Friday, June 6, 2008

Injury and Myth

Last night Paul Pierce collapsed to the floor at TD Banknorth Garden, writhing in pain from a collision he and Kendrick Perkins had under the basket. Pierce was gripping his knee and clinching his teeth, suggesting that he was in considerable pain. Eventually he was carried from the court by some teammates and assistants and wheeled into the locker-room.

I am not fond of Pierce but I never like to see a player get hurt nor was I particularly excited about the decreased level of competition the Finals would offer if Pierce were out for the rest of the series. Eventually Pierce returned to the floor, possibly playing on pure adrenaline, probably because he actually wasn’t that severely injured, and proceeded to play excellently for the remainder of the game.

Many people, including those present at the arena, seemed to view Pierce’s return as the emotional boost that allowed the Celtics to capture game 1. I personally felt the Lakers were unmoved by the whole affair and a more accurate description of the game would cite a combination of the Celtics superior rebounding and tenacious defense, and the Lakers uncommonly poor shooting as the reason why the Celtics struck first.

But the reality of the game aside, the mythmaking potential of Pierce’s injured play was immediately mined by last night’s announcers. The most obnoxiously overused injury related sports reference is to Willis Reed’s heroic participation in game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. The fact that the Knicks were playing the Lakers in the finals only makes the incorrect application of this analogy all the more likely.

Comparing Pierce’s play to Reed’s is hyperbolic and disingenuous, but not unexpected. Announcers are constantly looking to falsely heighten the drama of the moment, even when the high quality of the game going on should alone suffice, and as such a reference to Reed was not a question of if but when.

The more awkward and inappropriate analogy was Mark Jackson’s frequent invocation of Muhammad Ali. When Pierce initially returned to the court, accompanied by the thunderous applause of the crowd, Jackson said he was like “Ali.” Other than the facts that both men are black and at moments Ali also found himself standing before cheering crowds, I can’t think of a meaningful similarity between the two. Ali never famously carried on while injured, or at least no more injured than any other fighter gets over the course of a bout. He certainly never retired to the locker room to triumphantly reemerge, as boxing obviously doesn’t allow for such.

In the post-game coverage, Jackson focused his comparison, saying that Pierce specifically reminded him of Muhammad Ali when he fought against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. At first I thought he was just being lazy and uninventive, comparing one epic matchup to another for no other reason than both are “epic.” If you’re really looking to give Jackson credit, you could argue Pierce, by feigning injury, had “rope-a-doped” the Lakers, but that didn’t strike me as his intention. But as I listened I realized he didn’t seem to focus on Ali’s matchup with Foreman, but rather specifically mentioned Kinshasa.

Jackson’s mindless mythmaking is a trope frequently utilized by announcers, particularly announcers ill-equipped to give an honest assessment of the game (there’s a reason Jeff Van Gundy doesn’t make use of such rhetorical tactics). It’s not as if I don’t hear these types of comments often, but something about comparing Pierce to Ali struck me as uniquely absurd.

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