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Goodbye to the Brilliant and Charmed Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce was one of the greatest basketball players of his generation. He was also one of the luckiest.

by Corbin Smith
May 1 2017, 6:00pm

Paul Pierce retires a Clipper. Photo: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday in Los Angeles, Paul Pierce played in his last ever career game, notching six points, three rebounds, an assist and a steal in the Clippers' nightmarish Game 7 home loss to the Utah Jazz. Pierce is a surefire Hall of Fame player: 15th all time in points scored, 4th in three pointers, 21st in steals, and along with Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Ray Allen, one of the crucial players who bridged the gap between Jordan-Era mid-range mineral grinding and the more modern, space and pace three-point of today's NBA.

Read More: How LeBron James Has Remained So Unstoppable

It was not the most dignified way for a great like Pierce to go out. Surely, when he lied on his bed, staring at the ceiling and dreamed of his future in the NBA, he wasn't fantasizing about watching his team shit the bed while he struggled hauling his creaky bones up and down the court as his coach's son heaved up stupid bricks across the court.

Then again, maybe this dog fart of an ending is the karmic price Paul had to pay for a career that, while great, truly great, was also just, so, so stupid in how charmed it was.

Take, for instance, Pierce's Game 7 Block on Kyle Lowry in the Nets' series against the cursed Toronto Raptors. Down one after a staging a bizarre comeback, the Raptors' guard finds himself plowing past Deron Williams, using a clever dribble to split a double team, and tries to heave himself up on tired legs to sink a floater over Pierce, who forms a wall that knocks the smaller guard over and is able to juuuuust barely rise up on his tippy toes and block the shot with a fingertip.

The play, the block, forever wired into Pierce's resume as another playoff moment is, at best, a "Heads up" display, some sort of expression of universal arcane basketball knowledge, but, really, in the real world of flesh and stone and bone, it is stupid. It has next to nothing to do with skill or dominance or veteran savvy or anything. It was all a product of Lowry's exhaustion and inertia, and yet, as he always seemed to be, Paul was there to rack up the stat and skip down the court and pump his fist like a golden god, weaving yet another golden thread into the luxurious blanket of his career.

Which, to be one hundred percent clear, was a great career, consistent excellence over a decade plus, but also, so, stupidly charmed. I mean, come on.

In a rational universe, a long two-point bank shot like the game-winner Pierce made with a hand in his face for the Wizards in the 2015 playoffs would be recognized as the product of pure luck, dismissed as a fluke among all flukes, regarded with bemusement and nothing more. But this fucking guy, whose basketball career was lifted by THE LORD at every turn, gives a postgamer where he says "I Called Game" and manages to deepen and expand his bonafides as a clutch legend.

No team was more victimized by the stupid, stupid forces of the universe lifting Paul Pierce's hefty ass into the ethers of creation than the New York Knicks. Pierce lived to torment the Bockers, the NBA's most persistently pathetic high valuation franchise, seeming to feed off the contrived mythic energy of Madison Square Garden, no matter how good or bad the Knicks were at the time. From, like 2001-2010, the defining image of the Knicks was Paul Pierce, all lumpen hunch, draped in that disgusting shade of Green, drilling a series of game winners over more and more pathetic Knicks squads.

If the Knicks had managed to be good, or even OK, during, like, ANY of that time, Pierce almost certainly wouldn't have been able to reap the psychic rewards of tormenting Knicks faithful. When I asked Bob Silverman, a writer and Knicks-fan-from-birth, about Paul Pierce, he couldn't manage to find even a drip of compassion for his once and forever tormentor: "It's tough to dance on the grave of a great player, even one as loathed by Knicks fans—like me!—as Paul Pierce, but goddamnit, he can take his smug-ass old man game and go straight to hell."

Pierce's basketball life was so charmed that even his routine dispatches of a perpetually shitty division rival, the kind of routine work that most great players get next to no mythic currency for— it's not like anyone out there is exalting Steph Curry's dominance over the Kings—STILL managed to add to his mystique, just by dint of geography.

And, then there was his defining squad, the Ubuntu Celtics. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett, three generational type players, all innovators in their fields, unnervingly complementary, a walking scoring machine, spacing machine and defense machine who spent their entire careers toiling on not-quite-good-enough squads. These three were brought together by excellent timing, asset management, and stupid, stupid luck, under a coach who, for no particular reason, was the perfect person to mix the stew together and bring a title to all involved.

Even in that collectivist environment, Pierce managed to reap the shiniest, prettiest reward, harvesting the Finals MVP trophy for himself even though by pretty much any objective measure, Garnett was a superior player.

But that was the way the spirit of the hardwood worked for Pierce, from the second he touched a basketball. Was he was descended from the wood gods, their power seizing his spirit at his time of greatest on court trial? Or was he just stupidly, idiotically lucky, the beneficiary of thousands of little seven rolls stacked on top of the base level of greatness he worked for over the years of his life?

He was a truly stunning and strange player. Silverman's allusion to Pierce's Old Man Game, really hits it on the head. He wasn't particularly athletic, but he was extremely strong and he had a set of obsessively refined skills and instincts that, even if he wasn't touched by the fates at every turn, would have shepherded him to the hallowed halls of greatness all on their own. To become one of the all time greats, you need talent, for sure, but also incredible luck. Pierce had both.

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