Las Vegas, went hunting for reinforcements.
Coach Thaddeus McGrew convinced Garnett to play on loan with them for the weekend. Pierce eyed the slender 7-footer, who hailed from South Carolina and sported a jeans vest with his hat perched backward, then declared, “Straight out country boy.”
They broke the ice by wandering through a local mall, then taking a drive along Crenshaw Boulevard. Garnett was jittery, skittish, his cadence so fast Pierce missed just about every other word. But the common thread was obvious: For both boys, basketball was everything.
KG bunked with Pierce at his house and raved about his mom’s baked chicken. When they showed up for practice at the Inglewood gym, Pierce didn’t understand initially why the stands were full.
“Then I realized,” Pierce says, “they were coming to see Kevin.”
Garnett didn’t disappoint. His pent-up energy was unleashed on the court with a fury Pierce had never witnessed before.
“Every time he blocked a shot, he yelled at the top of his lungs,” Pierce says. “Every time he dunked, he yelled at the top of his lungs. I’m thinking, ‘This guy is crazy.”’
Pierce and his boys explained to Garnett how it worked once they got to Vegas. They didn’t have enough money for all the cab fares they’d need to see the town, so they planned to [literally] run out on the fare. As they pulled up to Circus Circus, Pierce waited, opened the door, then yelled, “Go!”
“You should have seen KG’s face,” Pierce says. “He’s looking at me like, ‘What the hell is this?’ It’s pretty hard for a 7-footer to run and hide.”
The plan was to scatter, then reconvene in the basement, but security cameras caught their ingenious plot on tape, and they wound up in the hands of the local authorities.
They went on to win the tournament in Vegas, and the symmetry between Pierce and Garnett was uncanny. They looked as though they’d been playing together for years. When Garnett mentioned he was changing high schools, Pierce naively assumed it was destiny.
“I literally thought he was coming to my high school and we were going to win a state championship together,” Pierce says.
He called Garnett every week for the rest of the summer, offering him a free room and all the baked chicken he could eat. KG was vague, noncommittal. When Pierce learned Garnett was headed to national powerhouse Farragut Academy in Chicago, he felt spurned.
“I was a little upset,” Pierce admits. “I had all these friends on speakerphone with him, and now he’s not coming.”
Garnett went on to become the national high school player of the year. In April 1995, he and Pierce crossed paths again as teammates in the McDonald’s High School All-American game in St. Louis. By then, Pierce was committed to Kansas.
Where was KG going? Nobody knew. KG told Pierce he was leaning toward Michigan or Maryland, but Garnett hadn’t passed the SATs or the ACTs. “The whole time — just like now — KG was the biggest mystery,” Pierce says.
Pierce poured in 28 points in the McDonald’s game, but KG stole the MVP trophy with 18 points, 11 boards, 4 assists and 3 blocks. Three weeks later, McGrew informed Pierce that Garnett was bypassing college and jumping straight to the NBA.
“What?” Pierce asked McGrew, incredulously. “You can actually do that?”
Garnett was picked No. 5 overall by the Timberwolves. Pierce went to Kansas and played three seasons before going pro himself.
The years rolled by. While both players enjoyed remarkable individual success, their NBA teams experienced their share of peaks and valleys. Pierce endured some lean years in Boston, and as the losses piled up, his mood darkened. During a Dec. 15, 2003, game at the then-FleetCenter, Garnett dunked on Tony Battie and unleashed a primal scream the way he did all those years ago in Pierce’s Inglewood gymnasium.
Pierce, irritated by the 21-point beatdown the Timberwolves were laying on his Celtics, barked to Battie, “Don’t let him do that to you. Go back at that s—!”
KG wheeled around, then stepped menacingly toward Pierce.
“What did you say?” he sneered.
Pierce stepped forward and snapped, “You heard me!”
Suddenly, they were nose to nose, so close Pierce couldn’t help but notice the veins in KG’s head pulsating. Players quickly separated them, and Pierce remembers musing afterward, “How the hell did that happen?”
“We were both competitors,” Pierce laughs. “Frustrated ones.”
