By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - Paul Pierce secured his place alongside the best Boston Celtics of all time this week in the twilight of a possible Hall of Fame career that was almost cut short by a brutal stabbing nearly 12 years ago.
The forward, who passed Hall of Famer Larry Bird to go into second place on the team's all-time scoring list Tuesday, is a rarity in North American professional sports having stuck with the Boston team through highs and lows for his entire career.
"The biggest point that people have missed in my opinion about Paul is that he chose to stay a Celtic," Boston coach Doc Rivers said before his team's 86-74 loss to the Toronto Raptors. "His contract came up when we were quite awful and it could've been easy for him to leave and he wanted to stay."
Taken by Boston with the 10th pick in the 1998 NBA draft, Pierce broke into the league on a team that recorded a losing record and missed the playoffs in his first three seasons.
Before the start of his third season, Pierce needed to have lung surgery to repair damage from 11 stab wounds to his face, neck and back that he suffered while trying to break up a fight.
Pierce was back playing shortly afterwards, however, and had one of his best offensive campaigns, averaging 25.3 points while starting in each of his team's 82 games that season.
Despite the once-proud Celtics falling on hard times early in his career - including a franchise-worst 18-game losing streak during the 2006-07 season - Pierce has never expressed a desire to leave, even when he was a free agent.
Instead, he stayed loyal to the Celtics and was finally rewarded when the team acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2008 to form a dominant 'Big Three' that captured the NBA championship in their first year together.
"He signed early, which allowed us to be able to do other things and he wanted to be a Celtic and that's refreshing, obviously, in this day and time," said Rivers.
The 10-time All-Star was named the most valuable player of the 2008 NBA Finals and has built a strong case for entry into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.
His 12 points Friday marked his worst offensive outing in over three weeks but the 34-year-old Celtics captain continues to offer his team an intensity and drive that comes from his hunger for another championship.
"He means the world," said Rivers. "That's besides his play. His loyalty has been terrific."
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)