Paul Pierce and Process
Day 1 of the Applesauce Geneva Convention: Take a ride on the Dark Knight coaster.
I figured it’d be cool to let Slam readers in on what goes on behind the scenes of a story. Since my Paul Pierce feature in the current issue didn’t feature very much of Paul—call it bad timing, call it media stature, or call it Ubuntu—this seems particularly relevant, as I had to come up with a unique angle just weeks after S.L. Price dropped this gem. Because I only edited my story about thirty-seven times, I’m running italicized footnotes to clue you in on what I was thinking.
(Note: I submitted the story with my 5 asterisk or “five-star” format that I’ve used a few times on the website. It didn’t run that way in the mag, I’m assuming, because of spatial constraints, so you’ll get that here.)
It’s the poster that sat above my bed for most of my childhood. The image is of a soccer player lying on the ground with his hand on his head, as if he’s just suffered a concussion. The words above the image read:
“No Pain, No Gain.
No Gain, No Goals.
No Goals, No Scouts.
No Scouts, No College.
No College, No Cheerleaders.
Get Up, Man. Get Up.”
I started toying with the idea of looking at Pierce’s recent heroics and the subsequent controversy, especially in Game 1 of the Finals, using soccer as a muse. Originally, the idea seemed fitting for two reasons:
1) A soccer player could legitimately suffer a concussion and over half of America would assume he was diving.
2) There’s something very “footie” about the psychological tactics that the Celtics have been employing since last year. Remember, KG has an affinity for the beautiful game, and wouldn’t be far fetched to think he’s drawn inspiration from the theatrics of La Liga or Serie A.
Alas, the quote didn’t fit quite well enough and I didn’t have enough space, so I moved on. So the story begins here:
It’s Christmas in the City of Angels and everyone is watching Celtics-Lakers. The inspiration for Entourage is there. Rainman is there. An American Gangster is there. Reality TV’s favorite Dogg Father even spits a few rhymes in support of the home team. It’s officially a recession in America, so naturally the TV broadcast of the game is sponsored by a movie about a security guard that protects a shopping mall. And, yes, that guy is also there.
Exposition. Hollywood heroes. LA fluff. I’m setting up the story thematically.
A Joker is conspicuously absent.
That is one of a few sentences in the story with a double meaning. It can mean “Jack Nicholson is not courtside at the Celtics-Lakers game” or “Heath Ledger is dead.” I’m still not sure. I know I didn’t catch Jack during my viewing of the game, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t there. After all, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. He’s Jack f*cking Nicholson. He could be under the floorboards for all we know. And the Oscar goes to…
Almost exactly a half-hour before an analyst will look at a replay and pretend that he’s watching a bodega get robbed with his mother—”Momma, there goes that man!”—our hero stands at the free throw line as the ABC camera pans to the three stooges. Behind them, an attention-seeking heckler rocking a purple scarf seizes his moment. “You’re a bitch, Pierce!” he shouts, his words splattering across the plasma boxes that inform a nation jostling for a rebound.
“Nation jostling for a rebound”: That’s the second of like, six recession references. Can you tell I needed this story for sustenance? Oh yeah, and “Momma there goes that man!”–shout out to Ben “Action” Osborne!
I had originally intended to clarify that that the “three stooges” line was indeed a compliment, but then I remembered that I’ve heard those guys reference themselves as the three stooges before. I was also going to juxtapose the ABC crew as the good guys against the guy with the purple scarf as the bad guy by using the word “douchebag”, but then I thought better of it.
Worth noting: You never know who you’re criticizing in a national magazine article. It probably always is the guy with the purple scarf that reads it, and then decides to merck you because he owns half of Los Angeles. That would explain how he got those amazing tickets to an incredibly sought-after event and then had the gall to rock a purple scarf indoors. I get it, you root for the Lakers. Who cares? Isn’t it 72 degrees inside the Staples Center? Take your f*cking scarf off.
Our hero can’t—or won’t—hear him, and calmly nails the first of two free throws.
The words “our hero”… I should clarify that for the less informed. When I write “our hero”, that doesn’t mean that I’m a Celtics fan. Far from it. By painting Pierce as our hero in a story about heroes, he’s merely the protagonist of my narrative. I’m glad we had this talk.
Despite an impressive third quarter surge, one that’s reminiscent of his Finals-changing performance from Game 4 last June, the Lakers win the game and gain a little vengeance. The classic matchup lives up to the hype and heat is added to the league’s most storied rivalry. A Celtics’ franchise record winning streak is broken at 19. It’s okay, however, since they still jumped out to the best two-loss record in the history of the league.
