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Paul Pierce on why so many former players have issues with today’s game

BOSTON, MA - June 8: Former Celtics great Paul Pierce before Game Three of the 2022 NBA Finals at the TD Garden on June 8, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)
Former Celtics great Paul Pierce gets ready before Game 3 of the 2022 NBA Finals at the TD Garden on June 8, 2022, in Boston. (Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

Camped out in his Los Angeles home, Paul Pierce’s television is frequently programmed to NBA games. While some retired players turn away from the sport that once commanded their lives, Pierce has stayed tuned to the league he played in for 19 seasons, hosting friends for marquee matchups and ordering piles of chicken wings.

“My go-to is flats, Buffalo. I usually order like three [flavors]. So my three is Buffalo, lemon pepper and then I usually throw in some BBQ. I like to mix it up. I don’t like sticking to one,” Pierce told Yahoo Sports. “I put in a big order because we usually got friends over, and we’re watching some hoops.”

Pierce will head to Houston next week for the first round of the NCAA tournament, watching games from inside a Buffalo Wild Wings alongside “All The Smoke” podcast hosts Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes, plus two-time WNBA MVP A’Ja Wilson as part of an activation experience labeled “BnB-Dubs.” He has savored every avenue to remain connected to the sport, being part of it after a run with ESPN. And with so much consternation from plenty of Pierce’s fellow former players, taking to national broadcast and podcast platforms to lament certain elements of present-day NBA, a conversation with the Hall of Fame swingman was the perfect opportunity to better understand why so many of Pierce’s Brethren are willing to voice criticisms of the league they once inhabited.

The following interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Why do all these retired players want to complain about the state of the current day’s game? It’s been happening for a while, but it seems like it’s reached a fever pitch now where there are so many former players sitting at desks across the national networks and there are so many podcasts such as yours. Why do you think former players are so willing and ready to poke holes at the current state of the league?

“I think it’s always been like that, and I think it’s been like that in every sport. Because as time goes on, players change and rules change. So my generation or before, we talk about the next generation, we talk about what we would have been in that generation. That’s always been a forever conversation, because I remember this conversation from the old heads when I first came in. How the league was. It was ‘different.’ The players are making more money, they’re taking more control of their own destiny. You’re seeing it. It’s always gonna be a complaint.

“And one of the complaints, which Charles Barkley’s been saying, is the load management. Because when you talk about hard-working people wanna come up and see a star play, and they’re just sitting down on the bench and not injured, people are coming to see the stars play. And so of course that’s gonna be a natural complaint. And rightfully so, you know what I’m saying?”

Boston Celtics'  Paul Pierce shoots a layup in the first half of Game 3 of the NBA basketball finals Tuesday, June 10, 2008, in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce shoots a layup in the first half of Game 3 of the NBA Finals on June 10, 2008, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

There’s a difference between older players telling you that behind the scenes and Charles being on national TV and everyone kind of airing out dirty laundry on podcasts. The load management aspect has definitely become the loudest part of this conversation now.

“Yes, absolutely. Everybody’s creating their own platform. It gets louder when you get control of your own voice and control of your own narrative.”

I think it might be doing a disservice to the league, though, right? When you have all these prominent voices killing the product, it creates this discourse online that things for the league aren’t going well.

“It’s because we live in a time now where, oh, you start talking about things, I think it drives the product. We live in a society now where all news is good news it feels like, in some way.

“It gets people talking. If you can get people to constantly talk about basketball, they want to watch. You don’t get your normal fan hearing these types of conversations, they want to see what’s going on. So it sparks interest either way.”

Yeah, but I think if the conversation is about load management, ‘You’re never going to see star players play,’ don’t you think that can make that casual fan not want to go watch or attend if they’re hearing all about how stars don’t play?

“You know, it’s messed up. I got a friend of mine in Brooklyn. He paid for season tickets. Second row. And what he paid for ’em before the season, to what they are worth now? Oh man. Because, you know, before the season, they were promoting KD [Kevin Durant] and Kyrie [Irving], and so the prices were up. They ask for a trade… he can’t even sell those tickets anymore. He lost money on ’em.”

Being part of the NBA 75 in Cleveland last year, do you have a best memory from that night?

