Player Capsules (Plus): Paul Pierce, the Role Model

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? We’re going with a personal rumination on a player I’m not fond of. Let’s discuss Paul Pierce.

Let’s get this on the table, first. I don’t like Paul Pierce. Not one bit. But even if I don’t like him, I can sing some praises. Mostly because there’s a lot praise. Pierce hogs the ball, a bit, but does it relatively efficiently — despite all the isos, despite all the problems, Pierce still shoots almost 37% for his career from three. He gets to the line a lot, and does it efficiently. He fills the box score, over his career averaging an excellent 22-6-4 from the large wing position. Perhaps a bit deficient in the rebounding, perhaps a bit of a ballhog, but nothing too awful. Not quite as valuable as the numbers indicate, as his pre-KG years showed. But nothing that necessitates massive critique and evisceration. He’s an productive, efficient player.

And most people don’t notice it, but Pierce is an underrated and often excellent defensive player — in Pierce’s defensive prime, he could shut down LeBron James like virtually no other, and he didn’t preen about it. Some defenders had a slight preen, a slight overconfidence in their defense. Not Pierce, at least not openly. He came in, did his job, and didn’t emphasize it. He didn’t call himself a stopper, or profess to have the key. He just did his job and did it well, and for once, he did it quietly. He’s a very good player. A star, in a lot of ways. He’s the kind of player we entreat young players to become. A role model, in how he plays the game. Don’t we want young players to be like Pierce? Put in his lunch pail effort on the defensive end, produce efficient offense, have some decent tertiaries? That’s the aspirational player — an excellent model for any young player.

… and Lord, do I hate him.

• • •

I once knew a man named Max. He was a traveling salesman, in his younger days, and he had some old-fashioned morals. And — from time to time — some sketchy ones. I think I was about 10 years old when this retelling takes place. We were sitting in the den with others, and Max was going on and on. He loved to tell stories, you see — regardless of whether anyone was listening, and sometimes, regardless of whether the story was actually true. His oldest son and him went to a casino, as the story went, and they found a machine that was broken. Max was a handyman, and he knew how to fix it. He actually had a screwdriver on him! But somehow, he’d gotten some prior experience in rigging the slots at casinos. So instead of fixing it, he cashed in — he told us all about how he’d rigged the machine a bit, gotten it to pay out, and enticed his older son to put their money on the slots. They came away with a heck of a nice payout. They left, his son a bit uneasy, but Max excited. Happy for the coup.

And as Max told this story, there was a glow — a glean in his eyes, and a sense that he’d do it again a million times if he could. It may not have been true — Max certainly loved his tall tales — but I explicitly remember the way the story ended. Max said that he didn’t mind cheating, as long as he wasn’t cheating a good person. He said a lot of things like that in his day. He called me “big shorty” and ruffled my hair, and left content. After Max was long gone, my father came into the room. He’d been cooking, and out of the room, but he’d heard the tale. I was playing with Legos distractedly — he cleared his throat. “So. Aaron. Very serious question. Would you do that?”

I gazed up at him. “What do you mean? The casino stuff?”

“Yes.”

“I… no, I don’t think so, that’d be cheating. That’s bad — cheating is a bad thing, right?”

“Yes. Just because [Max] is funny and nice doesn’t mean he does everything right. He did that wrong. He should’ve told someone.”

“Was he really hurting anybody?”

“It’s the moral of the thing. It’s a bad thing to say as a role model. He knows how much you respect him — if I’d known where he was going with that, I would’ve stopped him sooner. Just because he didn’t hurt anyone doesn’t make it excusable, or right. He cheated. That’s not what we do. That’s not what you do. Okay?”

“Okay, dad.”