I toned this part down a lot. I had David Stern, high on the renewed glory of the NBA’s most storied rivalry, drunk dialing Andy Samberg to do a “**** in my pants” remix. That wouldn’t have worked because now, they’d have to be on a boat. And Stern and the subject, Paul Pierce, both know that, when it comes to boats, “like Kevin Garnett, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.”
In a world of bailouts and dollar bills, ice grills and cheap thrills, the true artists are those that raise the level of their art when they’re most exposed. It’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the clichéd truth, that this is exactly what Paul Pierce has done. And in doing so, he continues to be a psychological marvel: the late-game leader that swoops in to save the day when the outcome hangs in the balance. He manufactures vulnerability into venom. Incredibly, it doesn’t always seem to matter where the weakness comes from—an opponent or within—as long as it generates strength.
Pull quote, thesis, etc. It’s my point. I should also point out for all the stat heads out there that I shied away from running clutch stats in the story because a) Pierce’s clutch stats this season aren’t all that good—that drove me more in the direction of a story-telling narrative—and b) clutch stats aren’t really useful when trying to magnify singular moments and/or whole game performances.
Pierce’s catalogue of recent clutch exploits read like the menu at a raucous and renovated tavern—we’ll call it Cheers—where the majority of the selection details how you’ll get served before closing time.
Witty and topical!
Check last spring’s learning curve: The Atlanta series serves as the opening punch combination, a reminder of mortality to a team that had felt invincible for six months. When the media misconstrues a “menacing gesture” that Pierce makes at Al Horford for a gang sign in Game 3, it serves as a lesson: some people see Blood, Sweat and Tears and some people only see “the B”; society is like that, always gravitating to the most interesting side of the story. As such, heroes are often misunderstood and have to learn from the pressure and media scrutiny in order to sharpen their weaponry and build their armor.
It’s an interesting point. What would superheroes be without the media? I’m currently imagining Dwight Howard removing his Superman cape and becoming an MVP for Habitat for Humanity. Dude would still be effective, but the excitement and the drama would be gone.
In Game 7 of the second round against Cleveland, he goes toe-to-pigeon-toe with the best youngster in the game as everyone “gets the hell out of the way,” according to his most prolific teammate. While the back-and-forth scoring is unquestionably heart stopping, he helps vanquish his team’s toughest single opponent with a hustle play, diving on the floor to corral an errant jump-ball tap.
Due to word count issues, I had to squelch a sentence (can you squelch a sentence?) in which I referred to Brian Scalabrine as “All around hustle shamrock and future TNT pundit Brian Scalabrine.” Dammit. Whatever, you’ll thank me in three years when I’m writing jokes for late night Webbisodes of the Scal and C-Webb tea and crumpets hour, only on TNT Overtime…
In the Game 6 clincher against Detroit, he sees a chance at a trophy in the distance and refuses to let another series go 7 by scoring 27 points on 12 field goal attempts and multiple trips to the free throw line. It’s a performance—on the road against opponents known for their defensive prowess—that’s efficient and exact in its surgical precision; a masterpiece that demonstrates a keen understanding of what the situation called for.
In Game 1 of the Finals he provides the drama and the clutch shots—but not the wheelchair, that’s provided for him. In Game 4, he leads the most ridiculous comeback Finals history. In Game 5, he tries to ice it on the road, and nearly does, only to realize that, while he grew up in Cali, his home will forever be in Boston. It’s the final, gut-wrenching twist before the anti-climactic final battle that validates his first crown.
There’s the past, now for the present…
Our hero’s early season game-winner against the previously undefeated Hawks shows that it’s his process that’s most interesting. Down by one, he comes off a screen, as gang sign controversy nemesis Al Horford switches on him. He doesn’t do anything fancy to try and create his space, only enough to find the angle to stick a tough fadeaway over an outstretched arm. And that’s Paul Pierce in a nutshell: give him an inch and he’ll take a mile.
I had recently read Esquire’s “What I’ve Learned” issue, which is one of those things that’s amazing, daunting and horrible all at the same time. In it, Ryan’s buddy, the author/writer/icon Chuck Klosterman, made an interesting point when discussing magazine features:
“The best profile writers are people who can take a small amount of access to the person and amplify it so that it becomes a metaphor for what that person might represent or could represent. Which means the best profile writers are the ones who construct the most reality. So the best profiles are kind of the worst ones.”
Now, obviously, I didn’t try and write something based on that statement. That would be stupid. I’m a 25-year-old kid that doesn’t know his head from his ass. The things I find most interesting are Spanish/English puns and rhymes made by underground rappers comparing Street Fighter characters to low-grade automobiles.