“Then Kevin came and gave me a kick in the butt. He changed my career, my life.”
There was another memorable encounter at TD Garden three years later, on March 4, 2007. The Celtics and Timberwolves were mired in losing seasons as Garnett stood at the free throw line and Pierce prepared to box out. He turned to Boston owner Wyc Grousbeck, who was sitting along the end line.
“If you’re serious about winning a championship someday,” Pierce hollered to his owner, “then you need to get that guy!”
“KG, man,” Pierce continued at the line, “What’s gonna happen? Either you are coming here, or I’m going to Minnesota!”
As Boston put the finishing touches on a rare victory (the team won only 24 games that season), Garnett began jawing with Celtics center Kendrick Perkins. Pierce asked Garnett playfully, “Why you giving my guy all this s—? You know we’re both going on vacation next week. Where you headed?”
“St. Lucia,” KG answered.
“Bahamas for me,” Pierce said.
“Hey,” he told him, ”I think you might finally get your boy.” KG was at the wedding, too, and was talking about finally moving on from Minnesota.
His trade to Boston went through on July 31, 2007, and the moment Garnett walked into the practice facility, Pierce felt a surge of adrenaline.
“He was,” says Pierce, “the same as I remembered. So much intensity. It rubbed right off on me.”
When KG walked into a room, everyone straightened up, ceased talking and remained transfixed on him, waiting to see what he did next.
“I was thinking,” Pierce says, “‘I want people to react that way to me.”’
Garnett assured Pierce he had not come to take over. “This is your team,” he said.
They talked every day on the phone, often conferencing in newly acquired Ray Allen. The new Big Three discussed coming to Boston early to train, how they would share the ball and the urgency each felt to win right away. Pierce was back to spending five or six hours a day in the gym, knowing when he arrived, KG already would be there, knee deep in sweat and spit.
“When you are losing all the time,” Pierce says, “you start saying, ‘What’s my motivation? To come back and lose again?’ It felt like a waste.
“But then Kevin came and gave me a kick in the butt. He changed my career, my life.”
“KG helped define my career. If he doesn’t come, we don’t win a championship, and I never get to the level I always wanted to be.”
In early October 2007, Pierce, Garnett, Allen and their wives joined Celtics minority owner Jimmy Pallotta for a private dinner at Nebo in the North End. Julie Pierce chose that moment to announce that she was pregnant. KG, seated next to his wife, Brandi, offered congratulations, then announced, “We’re never having kids.”
Ten days later, when Brandi saw her doctor for stomach discomfort, she discovered that she, too, was pregnant.
Pierce and Garnett alternated between elation and trepidation mulling over the responsibilities of parenthood. They confided in each other about their own fathers, who had been absent in their lives, and how that shaped their upbringing.
Prianna Pierce and Capri Garnett were born two weeks apart. They are 9 now, best friends, just like their mothers — and their fathers.
The 2007-08 Celtics season was a dream. KG and Pierce became constant companions on the road, bowling, clubbing, eating a late-night meal or just sitting in their rooms and talking about how to manage money, basketball, family and all those people who were angling for a piece of them.
“We related on so many levels; it was like looking in the mirror,” Pierce says.
In the Eastern Conference semifinals, Pierce emerged victorious in a compelling duel with LeBron James that became the defining moment of his career. When the Celtics dispatched the Detroit Pistons to seal their ticket to the Finals, the team piled into Garnett’s Concord home and smoked cigars until the sun came up.
Boston won the 2008 championship by beating Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, Pierce’s treasured childhood team. As Pierce raised his Finals MVP trophy amid the falling green confetti, his friend KG exalted, “Anything is possible!”
They celebrated for hours. One by one, the coaches and players went home, until it was 3 a.m. and only Pierce, Garnett, trainer Eddie Lacerte and security guard Phil Lynch remained. They lingered in the training room, sipping beer and soaking in the moment. When a fifth person walked in, Pierce assumed it was KG’s guy; Garnett was certain it was Pierce’s friend.
Finally, after about seven minutes, Pierce asked, “Who are you with?”