• • •

Earlier last week, Chris Bosh said something interesting. He said that the Lakers were the favorites for the 2013 NBA title. Naturally, media exploded. How could he say that? How could the third best player on the defending champions show “weakness” like that? It’s one thing when, say, a starting big on a lottery-dweller says that a team not-their-own will win the title. It’s quite another for a contender to say things like that. So everyone seemed to jump on Bosh, and pointed to his lacking confidence, and laughed. There were ample implicit references to this unspoken ideal, this never-quite-stated expectation that superstars and major teams will always be unerringly overconfident in their own abilities. Knowing this capsule was coming up, I thought the widespread chastising of Bosh was amusing — if there’s one player who properly embodies the confident and self-assured, it’s Paul Pierce. The anti-Bosh, so to speak. The person we were all essentially demanding Bosh emulate. And what did everyone say when Pierce wholly demonstrated his ridiculous levels of self confidence?

Well, it was a while back, but I’ll assure you — Pierce was roundly mocked. Lots of talk about how absurd it was for Pierce to think he was better than Kobe, or Duncan, or Wade. We talked and talked, and talked some more. And everyone seemed to concluded with a general agreement (depending on whether one liked him or not) to either never mention Pierce’s Icarus moment again, or to mention it every single time we talked about him, as though incredible overconfidence and conceited self-assurance was a true summary of the man. It may very well be, but one can hardly slam Bosh for not being Paul Pierce if we’re going to slam Paul Pierce himself for being Paul Pierce, right? If you knock the implicit role model when he does the things you want his lessers to do, the question arises — what does that really say about the standard you’re putting on the table?

Some will bring up Pierce’s gang ties for a reason they hate him. I think that’s a bit ridiculous. While Pierce was fined by the league for throwing up an ersatz gang sign back in 2008, he denied it heavily and pointed out that it would be kind of absurd for a person with a foundation dedicated to keeping kids out of gangs and off the streets to be throwing up gang signs on purpose. And it’s worth noting that Pierce has faced more hardship than most — his father abandoned his family at the age of six, and Pierce has always dealt with that with a maturity far outstripping his years. You may mention the ridiculous wheelchair moment all you want — I can name exactly zero other NBA stars who came back within the week after being stabbed 11 times. And having to go through lung surgery to fix puncture wounds to the lungs. And only getting stabbed for trying to break up a fight before it got violent. It’s not exactly a common feat. Pierce exudes toughness, grit, and a highly respectable fortitude. Sure, he may be a little annoying on the court (although, again, he and Kobe are the models most expect and demand younger players emulate, so the annoying qualities can hardly be considered as such in the broad scheme of things), but his off-court steadfastness and respectability tends to indicate a person better than he generally gets credit for.

And, again. I don’t like him at all.

• • •

I’ll drop the facade. Max was my grandfather.

He passed away on February 5th, 2005. Quite a while back, all things considered. I still miss him, and I think about him almost every day — there’s a small music box that belonged to him and my grandmother. I store cufflinks in it, as well as my watch. I keep the box wound. When I open it to get my watch, I always end up listening to the whole song. It’s Mr. Bojangles in a higher key, with a somber note. Haunting and beautiful. Brings images of my grandfather to mind, without fail. Every other day, it seems. At least half of my button down shirts come from my grandfather, and if you hold them close enough, sometimes you can still smell wisps of his 60s-era cologne, even after all these years. My father and mother are my greatest living role models, but when it comes to telling stories and having fun, I’d be lying if I didn’t say Max was my real role model.

But this all does come to a point, every now and again. Sometimes, your role models aren’t the people they should be. Sometimes you aspire to be a person you shouldn’t. An eternal disconnect between the one you envision them to be and the one they are — an eternal disconnect between their good and their bad. And sometimes? The opposite is true. I understand, on some level, who Paul Pierce is. I have a lot of respect for him, and for his accomplishments, and for how underheralded and underrated he is. I understand it. I get it. But maybe it’s the Celtic ties, maybe it’s the wispy beard, maybe it’s the devil-may-care attitude. I don’t know. But I simply don’t like him. I don’t love him. I can’t. I simply can’t seem to bring myself to root for Pierce, or his success. I don’t get it, and I’ve come to terms with it. There’s a certain maturity that comes when you can finally put the incoherency to rest, and come to that essential realization. Some things won’t ever be explained. And when it all comes down to it? They don’t really need to be.

I’ll miss Max forever, but I can’t stand Pierce. And I don’t care to figure out the reasons why, anymore.

Seth Carstens