With Paul Pierce set to play in the Legends of the Phog exhibition game on Saturday with his first action in Allen Fieldhouse since his commanding 31-point performance against Oklahoma in his final home game on Feb. 23, 1998, my mind races back to when his NBA career all began on draft night in Vancouver 13 years ago, just before I started covering KU hoops.
As an NBA draft junkie since 1976 when my childhood hero and former Jayhawk star Norm Cook was selected with the 16th overall pick by the Boston Celtics, I knew I had to be in Vancouver at General Motors Place on June 24, 1998 to see Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz make history as the first two Jayhawks ever selected in the lottery of the same draft.
So I flew to Seattle, met my friend (a former college basketball coach), and we drove to Vancouver with my hopes high of seeing both LaFrentz and Pierce picked in the top five.
It was a cool, gloomy, rainy day as we arrived in Vancouver that afternoon, checked into our hotel, and walked over to the arena. Proudly hanging the banner my friend had bought for me: “Rock Chalk, Pick A Jayhawk,” I sat down and soaked up the moment with great anticipation and wonder, reveling in watching my first NBA draft in person after spending years growing up in Lawrence glued to the tube on draft day.
After the Grizzlies’ mascot entertained fans with his antics on the court and the highlight film shined on the video board, it was finally time for Commissioner David Stern to commence the draft.
As expected, Michael Olowokandi and Mike Bibby were selected with the first two picks by the Los Angeles Clippers and Vancouver Grizzlies, respectively. And then my heart began to race knowing I could hear Pierce and LaFrentz be chosen at anytime.
LaFrentz went No. 3 to Denver, and I cheered. While I thought Pierce was the better pro prospect, I knew the NBA loves big guys and was happy for Raef.
And then the picks continued to happen every five minutes. Antawn Jamison went to Toronto at No. 4 (and later traded to Golden State). Next it was Vince Carter at No. 5 to Golden State (and later traded to Toronto). OK, I thought, surely Pierce would be picked at No. 6 to Dallas.
“This will be Pierce,” I told my friend confidently.
But the Mavericks had different plans and selected the enigma Robert Traylor before trading him to Milwaukee.
I shook my head in dismay.
Jason Williams went next to Sacramento at No. 7. Again, I was in disbelief and so was my buddy.
“That was a reach,” my astute friend said forcefully about the Kings choosing the former Florida point guard.
With Pierce waiting in the Green Room and the Philadelphia 76ers up next at No. 8, I thought Sixers’ coach and former KU head man Larry Brown would definitely pick the former KU All-American. But instead, he opted for Larry Hughes knowing he already had Tim Thomas at small forward, who just finished an impressive rookie season in 1997-98.
When Nowitzki from Germany went five minutes later at No. 9 to Milwaukee (and later traded to Dallas), I sighed and grew even more restless.
But finally, with the 10th pick, Pierce’s long wait was over when he was selected by the famed Boston Celtics, the team I despised growing up as a Lakers’ fan, but would eventually spend the next 13 years cheering Pierce’s and Boston’s every play.
Stunned and dazed, Pierce stood up, hugged his family members, put on a Celtics’ hat, and walked to the podium and shook hands with Stern. He soon spoke to the media about looking forward to his new start in Boston.
“I am a little disappointed, but it is a situation I had no control over,” Pierce said. “I guess teams figured they couldn’t use me, or that someone else fit their needs better. We (agent) never had a chance to talk with, or mentioned the Celtics. It’s a big surprise to me to be wearing this hat. If you would have told me a week ago, I would have not believed a word of it, but I am here, this is my situation and I will make the most of it.
“I am going to use this as motivation and show these teams that they passed on a quality player. I just want to go out there next year to let them know that they should have picked me, but I am happy that Pitino (Rick, Celtics coach) felt confident in my ability and gave me a chance.”
The C’s front office was certainly thrilled to land Pierce. Current Memphis Grizzlies' general manager and then-Celtics’ GM Chris Wallace recalled the draft to me in 2009.
“We had no notion that was going to happen,” Wallace said about Pierce falling to No. 10. “That was out of the blue. It was like we had this lottery ticket lying on the floor. It was really astounding as the picks started getting closer to 10. I remember telling Rick Pitino after seven that we might get Paul Pierce. ... Then it just started hitting us, we’re going to get Paul Pierce. Like how was I lucky to pull that off? You don’t ask questions, you take him.”
While Wallace had no delusions about picking Pierce before the draft, he later explained to ESPN The Magazine in 2002 about exactly how Boston got its lucky charm at No. 10.
“There was a chain of events, and if any one of them doesn’t occur, we’re screwed,” Wallace said. “First, Kansas lost to URI in the second round of the NCAAs when Paul didn’t play very well. Then he had so-so workouts. And then the new guys in town showed up — Jason Williams, Robert Traylor and Dirk Nowitzki — and pole-vaulted in the top 10. We had Paul in the top four. The great thing was we had no time to outsmart ourselves. When it was our turn, there wasn’t a decision to make.”
Wallace, a former KU student in the late 1970s, has a history of taking Jayhawks in the NBA draft. First, he chose Pierce, and then he traded for Darrell Arthur on draft night in 2008 as the Memphis Grizzlies’ GM before selecting Josh Selby in the second round in last June’s NBA draft.
“I’ve had some good fortune with Kansas players,” Wallace said. “I love to get the Jayhawks, and it’s even better when they succeed.”
Of course, few Jayhawks have ever succeeded more in the NBA than "The Truth." The 6-7 forward, who collected 19 points, five rebounds, five assists and four blocks in his pro debut against Toronto on Feb. 5, 1999, has become one of the Celtics’ all-time greats. He’s regarded as the best one-on-one player in Boston history as well as one of its most clutch performers.
In Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy," in 2009, he listed Pierce as the 54th best player in NBA history.
Pierce helped lead Boston to the NBA Championship in 2008 and was named Finals MVP. He’s a nine-time All-Star who holds numerous franchise records, while ranking as the third-leading scorer in Celtics’ history with over 21,000 career points behind Larry Bird and John Havlicek.
He also owns the NBA record for most free throws made in one quarter (10) in the NBA Finals.
Legendary and late Celtics coach Red Auerbach once called Pierce a renaissance man who could have played in any era.
“He would absolutely fit in with the Celtics teams I coached,” Auerbach told ESPN The Magazine in 2002. “He’s the whole package, offensively and defensively. He’s respectful and he doesn’t bitch. Old-fashioned. I really like him.”
Pierce, who will someday be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, certainly likes being in Boston, the team — like myself — he hated growing up in Inglewood, Calif., as a huge Lakers’ and Magic Johnson fan.
But now he’s grown to love Beantown and couldn’t be happier about falling to Boston at No. 10 on draft night in Vancouver in 1998. He is certain to retire as a Celtic in a few years as one of the few NBA players to serve his entire career with one franchise.
“Certain things happen for a reason,” Pierce told Basketball News in 2002. “My initial thought was that I was disappointed that I slid (in the draft). Then I thought, ‘It happened for a reason.’ Somebody wanted me to be here, and this is the place I want to be.”