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On Horford, Pierce and Macho Posturing Nonsense

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Confession: Dan Shulman and Doris Burke got under my skin on Saturday night.

In retrospect, I don't even know what set me off.  It's two days later, and I can't remember for the life of me.  Maybe it was the fact that the boys in green were losing, which meant I was frustrated.  Maybe Dan and Doris simply didn't bring their respective  'A' games to Atlanta with them for ESPN's telecast of Game 3 of the Celtics-Hawks series.  Or maybe I was focused on greener pastures -- any announcing team involving Mike Breen or Marv Albert -- instead of making the best of the team of announcers I did have.  Whatever it was, Dan and Doris got to me.

Some years ago, a younger, more hot-headed SW wouldn't have been able to handle it.  Young Steve would have let loose on his television, screaming expletives at the broadcasters and making sure he was loud enough to be heard in Zaza Pachulia's hometown of Tbilisi, Georgia (the one in Europe, not where the Hawks are from).

But after years of character development, I took a different route on Saturday night: I walked away.  Not from the game, of course (never will I walk away from a Celts game in progress), but instead from the broadcasters, courtesy of the vaunted mute button.  No screaming.  No neighbors wondering what issues I have with some woman named Doris.  No noise violations.

I tell you all this because in so doing, it appears that I managed to miss what has become the overriding subplot of the Celtics' loss in Atlanta.  After Al Horford hit the jumper to put the game out of reach with 22 seconds to play, I briefly turned to my innocently by-standing furniture to, uh, explain some of the finer points of my qualms with the Celts' defense to a nearby pillow.

It was at this point that Horford was busy giving a fallen Paul Pierce an earful and that Pierce started over to the Hawks' bench and gave Horford a three-fingered salute of sorts before being guided back to his own bench, courtesy of Brian Scalabrine.  I missed all of this happening live, and with no announcers to enlighten me, I missed the commentary after the fact.  I've since seen the clip of what Horford did but not Pierce's reaction.  Since that point it came to my attention -- thanks to reading multiple threads on the CelticsBlog forums referencing the incident as well as a couple of other sites around these here Interwebs -- that Pierce's gesture to Horford had been construed by many as a gang sign of sorts.

When I set out to write this piece, I was ready to point out that I didn't know whether to be thankful or disappointed by the prevalence of this story line.

The thankfulness would come because the -- for lack of a better word -- intrigue of the Pierce-Horford spat seems to have largely taken our attentions enough to prevent many of us from having the energy for the classic sky-is-falling reaction after just one playoff loss.  Generally speaking, people don't seem to be going off the deep end about the loss, and that's a good thing.

But having thought it over while writing far too long-winded an introduction, that sort of talk would easily be worth it instead of this story.  Because this posturing business is dually frustrating and incomprehensible beyond all belief.

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By and large, I refuse to get into the semantics of these matters because I just don't understand them.  Anything about them.

I don't understand when and why simply winning stopped being good enough.  I don't understand how it became requisite to punctuate any win by showing up the opponent.  How the taunting became necessary.  Why winning is only cool if one can act like a complete jerk in the process.  When the idea of competing hard from tip to buzzer and shaking the other guy's hand afterwards went out of style.  When respecting the game and the opponent became passe.  This is all a mystery to me.

Alas, I get that these players aren't robots.  That they are humans.  That they play with emotion, that sometimes they are going to yak at each other and that trash talk and mental games have been a part of the sport for as long as it has existed.  That sometimes the heat of the moment motivates us to act differently than we normally would.  I get all of that, or at least I do my best to do so.  The trash talking isn't even the confusing part.  It's when that gamesmanlike talking escalates into the demonstrative posturing that often threatens to escalate into altercations that leaves me dumbfounded.  I'm not saying we need to crucify any of these guys for these behaviors -- we don't -- but simply that I don't understand.

Maybe I can see where some of the talking comes from, and maybe I can comprehend the idea that sometimes the victors are going to enjoy the spoils quite exuberantly.

