Last Wednesday, Paul Pierce put an end to a 19-year career by signing a one-day contract with the Celtics and officially retiring as a member of the team that drafted him and made him a star. It was the logical and expected culmination of a long and occasionally bumpy road, but the championship that he won in 2008 sealed what his legacy would be in Boston. Even after stops in Brooklyn, Washington and (finally) Los Angeles, there was no question that Pierce would be, in essence, a Celtic for life, and the feting he got (and will get, once his number is retired in the near future) was proof of that.
The day after Pierce retired as a Celtic, Ray Allen took to Instagram to get some feelings off his chest. On the day of his 42nd birthday, the retired superstar found himself in the comments of a now-deleted post by a Celtics fan account, lashing out at the fans who had gathered to call him a traitor and a snake and worse. “Y’all need to get over it!” Allen wrote. “Where were you all when the team tried to trade me? It’s a business, we go where it’s necessary, just like you all do in your jobs! … Get over it!”
Allen was just as integral a part of the 2008 championship as Pierce was, but he apparently will never be loved in the same way, neither by the fans nor by his former teammates. The latter still hold onto the perceived slight by Allen of leaving Boston in free agency after the 2012 season to join the rival Heat, who had knocked the Celtics out of the playoffs the two years prior. The grudge is deep and long: When Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis came together on TNT back in May, Allen was conspicuously absent, and all (minus Rondo, who was mum on the subject) agreed that his defection still rankled. “When Ray decided to go to the Heat, I feel like he moved on,” Garnett said, when explaining why Allen wasn’t with them. “When we all talked about doing this reunion, we were talking about guys that we consider loyal, part of this group.” And when the teammates reunite again in 2018 for the 10th anniversary of the title, Allen once again will be left out.
This beef has many dimensions beyond the NBA’s basic pettiness. Allen was a notorious loner on the Celtics; according to Pierce, he would do things like skip out on team dinners or teammates’ charity events. The relationship between Allen and Rondo was soured by a belief that the point guard was freezing the former out of the offense. Things with head coach Doc Rivers started to go south toward the end as well. Pierce and Garnett also expressed their anger that Allen left money on the table to go to Miami—and didn’t let them know ahead of time, either.
Then there’s the matter of Allen’s agency. A pawn in two different franchise-altering trades—first the one that sent him to Seattle from Milwaukee in 2003, then the deal that put him alongside Pierce in Boston in ‘08—Allen wanted control. It didn’t help that his name came up frequently in trade rumors during the end of his time with the Celtics. And with power in the East shifting quickly from the aging Celtics to the LeBron James-led Heat, it’s easy to understand, at the time and in retrospect, why Allen would choose to spend his twilight years with the team most likely to be on top.
It’s this choice that so enraged Celtics fans and Allen’s teammates, and it’s a decision and fury we see play out on a bigger scale and on a larger stage seemingly every summer. The choice to chase a championship, or to join a nascent or rising contender, is one greeted by scorn and anger. Kevin Durant will never escape that fury, nor will any other superstar who bets on the future instead of trying to keep the past alive. That was the task Allen faced if he stayed in Boston: Lead the creaky veterans against the greatest player in the world in his prime—a player who had spent the last two postseasons wiping the floor with the Celtics. No matter that this is the right of every player as a free agent, and one that they’ve earned through their labor. Fans understandably want you to stay forever, even if they’re cheering for you to push a boulder up an impossibly steep hill.
What stands out so starkly is that Allen’s own role on the 2008 title team couldn’t save him from his fate. Allen had no singular heroic moment that postseason, but he was a big part of Boston’s Game 5 comeback against the Lakers in the Finals, and he tied a Finals record by hitting seven three-pointers in the clinching Game 6. He was absolutely deadly off screens and was an ideal catch-and-shoot partner for Rondo. He was a perfect piece for that team. And it’s worth noting that, had the Celtics not acquired him, the Big Three never would have come together: Garnett didn’t want to agree to a trade to Boston with just Pierce present, and Pierce, coming off a 24–58 season, didn’t want to be part of an extended rebuild.
Without Allen, maybe Pierce presses for a trade and gets shipped out of town. Without winning that championship, his entire legacy changes; maybe there never is a one-day contract and rafters ceremony. Maybe it’s Pierce fighting off fans on social media who blast him for quitting on the Celtics. But instead it’s Pierce as the hero and Allen as the villain even though both were instrumental to a title, and all because of a choice Allen made that was best for him and his career.
To be fair to Pierce, that championship is not the only reason he’s beloved in Boston, but Allen was a huge part of his best and biggest moment as a Celtic. Without Ray Allen, that title doesn’t happen. And that’s what makes it so sad to see Allen thrown aside and ignored by the very men who he helped turn into champions—and, by extension, hated by the fans who he helped make so happy.
There’s no rule that teammates have to get along or love each other, and perhaps Allen’s personality was never going to jibe with those of Pierce or Garnett or Rondo or anyone else. But the way he’s been treated given all that he accomplished and all that he helped the Celtics do is appalling. So as Pierce heads into retirement and toward his future ceremony, here’s hoping that he can be the first to bury the hatchet and welcome Allen back into the fold. Allen may not be the franchise hero that Pierce is, but he deserves far better than what he’s received.