“Nobody!” the man declared, grinning. “I’m just a fan!”
Pierce believed the Celtics would win two, maybe three more championships, until KG’s knee gave out in 2009. Multiple specialists weighed in on potential treatments, medications and surgical procedures, but nothing seemed to help.
“The most frustrating part was not really knowing what was wrong,” Pierce says. “We were all in the dark. Was it a pull? A tear? Nobody knew.”
Garnett eventually had surgery and was never the same. Still, the Celtics had chances. They were up 3-2 against the Lakers in 2010 but couldn’t close out the series. The next season they were 21-4 with Shaquille O’Neal in their starting lineup, but Shaq suffered an Achilles injury that ended his career and torpedoed Boston’s chances.
Pierce always dreamed of playing his entire career with the Celtics, but when Allen bolted for Miami before the 2012-13 season, KG warned Pierce, “The writing is on the wall.”
The phone call came on July 12, 2013. Danny Ainge informed Pierce, who was vacationing in Vegas, that there was a deal with the Brooklyn Nets that would send both Pierce and KG there, but Garnett would have to waive his no-trade clause.
Pierce called his friend. The Nets had Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Maybe it could work. He talked to KG four times over the next hour. Each time, when they got to the part where they discussed leaving Boston, KG hung up. Pierce kept calling back; the thought of going to Brooklyn without KG was unbearable.
Paul Pierce opens up about the time he spent away from his family, missing his children’s first words and first steps, throughout this 18-year career in order to become “a winner” and see his jersey lifted into the rafters.
Garnett came around. They became part of one of the most lopsided deals in NBA history, traded for a trove of valuable draft picks. A shell-shocked Pierce leaned heavily on Garnett for that one season in Brooklyn. “I couldn’t have made it through without him,” he says.
Pierce eventually moved on to Washington and Garnett to Minnesota. The end, they knew, was near. In the summer of 2016, KG was contemplating retirement and dropped by Pierce’s house to talk. “What are you gonna do, man?” Pierce pressed him. “If you’re gonna quit, maybe I will too. We can go out together.”
By then, Pierce was playing for the Clippers. He had been lured there by Doc Rivers, but as Rivers tried to manage an aging star whose skills were diminishing, Pierce felt burned by what he felt were broken promises.
“At that point, I was real sour on Doc,” Pierce admits. “He’d play me, then not play me. … I can understand if Kevin Durant was in front of me. But Wesley Johnson getting my minutes was harder to take. Doc kept sending [Clippers assistant] Sam Cassell down to talk to me. I’m like, ‘Doc, we won a championship together. Talk to me yourself!”’
He decided to stick it out for his final season with the Clippers just as KG was announcing his retirement. Rivers quickly hired Garnett as a consultant, and the two friends were reunited for the 2016-17 season.
Pierce dropped his kids off at school every morning and arrived at the gym by 8:30 for an 11 a.m. practice. He and KG would shoot baskets and talk about the future.
“KG helped define my career,” Pierce says. “If he doesn’t come, we don’t win a championship, and I never get to the level I always wanted to be.”
They are neighbors now. Garnett is renting in Pierce’s Calabasas neighborhood while his Malibu home undergoes renovations. Their families have expanded — Pierce has a daughter, Jazzy, and a son, Prince, who goes to school each day with Garnett’s youngest daughter, Cocoa.
Sometimes, Pierce hops on his bike and rides to KG’s house, or walks through KG’s backyard and lets himself into his gate house, where he’ll watch TV for a while before texting his friend. “Hey, man,” KG often replies. “I’m not even home right now!”
They still talk nearly every day, hanging together in the early part of the week before Garnett leaves for Atlanta to fulfill his “Area 21” television duties.
The games have come and gone. The championship rings are in safe deposit boxes, while the memories of those epic on-court battles are also locked away, faded by time and age. Witnessing his jersey number join those of the likes of Russell, Cousy and Bird will be an emotional and satisfying moment for Pierce.
Yet he knows which snapshot will endure: winning it all alongside his best friend.