Truthful to Thyself

Usually my thoughts during any sports news broadcast not involving Charles Barkley drift toward determining whether the host or analyst is more annoying. But Chris Broussard said something so incisively humorous this morning on ESPN that I smiled to myself intermittently during the bike ride to work and probably creeped out the ladies pushing strollers more than usual.

On the subject of facing off against the best of our generation in LeBron James, Broussard said Nets forward Paul Pierce’s biggest strength is believing himself to be the best player in the world. Anyone who watches basketball will find this amusing. Not because old-man Pierce can’t drop 25 anymore, but because he’s That Guy. He’s the guy who shows up at the YMCA three days a week, feeling a step-and-a-half faster than he ever was in his prime. He’s the guy who will go 4-for-17 in a pickup game and bellow something asinine after each basket, like “Buckets” or “Cash.” He’s the guy whose idea of D’ing up is hand-checking and game point is hoisting jumpers from all angles until either team wins.

Paul Pierce ranks among the funniest players the NBA has ever seen. Lakers fans no doubt remember the 2008 Finals game in Boston, when he made the fastest comeback from a career-threatening injury in the history of athletics. Watch this clip with Barkley’s commentary and appreciate that TNT knows drama.

If hyperbole is the theme here, let’s go overboard with the similes. Pierce writhed on the court in shock and agony like he had just been shot in a drive-by in his hometown Inglewood. He had to be carried to safety by his brothers as if it were the battlefields of Normandy. His face and gaping mouth stretched vertically like a dying horse. The attendant pushing his wheelchair tried to block the camera because it just wasn’t right to film someone fighting for his life. And then, 1 minute and 45 seconds later on the clock, there was Pierce checking back into the game, bouncing up and down like Rocky after making eye contact with Adrian in the crowd.

Come on, people at the marathon in that city five years later made less of a fuss. But there is something perhaps charming, or certainly useful, about creating a fantasy image of yourself. We could all use a little Paul Pierce Syndrome (PPS) in our psyche, if only to take advantage of whatever overlap exists between perception and reality. Self-awareness falls on a slippery slope toward being self-conscious, mindful of limitations, and cozy with the state of complacency.

While a doctoral student at Berkeley, George Dantzig arrived late for an advanced statistics lecture. He copied down a couple of problems written on the blackboard and then turned in the homework assignment a few days later, apologizing to the professor for the tardiness because he found the material challenging. It turned out those were not homework questions but famous unsolved theorems in statistics that he proved. This falls in the same category as PPS — simple ignorance of parameters.

PPS is the reason why I step up to the plate in softball every time anticipating my first career home run because surely 97 straight groundouts point to the next one going over the fence. It’s the reason why I gave my suit measurements too tight because surely my binge-eating lapses will stop after this last one. It’s the reason why I wrote a book and told everyone I know about it because surely your irreplaceable time is better spent with my thoughts than those of some flash in a pan like Shakespeare.

When you succeed in these kinds of things with PPS, people say it’s because you were confident and believed in yourself. When you fail, you might get laughed at for the premature bravado, but you’re never scared to try again. That’s what Paul Mother-Effing Pierce would do, and no truer statement has ever been made about the player they call the Truth.