Antoine Walker had seen enough. Not only were the Celtics losing big on their home court, players on the New Jersey Nets’ bench were laughing at them. It was Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference finals, the first time the Celtics had played that deep into the playoffs in 14 seasons.
Walker put his face in front of Paul Pierce moments before the fourth quarter began.
Watching from the auxiliary press seats behind the Celtics’ basket, I can still feel Walker’s heat.
Time to be a man, he said to his much younger teammate who didn’t dare talk back. Time to be the All-Star you are.
Now Paul Pierce is gone, traded to the Brooklyn Nets, of all teams, with Kevin Garnett. Choose your game when Pierce’s star was born. This one’s mine.
No one outside that huddle of five Celtics players on May 25, 2002, could hear what Walker said. He told the media a sanitized version after the game was won.
Pierce scored 19 points in that fourth quarter. He had only nine in the previous three.
The Celtics overcame a 21-point deficit in front of a Boston crowd getting wilder by the minute to beat the Nets, 94-91.
When the horn sounded to end the game, Walker was prostrate on the court while Pierce leaped onto the scorer’s table and crowed.
The TD Garden was then called the FleetCenter.
Actually it was criticized by older fans as being nothing more than a sterile, modern barn that really couldn’t replace the Boston Garden.
That fourth quarter gave the building its soul.
On the bench, Jim O’Brien’s assistant coaches had to put their mouths within an inch of his ear to make themselves heard.
I had to stand on my seat to see, swearing I would not watch the fourth quarter on the Jumbotron.
Although a sudden burst of noise made me glance up.
Derek Lowe, Nomar Garciaparra and Johnny Damon had come over from Fenway Park after the Red Sox finished their game and were cheering from a luxury box behind me.
These were the Nets of Jason Kidd in his prime and Kerry Kittles, who had the hot shooting hand that day.
Byron Scott, the former Lakers star, was the coach.
The best-of-seven series was tied at one win apiece. For the first three quarters, Pierce let a Nets double-team control his game.
He was 25 years old. This was his fourth season with the Celtics. He had already picked up his nickname, The Truth.
He hadn’t yet earned the mantle of leadership.
Afterward, O’Brien tried to describe the first three quarters when the Celtics went down, 74-53.
“It was purgatory; it might have been closer to hell for three quarters. But that last one was Eden. Damn, that was great.”
Never mind that the Nets went on to win the Eastern Conference championship.
That the Celtics had not played in a conference finals for 14 years had been inconceivable after the glory years of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Kevin McHale.
That the team hadn’t made the first round of the playoffs for seven years before 2002 was incredible.
As Pierce yelled and gestured from the top of the scorer’s table, you could see the bright light that was at the end of the tunnel.
Yes, the Celtics are overdue for another retooling.
How long will this one take and is Danny Ainge the right guy to assemble the new parts?
He brought in Garnett and Ray Allen to join Pierce in the summer of 2007.
The yield? One NBA title in 2008 and five successive seasons of playoff-killing injuries to Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo (twice) and Avery Bradley.
Ainge has a bottom-up restoration ahead of him. He’ll need to draw on that deep well of self-confidence.
He needs a coach to replace Doc Rivers.
Brett Brown’s name leads the list of fresh faces. The son of Bob Brown has had a lengthy apprenticeship with Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. Tapping Brown would be bold.
He needs to find a young Paul Pierce just as a predecessor had to find another Larry Bird.
Walker wants to be a head coach and before you laugh off that idea, give him credit for the day he called out Paul Pierce, telling him to be a man, be the All-Star he is.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: