The Downside Of Good Memory

Photo by bunnyboy67 on Flickr.

There’s that moment in every child’s life when they realize everything they ever knew about anything was all just a carefully constructed house of cards. It’s not the end of innocence. Children are too fickle and stupid to undergo that kind of major paradigm shift. But that first tinge of doubt, that first taste of cynicism and crushed expectation — you never forget that. For some kids, it was finding out that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

For me, it happened when Paul Pierce ruined USA Basketball forever — or at least in 2002.

September 5, 2002: A Recap

Up until the last 43 seconds of the game between Argentina and USA in the octo-final of the 2002 FIBA World Championship held in Indianapolis, USA Basketball (in my naive little mind) was encased in a fortress (bubble) of invincibility. Cracks had begun to show in 2000, but as a kid, I was unaware. Team USA went undefeated at the Olympics, even amid a vastly improved (and growing) talent base in other countries. Relinquishing the crown at that point seemed inconceivable. My uneducated and unwavering faith in the team was just asking for a rude awakening.

It was the fourth quarter, and the faithful Argentines were chanting and embracing in Indianapolis. Not a good sign. Argentina was up 83-74 with less than a minute left. If there was any team capable of mounting a comeback, it was Team USA, right?

Forty-five seconds flat. The ball is inbounded to Michael Finley at the top of the key. Finley swings it to Pierce, Team USA’s leading scorer in the tournament. 45… 44… 43.4. Fumble. Pierce loses sight of the ball, and Argentina gains possession. Pierce, on his knees at this point, wraps his arms around a young Manu Ginobili in a foul that consisted of equal parts frustration and bewilderment.

There was no coming back from that. Ginobili converts one of two free throws. The lead is 10. Stranger things have happened. And they do, but not before Ginobili calmly puts the game out of reach with another split at the line after Baron Davis predictably clanks a three-point attempt. An Argentinian fan spasms in laughter and tears. Disbelief has made way for impending reality. Argentina is going to win this.

Things get strange when Pierce effortlessly drains a three-pointer from about 30 feet away with a hand in his face. Then, after a quick foul, Pierce drains another from the right wing even further than the first. Effortless. Great. But where was this when it mattered? USA loses 87-80. This would be the first loss in what would become six years of international misery.

Pierce’s outing at the World Championship is my lasting memory of him as a player, which is unfortunate considering it’s one that reflects everything that he’s since distanced himself from. To be labelled as “selfish” on a national team is a significant dishonor, especially when you’re the mantle piece. It was a tournament run marred by weakness and immaturity.

Granted, it’s foolish to make indicting judgments on a player who was only 24 at the time, but for me, it was more than just Paul Pierce making childish mistakes. He didn’t just fumble away the ball. It was more than that. I put my carefree childhood on the line. As a 10-year-old, I raised the stakes, fully expecting that somehow through the screen, so would Pierce. He didn’t, and at that time, it wasn’t fair. But fandom seldom is.

And that perception — especially since it was established in childhood — has been cemented in my mind. Pierce has added several tacks to his résumé since 2002, but his legacy (through my own lens) hasn’t changed much in nine years.

Zach Harper spoke to a related point on our trust as fans on TrueHoop in the context of “clutchness”:

Sports are always such a personal, internal catalyst for how we feel about the things we see. We look for an animalistic satisfaction in the way things happen on the field. We want to see overpowering moments of success. We want to see domination. But we also want to see someone come down to the final shot and come through during the most pressure-packed moments. We want to feel the drama of what’s happening, trust that our guy will come through when it counts the most, and feel that validation of knowing he would succeed.

via Trust and perception rule the legacy | ESPN TrueHoop (7/26/11)

There was a desperation during that Argentina/USA game. Everything I knew about Pierce at that point signaled to me that victory was still possible. But during his final three possessions of the game, something about him soured. I didn’t understand the concept of “clutch” back then, but I knew that something was off.

I can’t draw out every detail of the game, but my pent up childhood rage nestled in just a few moments of that octo-final game. I still have vivid memory of Pierce’s futile threes at the end of the game. I still remember the fumble. But most of all, for some reason, I remember his awful free throw shooting. He shot 3/7 from the line against Argentina, and shot a putrid 2/6 against New Zealand a game before. Pierce never had the most perfect, textbook free throw release, but I remember a distinct hitch that was never there in Boston. It was troubling. I can’t explain why those events have resonated with me for so long, but they have. Pierce’s uncharacteristic play aligned with the first notable loss in international play since 1998. In his moment of weakness, I cast my judgment. In retrospect, it was childish for obvious reasons, but it’s still not so distant from what we choose to do as fans everyday.

Rob Mahoney, in trying to debunk the mythos of clutch, touches on an important point:

Hit a game-winning shot in a big playoff game, and your reputation is made. Miss a crucial free throw with the game on the line, and that same rep is sunk…so long as the adoring public is willing to let the visions of clutch greatness go. The memory of the basketball fan collective is astoundingly selective, and whatever evidence is deemed admissible is twisted and spun in a way that simultaneously creates a clutch résumé and amends the very fluid definition of the term itself.

via On “clutch,” “choking,” and ships passing quietly in the night | ProBasketballTalk (7/25/11)

“Visions of greatness.”  Zach and Rob make great points in this seemingly inescapable clutch debate, but the scope of the ideas can expand much broader. There are moments when we are compelled to take snapshots of a player. And depending on the context, these mental images we hold have a profound effect on our perception of players throughout their careers. And these images are powerful. We relive glory and grief more easily than anything falling in between polarities.

It’s not that I’ve been unaware of Pierce’s career since 2002, and it’s not that I’ve deemed him an “unclutch” player. But just the thought of Pierce conjures images of my childhood disappointment. He’s had inspiring playoff performances, a not-so-inspiring wheelchair incident, and an emotional outpouring during the ring ceremony in 2008. And yet, due to strange forces I’ll never suss out, all of these events were met with lukewarm ambivalence. Paul Pierce is one of the most prolific offensive players of this era, and has evolved into one of the best two-way players in the league. But I’ll never be able to watch him with the doe-eyed optimism of my past. For better or worse, the summer of 2002 defined who Paul Pierce was to me. I’m chained to my memory, and it’s unfair. Fandom is inherently so.

Seth Carstens