Best memory was being in the room and just sharing conversations with Magic Johnson and Jerry West. When I looked over at one point in the night, when we were all in the back kind of, like, a little waiting room before we went out. I looked over and seven feet, 10 feet away from me was Magic, Isiah Thomas and Kevin McHale having a conversation with each other. And I looked and I was, like, ‘Damn, that’s the era that really got me into basketball.’ I took out my phone and I started recording them. And I was like, ‘Man, I remember when all y’all used to hate each other!’ You know, in the ’80s, that’s like a rivalry. All three of them were rivals. And just to see them talking back, that was like, ‘Wow, this is my childhood right here. And I’m in the room with ’em. It was pretty cool to see that.”

I was in Boston for the Finals when you were running around TD Garden in your green NBA 75 jacket. Is there anyone on the Celtics that comes to you for counsel or you hit them for some advice?

“You know, from time to time I hit Jayson [Tatum]. I’ve hit him on social media when they were struggling. They had a period where they lost about three or four straight games, and I just hit him up like, ‘C’mon, man, you guys gotta get back on track.’ And he’d be like, ‘You’re right,’ and he’ll write back. I hit him during the Finals a couple of times. But for the most part, man, I’m not here to tell them how to play or what to do. I’m just here sort of like a big brother. I show up to the games, I talk to them sometimes at practice or in the locker room. I’m just there as a fan. And I always lend my open ear of support if they ever need to holler about something. That’s what I told them the last time I saw them. I gave them my number. You can reach out. But they don’t need anything from me. I’m just here if they need me.”

Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul Pierce, center, acknowledges applause from the crowd during a timeout in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Sunday, Feb.  5, 2017, in Boston.  Pierce, a former Celtics player, played in what is expected to be his final game in Boston Sunday.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul Pierce acknowledges applause from the crowd during a timeout in the first half of a game against the Boston Celtics on Feb. 5, 2017, in Boston. It was Pierce’s last game in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Was there a moment last season when you realized this team was for real? They kind of snuck up on people. They were the 11th seed come late January. When did you start to believe in them?

“It all stemmed from when Jaylen Brown was like, ‘Remember? l knew what this team was all about. This was a team that before they were at that 11 mark last year, this was a team that people were saying was the future. Because they’d been to the conference finals before. They just needed to mature and grow together. Now you’re seeing each of those guys take the leap. The three guys who’ve been together the longest — Marcus [Smart], Jaylen and Jayson — you see them making the jump now. Tatum is completely transformed into a complete superstar as we saw in the All-Star Game, going out with 55 and the MVP. Jaylen is showing that he’s gonna be a perennial All-Star. Marcus with his veteran leadership and defensive presence. They’ve taken that maturity leap to finally take that next step and possibly be together for a long time and win multiple championships if healthy.”

I know it was 10 years ago now, but do you remember where you were on draft night 2013 when you got traded to Brooklyn? I know they were talking about it at the trade deadline before, and they started talking about it again around Memorial Day Weekend, but when it actually started coming to a close, what’s your recollection of how that all unfolded?

“Man, it was like a lot of conversations with Danny Ainge. I knew it was happening. We were in complete, open conversations about it. Honest and open about it. It was a little hurtful. I thought I would retire as a Celtic. But at the same time, it was like, ‘Shoot, they’re looking to rebuild.’ We saw the writing on the wall. Because we had just got swept by the New York Knicks. We were past our prime and Danny was figuring out a way, if we can get something for the old guys, then, oh, well. And also give us another opportunity to win a championship because we teamed up with two young All-Stars. Deron Williams, a lot of people considered him to be the best point guard, the one or two point guard, him or Chris Paul. And then Joe Johnson was an All-Star. We thought getting around them, we could probably have an opportunity to win a championship with them. And then plus being in a big city. The move wasn’t far. It was down the street. Brooklyn. Same conference. And then going with Kevin [Garnett] made it much easier.”

So many All-Stars struggle adapting to becoming a role player later in their careers. It seemed like you kind of thrived and relished being the OG bucket-getter in your last couple of years. How were you able to do that? Was it just that simple of only being asked to score? What was that process of finding that role later on in your career?

“I think it’s something you have to come to the realization of. Sometimes it’s hard for a star player who’s been the star player, who’s been the go-to guy for his franchise for his entire career, to take that step back. But I knew I wasn’t able to do the same things every night on a consistent basis. And then once I got around some other young stars, it made it easier. First playing with Joe and Deron, and then going to play with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Two teams I went to, this was their team. I was just here to play a leadership role, knock down open shots. I didn’t play as many minutes. It made it easier on me to kind of thrive in that role as I got older.”