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Sellner: Paul Pierce this generation’s Celtics legend

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When I was in elementary school, my neighbors and I would love to play pickup basketball. We’d sprint off the bus, drop our backpacks off in the front yard and head over to my house where we’d lower the hoop with the crooked rim to only 6 feet tall, so for a brief moment, we could feel what it was like to be in the NBA.

But as a kid growing up in suburban Massachusetts, I didn’t emulate Celtic legends like Bill Russell, Larry Bird or Bob Cousy.

It was always No. 34. It was always The Truth.

For those in my generation, Paul Pierce was the Celtics. We heard the stories from our parents or grandparents or watched reruns of the clashes between Bird and Magic Johnson at the game’s highest stage, Russell’s seemingly endless supply of championships or the Red Auerbach days. But for me, there was always a disconnect between those Celtic greats and myself.

Pierce was ours. And Sunday night at TD Garden, as Diddy’s “Coming Home” started during the team’s tribute video for their former star after the first quarter, it was hard not to get goosebumps.

The Truth’s signature step-back jumper from the elbow was emulated on courts and driveways across the Commonwealth. Anytime someone made a game-winning shot in my neighborhood pickup games, there was always someone shouting, “Paul Pierce y’all! Play some b-ball!”

That’s what Pierce was to Celtics fans. Yes, Kevin Garnett should always be remembered and cherished by Boston fans for his help in resurrecting the Celtics back to its championship ways. But Pierce will always be the first guy Celtics fans of this generation mention when they relay the tale of how “The Three Amigos” helped bring a championship back to the Garden.

Pierce was a Celtic through it all. Drafted 10th overall by the Green in the 1998 NBA Draft, The Truth, alongside Antoine Walker, helped lead Boston to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002, where they fell to the former conference powerhouse New Jersey Nets — let that sink in again in case you forgot — and the Big Three of … wait for it … Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson.

He was a Celtic during the 2006-2007, 24-58 cellar days, when Boston fans got to watch the likes of Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Sebastian Telfair and a couple of young guys named Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo.

That’s what made the 2008 championship so special to Celtics fans. That’s what made Pierce so special to Boston. His 15 seasons with the team weren’t always fun to watch, and basketball in Boston was taking a backseat to the World Series winning Red Sox and near-perfect Patriots. But when Garnett and Ray Allen helped provide Pierce with the worthy supporting cast he was lacking, fans around the league finally understood what Jack Nicholson was saying in “A Few Good Men.”

You can’t handle The Truth.

Some fans might still find it hard to see Pierce don the black and white Brooklyn Nets uniform, and rightfully so. It’s a testament to the impression and impact Pierce made on the city and the legacy of the Boston Celtics. But in today’s NBA, turnover is paramount in order to avoid heading back to the cellar, and the Celtics know that as well as any other franchise.

You’re not a bad fan if you were pulling for Nets Sunday night. I think deep down everyone was hoping Pierce, Garnett and Co. would pull it out as the fourth quarter wound down. And that’s not because of the Celtics fans’ hope of tanking; it’s because they appreciate Pierce and what he did in his time in Boston.

Fans always fall in love with athletes, but it’s special to see players fall in love with the fans and an organization, something you’ll never see from a guy like Dwight Howard. Pierce was clearly touched and overwhelmed by the tribute the crowd and organization gave him in his return.

So, pull for the Nets this year. Don’t waste your time hoping Brooklyn implodes to help out your draft choices in the future. Your Celtics will have bright days ahead of them when Pierce is out of the game in the near future.

For now, root for No. 34 while you still can, even if you’re not used to the uniform. Wait for the next great Celtic to come around that your kids can idolize and emulate on the driveway. And when they come back inside, have your tales of The Truth ready for them about what a privilege it was to watch him play.

I know I will.

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.

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