BOSTON - Mythmaking just isn't what it used to be.
No one ever accused Achilles of embellishing that whole heel thing. If he sailed today, Ulysses would be competing with the latest season of
The Amazing Race
If it had happened in the 1940s or '50s, Paul Pierce's miraculous return to Game 1 of the NBA Finals would have been immortalized by those lyric poets of the press box - the ones who didn't have live blogs to update or round-the-clock ESPN commentators to compete with.
Unfortunately for Pierce's legend, he injured his right knee and returned to spur a comeback win for his Celtics in 2008.
"Aren't we skeptics now about everything?" is how his coach, Doc Rivers, put it yesterday. "So, what the heck? Let it begin, let it begin. Lee Harvey Oswald did it."
Lakers point guard Derek Fisher wasn't buying the idea of divine intervention on behalf of Pierce and the Celtics.
"He has bigger problems to worry about than who wins the NBA Finals," Fisher said. He meant the Big Man, and not Kevin Garnett.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson didn't bother trying to hide his doubts. Jackson was at Madison Square Garden in 1970 when Knicks teammate Willis Reed dramatically and legendarily returned to play with a leg injury. Reed's place in sports mythology was never questioned on message boards or sports-talk radio.
And please, anyone who wants to pretend that 1970 was a less cynical time clearly wasn't alive in 1970.
"If I'm not mistaken, I think Willis Reed missed a whole half - 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.
See how myths work? In the space of one run-on sentence, Jackson was wrong about the amount of time Reed missed and the number of shots - ahem, "horse shots" - Reed received in his leg. Give him another minute and the doctors will be stitching the severed limb back on. (Reed actually went down in Game 5 of the Finals, missed Game 6, and then made his dramatic return at the start of Game 7.)
"Paul got carried off and was back on his feet in a minute," Jackson said. "I don't know if the angels visited him at halftime or in that time-out 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 in their locker room?"
The truth is somewhere between the cynical view of the Lakers' coach and the miracle cure touted by the
-core Celtics faithful.
Pierce was limping badly when he was briefly made available to reporters yesterday at the TD Banknorth Garden. He said he wouldn't have been able to play if Game 2 had taken place last night. It won't be played until tomorrow, though, so he's getting treatment and hoping he'll be ready.
Anyone questioning his dedication should know that he is not having an MRI exam on the swollen, stiff knee until after the Finals.
"There are only six games left," Pierce said. "I'm going to play if I can, regardless of what an MRI says."
If it sounds like Pierce is willing to risk more serious injury to compete for a title, that's because he's doing just that. After nine seasons with the Celtics, and much criticism for never taking his team this far before, Pierce isn't about to miss his chance. That may not make him Willis Reed, but it should count for something.
The skepticism stems from the heightened drama of the whole episode. Pierce crashed to the floor, writhing in pain, in the third quarter. He was carried off the floor by teammates and then taken to the locker room in a wheelchair. One of the Celtics' trainers tried to block NBC's camera from the grisly scene.
And then, within minutes, Pierce was hitting back-to-back three-point baskets to swing the game's momentum.
"I was scared," Pierce said. "I've never had a knee problem. I felt a sharp pain in my knee. You don't know what to think as an athlete."
He said it was "a little embarrassing" to watch the replay of his teammates carrying him.
"I've never been carried off the court," Pierce said. "I would think I'd have to be close to death, or blood everywhere, for me to be carried off. Believe me, if I'm carried off again, I won't be coming back."
The Lakers' Kobe Bryant said he was happy to see his friend return "until he hit those two damn threes."
It was a hit-or-myth night for Pierce, but it was only Game 1. Now, sore knee or no, he and the Celtics have to roll that boulder back to the top of the mountain just like Sisyphus.
Of course, that boulder probably wasn't really as heavy as Sisyphus made it out to be.