Posted by Jessica Camerato
Over the last few years the TD BankNorth Garden had become a revolving door of new faces. Countless players came and went, as did fairweather fans who no longer wanted to support a losing cause. But there were two faces that stayed the same – a resilient captain and a diehard Bostonian, both who refused turn their backs on the Boston Celtics.
Celtics captain Paul Pierce and actor/musician Donnie Wahlberg developed a friendship during the 2002 basketball season. They shared a special bond of frustration and unmet expectations. Wahlberg wanted to resurrect his career after New Kids on the Block and Pierce wanted to win a title with the Cs. Through this common understanding, Wahlberg got to know a different side of Pierce.
“Obviously to be an elite athlete you have to have an ego, you have to have confidence, but he's a special guy because he has humility too,” Wahlberg said during the Celtics regular season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers. “So do I and I think that's one of the reasons why he and I get along. We've always shared that mutual respect even through the worst of times. I still traveled with the team, still followed them everywhere, and he never treated me any different.”
Pierce and Wahlberg decided to stick by the Celtics. Wahlberg took in games on both the east and west coasts while Pierce never asked to leave Boston. Six years later, their loyalty paid off. Wahlberg, now on a sold out comeback tour, sat courtside to watch a teary-eyed Pierce receive his championship ring.
“To see him tonight so emotional, it's beautiful because you realize how much it really means to him,” Wahlberg said. “He's a laidback guy so a lot of people don't realize how much it means to him and how hard it must have been for him during some of the dark times here. It's a lot of weight and he never came out publicly and said ‘trade me.' He never did what all the other superstars do. He didn't do it.”
Despite reports of Pierce living it up in Las Vegas this summer and claiming he is the best basketball player in the world, Wahlberg said he has never become big time. The only difference he ever noticed, in fact, was that of embarrassment.
“The only time he was ever different was when I could see times when he was really down when the team was really struggling,” he said. “He'd look over and he'd give me a nod and stuff but I could see he was really hurting and embarrassed too. That's the only change he's really had. He's always been consistent, always been gracious, and humble, and wonderful to me.”
To show his appreciation to Pierce for bringing the world championship back to Beantown, Wahlberg invited him to join the New Kids on stage during their first concert at the Garden in 15 years. The group donned Celtics jerseys (Wahlberg wore number 34) while Pierce proudly hoisted the championship trophy in front of a packed house. Even after winning a title and NBA Finals MVP Award, Pierce was still in awe of how Wahlberg could perform under that much pressure.
“It's the same thing – I don't know how he gets on the free throw line in front of all the people that are watching him. But that's Paul. He's a humble guy,” Wahlberg said. “When we were on stage together at the show he was like, ‘Wow, I'm so happy for you,' just the same why I was for him. I gave him a big hug after Game Six and I was just so happy for him and it's just a good thing. It's really cool and it's a trip to hear him say that, but it doesn't surprise me because that's the kind of guy he is.”
Just as it was during Wahlberg's return to the stage, the energy in the Garden was electrifying during the ring ceremony.
“This building has been a surreal place for me for the last year,” Wahlberg said. “Most of last season I knew there was a chance we were going to play here, I knew there was a chance the Celtics were going to play in the championship, and to actually see it all happen in just like a year's time, it's unbelievable. I don't want to compare us to the Celtics in any way but to share the stage with Paul was very, very powerful for me. I've spent a lot of time at these games going through my own ups and downs of my career while Paul was going through his and in the last year it's kind of been a comeback of sorts for both of us.”
In just 12 months, their six-year friendship has transformed from commiseration to celebration. The level of success has changed, but as Wahlberg says, Pierce hasn't.