[To quote Joe Budden:
"So end this, or see me mañana
Or see the speed of a llama
Underground prima donna
That ain't hard to find, poppin' E in a Honda
With hands like E. Honda, he a monster"]
Anyway, what I got from Chuck’s statement was merely the idea that I could extrapolate a lot from a little, if it came to that. I’ve done it before, and it sucks because more stress is induced, but whatever; the notion was reinforced that if it came down to it, I could ball, with or without Paul…
It’s like his subconscious lets the danger dangle before he drops the dagger because you haven’t lived unless you’ve almost died.
The original version of this sentence didn’t include the “he drops” part, and that wouldn’t have been fair to Paul Pierce. By adding “he drops”, Pierce is credited for flipping the script and is therefore empowered. I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about why I wrote that sentence. When I wrote it—without the “he drops” part— it felt completely organic. But why? And then I remembered…
Behold the Exterminator on the Penobscot River:
In fact, initially, I intended to simply write a supplemental post entitled “To Live and Almost Die in New England”, that paralleled my near death experience in New England (Maine in this case) with Pierce’s. The thing about that is that nearly drowning in a class five rapid and getting stabbed are two completely different things. And if I’m lucky enough to be wearing a life preserver, I’ll take the former. It’s not even close. Nobody should have to go through what Paul Pierce went through that night at the club. Oh yeah, and speaking of what Pierce has been through and strange parallels to this story, the teammate (Tony Battie) that was with him that night has had a nickname in NBA arenas throughout his career: Batman. Play with it.
That he’s at his best when he seems physically or mentally beaten, when the chinks in his armor are visible for all to see, only adds to the drama and builds his myth. The wide ranging scope of his experiences—from worst to first and everything before that in between—make him seem like the oldest Celtic of them all. The kid born in Los Angeles, that played high school ball in the gym the Lakers’ practiced in, that stared wide-eyed as Magic’s Mercedes, gleaming in the Cali sunlight as it flew by him, has grown up to embody everything he once hated.
Pierce was born in Oakland. The sentence was supposed to read “the kid born in Cali”. There was a miscommunication and we f*cked up. Sorry.
Let your mind run wild if reincarnation is your thing, and at the very least, please understand that this might be fate, a reservation booked a long time ago by one, for a table of twelve.
Honest to goodness, I’m just putting it out there. Nothing more, nothing less.
It’s only fitting then, that our hero, the longest tenured player on the team, is the spirit of the NBA’s most storied franchise. It all comes together when you think about how they function. KG (Wolverine) is the heart, pounding and loud, you can’t escape his rhythm. Ray Allen (The Alchemist) is the pragmatic brain. Pierce is the soul of the Celtics that meets them halfway.
Rajon Rondo (Blade Runner—see sidebar) is the attack mode and the rest of the Green Lanterns—this isn’t Hollywood, they play on the same team—know their roles and put the phonetic “too” in Ubuntu.
The Rondo Blade Runner nickname comes from his affinity for roller blading and the idea that his game is futuristic. I hope it catches on. Also, I only thought it fair, since the Celtics are trying to embody a team, that the rest of the guys—the defending world champions—were granted Superhero status for the sake of the story. I was cool with this because there’s a heroic quality–rooted in sacrifice–to what Leon Powe’s overcome and Brian Scalabrine’s attitude, just to name a few of the complimentary Celtics.
It’s a Sunday in New York and the Green Lanterns are the visiting attraction at the World’s Most Famous Arena.
Green Lanterns, again. Sweet. Getting out in transition. In one sentence or less.
The tabloid reporters are all consumed with the possibility of The Riddler (Stephon Marbury) leaving New York for Boston, and it’s nauseating.
Ha! It happened! Glad I wasn’t in the country when it went down.
The game itself is more fascinating. Our hero is going up against an adversary in Quentin Richardson that has recently talked trash about the way he and his band of brothers carry themselves. So he does the only thing he knows how: he destroys him. Check the final numbers: Pierce shoots the ball well and scores 31 points while Richardson scores 2 by going 1-13 from the floor. Yet the Knicks win the battle, frustrating the other struggling Celtics mightily.
I wish I had more space to get into more description about Pierce. There’s a fascinating linger to his gait and what feels like his slow motion attack mode during ISO situations is, to me, the essence of what makes him unique. Off the court, his voice is raspy and it’s like there’s a tortured pain that translates through it.
After the game, Doc Rivers cops to trying to ride the cape too hard. “Oh [Pierce] was phenomenal tonight. I thought he had unbelievable focus tonight. He tried at, one point, to single-handedly win the game for us. What I don’t like doing is what I did tonight, and kept him on the floor that long. The problem is if we took him off, I don’t know if we would have scored again.”