But that doesn't mean I understand how it became acceptable for those on the losing end to ever be doing the talking.  Once upon a time, it seemed that the only way to earn any possible yapping privileges is to win.  Don't like what the other guy is saying?  Beat him next time, and shut him up that way.  So perhaps I'll never understand how the guys on the losing end think it makes sense to roll out the bravado when they are getting embarrassed in the first place.  Just like I'll never understand when irresponsible and hot-headed actions on the parts of grown men became justified by the excuse that they were 'disrespected' by the words of another.  On a basketball court, no less.  Or when it became the case that losing one's cool cool at every conceivable verbal slight became the 'real man' thing to do, and when having the wherewithal to know when to bite one's lip and walk away fell into complete and utter obscurity.

So I'm left to do nothing but wonder, because I don't get it.  I can't pick sides, and I can't come to any conclusion that means much of anything, because I can't seem to grasp the need for anybody's role in this pseudo-incident.

I don't get why playing an integral role in the first Hawks playoff victory in nearly a decade wasn't good enough for Al Horford.  Or why a 21-year-old rookie felt the need to demonstratively show up a perennial All-Star nine years his senior.  Or why he thought that playing a nice game at home had obscured from public view the fact that his team had been wiped out by these same opponents twice over the past week.  Or why simply rejoicing with his teammates and several thousand cheering fans just wouldn't have been cool enough on its own.

Worth remembering is that, like many of my readers on this site, I am first and foremost a diehard Celtics fan.  Fan as in fanatic.  I don't want to be relegated to impartial observer on this one.  I want to join in talking about how gracelessly Horford acted and what a saint our beloved stud Paul Pierce is.  But that doesn't seem doable in good conscience.  Because my incomprehension strikes again.

I don't understand why the meaningless words of some 19-year-old on a 37-win Hawks team ate at All-Star Paul Pierce that much.  I don't understand why a man who has worked so hard and largely so successfully -- and deservedly so, because he has come such a long way -- on reinventing his reputation and becoming a more responsible and admirable leader would even begin to risk that by heading in the direction of an altercation with an opponent because of a few words.  Or why he felt fit to return the trash talk even as his team had its tail handed to it on a silver platter in front of a prime time national audience.  Or why he was making hand gestures of any sort at the opponent.

To be completely honest, I know just about nothing about gangs and certainly nothing about gang signs.  If someone holds up three fingers to me, I'm thinking of two things: the universal 'A-OK' sign, and an indication of a three-pointer.  Pierce's gesture could have meant any number of things, and plenty of explanations on both the gang and non-gang side have been laid out in the forums and elsewhere on the 'Net.

It just doesn't seem worth caring about from here.  Sure, it would be nice to know that one of the best players on the basketball team with which I live and die isn't throwing up gang signs, mostly because that doesn't seem like a real cool thing to be doing.  Not a great example to be setting, and from my limited understanding, putting up gang signs is the sort of thing that can lead to quite a bit of violence.  Label me squarely in the camp of "not rooting for lives to be needlessly lost." 

But we're never going to know.  Because Pierce's sign could have meant any number of things, and because only Pierce really knows what he meant on Saturday night.  With all the other more standard conventions for which the three-fingered gesture could have been used, it hardly seems fair to pinpoint a man who has become increasingly known as a stand-up guy over the years as some sort of gang advocate simply because he grew up in Inglewood.  Instead, I'll have to settle for not knowing, because that's the only option available, and if that's the case, I'll be happy to give Pierce the benefit of the doubt on the actual meaning of the sign and hope for the best.

But that doesn't mean anyone is getting the benefit of the doubt on the incident itself.  Because what I do know is this much: An unneeded moment shared by pivotal players on both of the teams in this series has now at least partially overshadowed all of what should have been in the limelight for the last two days.  That the Hawks played an out-of-their-minds great game in front of a packed house at home.  That Josh Smith was off the charts.  That Horford played a pretty slick game of his own in his home playoff debut.  That the Celtics were atrocious defensively and couldn't get into any sort of flow on the offensive end.  That Leon Powe only played six first-half minutes and wasn't heard from again.  That Brian Scalabrine is a snappier dresser than expected.

The list goes on.  It's the stuff that should be getting our attention in these here playoffs: You know, the issues related to actual basketball.

Right or wrong on individual levels, through engaging in an incident that was unnecessary on virtually every level, both Paul and Al contributed to taking our minds away for these last couple of days from much of what really pertains to the beautiful game of basketball.  And that's the real shame of it all.

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