In honor of SLAM’s Throwback Issue, a tip of my hat to the player who most looks like he was unfrozen after 40 years in a cryogenic chamber and put on a 2015 NBA court: Paul Pierce. His veal-like absence of muscle tone, his herky-jerky slow-motion moves, his mid-range shot and his smarts all make him look like he was plucked directly from an episode of NBA Hardwood Classics.
Before this season, I never appreciated the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer. The reason why is entirely rooted in my own provincial prejudices, as I am congenitally unable to enjoy anyone in Celtic green. This changed as Pierce, the ultimate NBA throwback, came to my now-hometown of Washington and looked for a fleeting moment in this year’s Playoffs like the first player in a generation with the ability to throw this team forward. The ultimate 1970s-looking player appeared as if he could make the Wiz nationally relevant for the first time since Magic Johnson was in high school.
Before Atlanta jettisoned the Wizards in a manner still too cruel to contemplate, and Pierce was throwing in game winners with ease, he looked like he could be our Neo, the person with the ability to break what is known locally as the Curse O’ Les Boulez (The Bullets). This is the point where I should explain that when it comes to sports, I absolutely believe in curses. This is, at heart, a question of mass psychology: the idea that a community can collectively engage in an act of self-fulfilling prophecy. I also believe that there is nowhere in our society where curses take stronger root than in the world of sports. They are like a gray cloud with the capacity to envelope a team, a fan base and every player who comes into contact with it. The cloud might not be visible to the naked eye, but it can hover over franchises like a Swoosh-laden Dementor sucking the life out of an arena every time hope reveals its head. This has been the reality for the Wizards over the course of decades. This community has lived through John “Hot Plate” Williams, “Dinner Bell” Mel Turpin and drafting the tallest and shortest players in NBA history—Muggsy and Manute—as press stunts, only to get rid of both players before they became real NBA players.
This is the team that seemed to take glee in crushing hope under its heel, trading young C-Webb for old Mitch Richmond; young Rasheed for old Rod Strickland; maxing out Gil Arenas after knee surgery and giving up the chance to draft Stephen Curry to trade their pick for Randy Foye (not that they would have drafted Curry; that’s the curse). This team is so cursed that it had Michael Jordan on the premises and the gray cloud was stronger than his Airness, fastening him to the floor and sweeping away talented but psychologically fragile No. 1 pick Kwame Brown.
But we also know that this cursed spell of mass psychology can be broken. It usually takes a player or coach with the gumption to look it in the eye and laugh. You need a Pedro Martinez, who when asked about The Curse of the Bambino said, “Wake up the Bambino and let me face him—I’ll drill him in the ass.” You need someone cocky enough, brash enough and ballsy enough to stare at that damn gray cloud and smile. Very few in history have displayed this power: the power to smile while seething as they changed the fortunes of allegedly cursed franchises. Pedro had it. Isiah Thomas had it. Jordan had it in Chicago. Lawrence Taylor had it. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice had it. I thought Paul Pierce was our Pedro: the one to drill this curse in the ass the way he drilled last-second shots with the game on the line. I think he can still be that guy. People remember that quote from Pedro about nailing Babe Ruth but forget that he said it in 2001 and that the Red Sox still had several more years of heartbreak before they finally won in 2004.
Pierce can still be our Pedro, but time is not on our side. So hang on, Paul. Please. I don’t care if you average 5 points in 10 minutes next year as long as you are ready come Playoff time. We have John Wall. We have Bradley Beal. We still need our Neo: the man who can control the destiny of Bullets. That’s Paul Pierce. And that’s the damn truth.