Paul Pierce goes home again

BOSTON -- Paul Pierce was coming home, but if the pillars have been removed and the foundation has been replaced, is it still his house?

The answer, in a TD Garden awash in memories and emotion, was unequivocally yes.

A capacity crowd pulsing with energy and nostalgia embraced both Pierce and his trusted friend Kevin Garnett upon their first return to Boston since they were traded to the Brooklyn Nets last July.

On this night, the performance of the plucky Celtics team was of secondary importance. The fans not only cheered wildly as video tributes for each future Hall of Famer unfolded on the video screen high above the court (including a young woman who sobbed during the montage of the Truth's greatest moments), they celebrated every time Pierce touched the ball, passed it to a teammate or simply checked into the game.

They even saluted him when he was on the bench. One of the more surreal moments of Sunday's lovefest was when chants of "Paul Pierce" wafted through the building as Celtics forward Kris Humphries tried to shoot a pair of free throws for the home team.

It was not without irony that Humphries was one of the players traded for Pierce, although the real haul was the future first-round draft picks, the promise of a new day. That's what convinced Danny Ainge to ship Boston's second all-time leading scorer out of town.

It was a devastating blow to a proud, proud man who thought he'd earned the right to stay forever.

It was never his intent to step onto the parquet in black-and-silver Brooklyn colors, to dress in the opposing dressing room, to try to beat the only franchise he'd ever known.

"This was the toughest game I've ever had to play," Pierce conceded. "Tougher than any championship, tougher than any Game 7."

Although Pierce and KG had mentally prepared themselves for this trip and the inevitable emotional tug of war it would entail, it was completely and utterly disarming. All those No. 34 and No. 5 jerseys, all those "Celtic for Life" signs, all those standing ovations. How were they expected to concentrate?

The hearty New England welcome began the moment Pierce and Garnett touched down on Massachusetts soil. A franchise that is used to domination had lost 13 of 15 games. Pierce, its (former) captain, was a sight for sore eyes, but he tried valiantly to deflect the distractions of an adoring public that no longer roots for his team.

"I just really tried to focus and get back to the hotel and get some rest," Pierce said, "laying in a downtown hotel in Boston when I'm used to being in my house."

Doc Rivers, who endured his own weepy return in December, reached out days earlier to offer some perspective, but it didn't help, not really, because when Pierce glanced up at the video board and saw the highlight clip of Game 4 of the 2008 Finals, when he brought his team back from 24 down to beat the Lakers, he knew -- everyone in the building knew -- his finest moments were here, would always be here, never to be duplicated.

"You know what? I think as long as I'm in the league, it's going to be tough [to come back]," Pierce admitted, "because I'm going to have to come back to the Boston Garden. ... When you come back there's always going to be memories, and there's nothing you're going to do to escape."

Franchise players in Celtic green don't get traded. They collect 11 rings in 13 years, like Russell. They decide when they've had enough, like Cousy, even as Red Auerbach begged him for more. They stake their permanent claim as the dominant prongs of the original Big Three, like Bird and McHale, who retired on their terms, not those of a basketball executive who needs to be thinking about the business -- not the sentiment -- of his team.

Pierce was not presented with the precious option of determining his own fate. This fact stung him; staggered him, actually. Even though he knew it was coming, when the Celtics finally traded him, he was devastated.

When I visited him in New Jersey last summer, on the day he was introduced for the first time as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, he spent most of our interview near tears.

He wondered aloud why he wasn't given the same consideration as Kobe Bryant, the Laker for life who has won five championships for Los Angeles, or Dirk Nowitzki, who became the face of his franchise, the Dallas Mavericks, even though he brought home just one title. Nowitzki was promised by his owner in a public forum that he would never be traded.

Pierce loved his house in suburban Boston, had developed friendships and community connections. He told me last July he wasn't ready to move to New York, that when he was a young boy growing up in Inglewood, Calif., he used to watch grainy footage of muggings and stabbings in Central Park and it terrified him.

"All those years we played the Knicks, I never set foot in Central Park," he said back in July. "I guess I might have to now."

These are practical times in the NBA. Players are traded for salaries and draft picks because that's how teams are rebuilt.

Boston's championship window had closed and Ainge, who once famously declared he would not make the mistake that Auerbach did and hang on to his veterans too long, decided it was time to tear it all down.

Pierce had to go, and KG would have to go with him. Since Garnett had a no-trade clause, the only teams in the running were ones that gave them a chance to win it all.

On paper, Brooklyn looked to be one of those teams. But injuries, chemistry issues and a rookie coach caused the Nets to slog through the early part of the season. They appear to have discovered their footing -- their win over Boston Sunday night gives them 10 in the past 11 games -- but does anyone honestly believe they will upend Miami or Indiana with their center, Brook Lopez, gone for the year?

Before the game, Pierce said the team's identity was "developing."

"Anything can happen," he said, something he'd told me in the very same hallway one year earlier.

Last year, of course, he was talking about the Celtics.

Danny Ainge made a basketball decision that he felt confident would benefit all parties. The Celtics would rebuild with future assets and take their lumps in the process. Pierce and KG would move on to a better team, a more promising scenario, and escape the losing that was destined to descend on the Garden.

You'd like to think Pierce is OK with this. He's trying. But the Truth still has that dazed look in his eyes, nearly six months later.

"I loved it here," he said softly, as he walked toward the visitors locker room before the game. "Never wanted to leave."

He has a new house, a new uniform, a new team. He even took a deep breath and took his family to Central Park.

"We went to the zoo and everything," Pierce reported. "It's very nice."

It's just not home.