Paul Pierce Only Became a Boston Celtics Legend Because Dirk Nowitzki Was Unavailable: ‘Well, if He’s There, Just Don’t Worry About What We Know or Don’t Know’

Paul Pierce is one of the greatest players in Boston Celtics history, but he wasn’t even on the team’s radar in the days and even hours leading up to the 1998 NBA Draft. Rather, Boston had its eyes set on another future NBA Hall of Famer: Dirk Nowitzki.

Pierce was an accomplished player at the University of Kansas and was widely projected to be a top pick in the ’98 draft. However, the Celtics were so enamored with Nowitzki that they were suddenly forced into scramble mode when the Milwaukee Bucks picked him just one spot ahead of Boston’s No. 10 selection.

The Celtics had an obsession with Dirk Nowitzki ahead of the 1998 NBA Draft

Former Celtics head coach Rick Pitino was absolutely certain he had found the next Boston Celtics great heading into the 1998 NBA Draft. But he believed that guy was German teenager Dirk Nowitzki.

Pitino attended a workout in Rome and was immediately enamored with the 7-footer, who dropped in threes like it was nothing. In fact, Pitino told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated that he was “blown away.” The current Iona head coach took Nowitzki to lunch and assured him the C’s would take him with the 10th overall pick. He even had Red Auerbach give Dirk a call.

“I went home,” Pitino told Mannix, “thinking we had our guy.”

Things went according to plan at the start of the 1998 NBA Draft and looked even better when the Dallas Mavericks, a team Pitino knew also had an affinity for Nowitzki, took Robert Traylor with the No. 6. Little did the Celtics know, however, that the Mavs were still scheming to get Dirk.

The Milwaukee Bucks drafted Nowitzki at No. 9, just one spot before the Celtics were on the clock. Milwaukee promptly traded the international product to the Mavs in exchange for Traylor.

Suddenly, the Celtics draft room went to DEFCON-4.

Boston knew next to nothing about Pierce, who thought he was going earlier in the top 10

While the Celtics were sitting on pins and needles with the hopes Nowitzki would fall to them, Paul Pierce was utterly befuddled.

The former Jayhawks star had been one of the most accomplished collegiate players in the draft class. He was Consensus All-America First Team and averaged over 20 points in his junior season. Yet, Pierce was rapidly falling down the draft board. His former college coach, Roy Williams, wondered if some executives weren’t convinced Pierce was dynamic enough.

“I think some people looked at Paul and wondered if he was athletic enough,” Williams said, via Mannix. “I think there were questions about whether he could score in the NBA like he did in college.”

The Celtics wondered very little about Paul Pierce. In fact, they knew almost nothing about him. Pitino said he hadn’t done any homework on the Kansas star. Assistant general manager Chris Wallace had to assuage his fears and insist on taking the best player available.

“Rick got a little nervous,” says Wallace. “He wanted to know what everybody knew that we didn’t. And I just said, ‘Well, if he’s there, just don’t worry about what we know or don’t know. Let’s just take him.’ And we did.”

-Celtics Assistant GM Chris Wallace, Via SI’s Chris Mannix

But even though the Celtics took Pierce, they weren’t entirely convinced he wanted to play in Beantown.

Boston apparently had a potential trade lined up that could have sent the man who became known as The Truth to the Houston Rockets. However, Pierce was hungry to prove to rival executives that they made a grave mistake passing on him. He assured Pitino he wanted to stay.

Celtics fans are very likely glad Pierce made that decision. Over the next 15 seasons, he cemented himself as one of the best players in franchise history.

Nowitzki and Pierce each charted a path to Springfield

Celtics great Paul Pierce and Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki wave to crowds
Paul Pierce and Dirk Nowitzki both had Hall of Fame careers | Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images; Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Needless to say, the 1998 NBA Draft worked out just fine for the Celtics. It worked out pretty well for the Mavs, too.

Dirk Nowitzki spent all of his 21 seasons with the Mavs, winning an MVP Award in 2007 and leading Dallas to its first NBA championship in 2011. He finished his career ranked sixth on the all-time scoring list.

It took longer for Paul Pierce to experience consistent winning in Boston, but he won a title before Dirk when the Celtics rode their “Big Three” to a title in 2008. That championship solidified Pierce’s status as a Celtics great. He ranks third in franchise history in win shares and second in scoring.

Pitino and Co. were right to be as high as they were on Dirk. But fans in Boston sure aren’t complaining after Pierce became one of the greatest players in Celtics history and blazed a path to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Stats courtesy of CBB Reference and Basketball Reference.

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