NEW YORK -- Late last month, on a sweltering Las Vegas afternoon, Paul Pierce stepped outside and made a phone call he never imagined would occur. The deconstruction of the Boston Celtics, the team that drafted Pierce in 1998, the franchise whose jersey he had worn for nearly half his life, was underway. Doc Rivers was gone, off to Los Angeles to coach a younger, better team, and Pierce knew that he was next.
The rumors of a potential blockbuster trade sending Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn were starting to heat up, and Pierce needed Garnett to know where he stood. For more than 90 minutes, Pierce paced back and forth, his shirt soaked in sweat, and repeated the same message: It's time to move on.
"I told him, 'You understand what's going on in Boston,'" Pierce said. "KG, his initial reaction to everything is, 'No.' I knew he was going to be against it. I had to warm him up to it."
For 15 years, Pierce had called Boston home. He had experienced the good (an NBA title in 2008), the bad (a 24-win season in 2006-07) and the ugly (a brutal stabbing incident in 2000), and emerged an icon in a city that has known some great ones. For so long, he had wanted to retire a Celtic. But Rivers' departure for the Clippers, Pierce said, "put the writing on the wall." The Celtics were rebuilding, and the 35-year-old small forward knew he wasn't going to be a part of it.
He hated it, but he agreed with it. At the end of the season, Pierce said, the Celtics were "in no man's land," still good enough to be a playoff team but not quite good enough to compete with the elite. He didn't try to lobby general manager Danny Ainge to keep the core intact and give it another go. Pierce understood that the Celtics didn't have the cap room or assets to acquire an impact player who could position them for a championship run.
"If I were in [Ainge's] situation," Pierce said, "I would do the same thing."
Ainge: We're not tanking for lottery
If he had to go, though, Pierce said, he wanted Garnett with him. Days earlier, Pierce took a call from newly minted Nets coach Jason Kidd, who gave him the hard sell on playing in Brooklyn and winning a championship here. Pierce bought in, and now there he was, his cell phone sticking to his ear, persuading the 37-year-old Garnett -- whose no-trade clause could have scuttled any deal -- to do the same thing.
"It would have been tough for us to go back to an environment that wasn't trying to win a championship," Pierce said. "You don't want to go backward."
Less than two hours later, Garnett was sold. Soon after that conversation, Pierce, Garnett and guard Jason Terry were headed to Brooklyn, leaving a fading contender for a burgeoning one. The new collective bargaining agreement has made stockpiling stars exceedingly difficult, but the Nets, as one owner told SI.com, "act like they didn't even bother to read it." Owner Mikhail Prokhorov's billions and unflinching desire to win a championship have given GM Billy King license to do whatever it takes to build a super team, including running up a payroll and luxury-tax bill that will likely exceed $180 million next season.
And make no mistake: This is a super team. Garnett, Pierce, Terry and recently signed forward Andrei Kirilenko join a lineup that already includes perennial All-Star guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and 2013 All-Star center Brook Lopez. Anointing a team too early can backfire (see Lakers, Los Angeles), but this group appears to have many pieces that fit. Garnett slides into the gaping hole at power forward; Pierce is a more complete scorer than Gerald Wallace was last season; and Kirilenko and Terry provide defensive versatility and firepower off the bench, respectively.
For a Nets team devoid of passion last season, the Celtics' core brings a lot of it. The newcomers will teach the team to hate Miami, to accept winning and nothing else.
"We're going to be right up there with the best of them," Pierce said. "When you put this type of talent on the floor ... that's what's going to happen. We don't have any egos. I'm a glorified role player on this team. It's come together quite nicely."
SI Now: Nets' success in Garnett's hands
On Friday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix and the
' Matt Barnes
discuss why the Brooklyn Nets
' success next season is in the
hands of their new forward Kevin Garnett
Yes, Brooklyn is a reality Pierce has accepted, though perhaps not one with which he has quite come to grips. During Thursday's introductory news conference, Pierce's eyes darted around often, a bewildered look on his face, his mind seemingly still processing his surroundings. In the bowels of the Barclays Center, facing a number of Boston-area reporters who had traveled to Brooklyn, Pierce joked about not having connected with Rivers ("We were supposed to have dinner with Doc. Kevin has been blowing it off") and talked about the influence Garnett could have on a big man such as Lopez.
But when asked about his first game back in Boston, Pierce's voice choked and his words trailed off. He said he has already envisioned going back "a thousand times, and every time I pictured it, I shed tears." The city that helped raise him and embraced him will undoubtedly shower him with a thunderous ovation, and Pierce knows that there is no way he will be able to control his emotions.
"It's really starting to sink in as we speak," Pierce said.
One day, Pierce's No. 34 will be raised to the Boston Garden rafters, where he will join the likes of Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird. All of Pierce's greatest moments will be remembered -- the historic fourth-quarter comeback he sparked against the Nets in the 2002 playoffs, the epic duel he won against LeBron James in the '08 postseason, the Finals MVP performance that led Boston to its first title in 22 years. The day to reminisce about those moments will come, but before it does, Pierce wants to create a few more.
"I'm no longer a Boston Celtic, I'm a Brooklyn Net," Pierce said. "At some point, we have to move on. I'm here to try to create a legacy in Brooklyn."