Paul Pierce, Willis Reed, and epic sports analogy

Celtics star Paul Pierce falls to the ground in pain in the first game of the NBA finals, clutching his knee. He’s taken off the court in a wheelchair, and fans fear the worst. Less than two minutes later, he returns, quickly hits two three-pointers, and leads his team to victory.

Metaphor and analogy erupt. First, in their most histrionic/epic Boston-fan form:

By Dan Shaughnessy
Boston Globe Staff / June 6, 2008

It goes down in Hub hardwood history as the Miracle on Causeway Street. Paul Pierce and his chariot of fire.

Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Larry Bird enjoyed some great moments in the old Boston gym, but not one of those Garden gods ever vaulted out of a wheelchair to lead the Celtics to victory in the NBA Finals.

That’s what Paul Pierce did in Boston’s 98-88 win over the Lakers in Game 1 last night.

In this first-report hometown newspaper report, we see that almost arch (or just naive?), pleasurably extremist form of sports myth-making. If someone is taken off the court and then returns, you don’t just invoke storied injury comebacks from NBA and Celtics history, you give the episode a grandiose name, declare it a chapter in local lore and legend, and toss in a chariot of fire.

We also see a more self-conscious version, which reaches for the epic analogy but calls attention to it in a way that to some degree questions it:

Sports of The Times
Celtics Redux: Grit Over Glamour

By HARVEY ARATON, Published: June 7, 2008
It was tempting after Pierce returned, to hit consecutive 3-pointers in the Celtics’ 98-88 victory, to invoke the memory of Willis Reed’s limping onto the court at Madison Square Garden in Game 7 of the 1970 finals against the Lakers.

So, in this non-booster/fan version, the author can’t resist the “temptation” of using this epic metaphor even as he suggests that it may be exaggerated or not fully earned.

By the time Bill Simmons weighs in at, the metaphor has become controversial and a topic of debate in its own right:

Piercing the silence in Game 1
By Bill Simmons
ESPN, Page 2

If you’re a Lakers fan, I fully support your right to be cynical about Pierce’s injury and return… Only a fool would compare the significance of the moment to Willis Reed, or even Larry Bird’s comeback in the ’91 Indiana series, for that matter. At the same time, the crowd went from “My God, we are completely screwed!” to “My God, we are back in this series!” in the span of 10 minutes. So it WAS a significant moment, whether you like it or not.

Simmons underlines the metaphor’s role in competitive boosterism: the truth of sports as “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms” (Nietzsche) turned out against the other team. But even as Simmons declares that you’d have to be a “fool” to believe the analogy, he keeps it in play.

By Saturday the whole thing has metastasized into new metaphors, analogies, and mocking parodies:

Willis Reed comparison sore spot for Phil Jackson
By Mark Murphy
Saturday, June 7, 2008 –
Boston Herald Sports Reporter

Phil Jackson played with Willis Reed. And Paul Pierce [stats], you’re no Willis Reed – at least not in the eyes of the Lakers coach and former Knick.

Mere hours after making references to a “pants malfunction” and a “broken drawstring” when asked about Pierce’s quick return from a knee injury during Game 1, Jackson expanded on his skepticism.

Told some were comparing Pierce’s return to Reed’s limping return to the floor in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals, Jackson responded yesterday as if asked about the lone gunman theory.

“Well, if I’m not mistaken, I think Willis Reed missed a whole half and three quarters almost of a game, and literally had to have a shot – a horse shot – three or four of them in his thigh to come back out and play,” Jackson said. “Paul got carried off and was back on his feet in a minute.

“I don’t know if the angels visited him at halftime or in that timeout period that he had or not, but he didn’t even limp when he came back out on the floor. I don’t know what was going on there. Was Oral Roberts back there in their locker room? But he certainly carried some energy back on the floor for them.”

With Doc Rivers invoking Lee Harvey Oswald, the analogy goes over the top:

Pierce’s plight source of friendly debate
Associated Press
Saturday, June 7, 2008

(06-06) 18:54 PDT — Paul Pierce’s return to Game 1 of the NBA Finals – shortly after he was carried off the court – was great theater. But was it award-winning acting or Willis Reed Part II?

Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who had front-row seats at both events, wasn’t impressed.…

Jackson’s doubts about Pierce’s injury were relayed to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who responded: “Oh, I don’t care. Aren’t we skeptics anyway now about everything? So what the heck; let it begin. Let it begin. Lee Harvey Oswald did it.”