Holy crap. A quote.
OH. MY. GOD.
Becky, look at his quote. It’s like so…
While we’re here, I’d like to thank Doc Rivers for playing into the hands of my story without me even asking, simply by talking excessively and being cordial. I’d feel bad for him, but a) I tend to get myself in similar situations and b) he’s the coach of the defending world champions.
A good half an hour later, our interest piqued by something Pierce told the Boston Globe Magazine, the following ensues in the middle of a hot and sweaty throng of reporters:
SLAM: Switching gears, can you talk about why your favorite show is Heroes?
PIERCE: I’m ready to talk basketball, you guys.
I stood in the back of the stinky horde and led with a question about being named Bostonian of the Year…after a bad loss. Then I tried to regroup by asking the aforementioned question. For those of you out there that think being an NBA reporter is all peachy keen; in a situation like this, I imagine there are cyanide tablets that are more pleasant.
The rub, of course, is that Pierce lives for the heroic moment. Everything is psychologically intertwined, and by asking about why his favorite show is Heroes we are asking about basketball.
Hah! To quote Dave Chapelle, “I’m a trickster!” Note I said “trickster” and not “hipster”.
A few days later, in Boston, after his team’s third straight loss, we ask about the consistency of his late-game mentality. His response: “I’ve always been a confident player. And I think everybody on this team shares the same thing in our ability…this game is all about confidence.” He says something else that’s also illuminating: “It’s like we bend, but we don’t break. That’s pretty much what it’s all about.”
It doesn’t seem like a lot, but without those words, my story is pretty useless. I went up to Boston to hang out with friends and family, and I tried to enjoy myself, but without those words as backup, I just wasn’t at ease. During the final thirty-six hours before my last chance to “get him”, it felt kind of like the walls were closing in. Everything became potential story fodder. I watched the Celtics-Bobcats game with my uncle. The Cs lost but Pierce sent the game to overtime with a short fadeaway and celebrated within earshot of Michael Jordan—always a bad idea. Sam Cassell (no longer with the team) did the big testicles dance and I suddenly wanted to write about Pierce as the “living embodiment of the big testicles dance.” When my cousin started strumming an acoustic version of “Enter Sandman”, the baseball closer parallels felt surreal.
But I got what I needed. And that’s what it’s all about, right?
It’s a tougher world out there for a reigning Finals-MVP. To get back to the top of the mountain, our hero and his crew will have to overcome any number of worthy adversaries. Flash is grinding again in Miami; the collective in Detroit is not to be slept on; the rivalry with Atlanta is only getting hotter; Superman and co. are better than ever in Orlando; in Cleveland, Ironman and the much improved Tony Stark industries probably pose the greatest challenge.
There was a lyric from a Ghostface song that I popped into the story that related to LeBron as Ironman. It got taken out. Probably for the best; its relevance depends on LeBron winning a championship.
That would lead our story back to where it began: The City of Angels and constant danger. Questions will abound about which Spiderman will show up, red or black—like roulette, it’s always a gamble with the web crawler.
Web Crawler: double meaning there: “Kobe is Spiderman” and “Kobe is the guy that makes folks on the World Wide Web go nuts”.
And will he have the help of Bruce if he wants lift another banner?
Another sentence with two meanings. One is: For Kobe to win a chip, Paul Pierce (Bruce…Bruce Wayne…Batman…The Dark Knight…) can’t play like an MVP in a Finals rematch. The other is: will Bruce Banner (Andrew Bynum, injured then and now) be healthy enough to help Kobe win a championship. I’m not sure I’m sold on Bynum as a Young Hulk. That might be asking a lot.
The sequel is still in production, the outcome to be determined, what we in the business like to call “unknown unknowns.” What we do know is that, until further notice, nobody backed into a corner has swagger like Paul Pierce.
I considered ending it here…
It’s like the mogul that patterns his rap game after the NBA’s most legendary clutch assassin says, “School of Hard Knocks, I’m a grad.”
But I didn’t. Here’s why: While writing the story, I was, for whatever reason, listening to the “Swagger Like Us” remix a lot, and it dawned on me that since the Celtics were defending their title—a remix of sorts—the quote and its context were applicable. Also, Jay’s next line is about a blue Yankee cap. And honestly, I’m pretty sure there’s nothing that the people of Boston hate more than a “blue Yankee cap.”
So…a lot of words about Paul Pierce and an underlying theme about how why he reminds me of the latest rendition of Batman. It was an interesting few weeks working on the piece. Then, of course, KG decided to kindly disagree a day or two after I submitted the story.