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NBA Mythbusting: The Curious Case of Paul Pierce and the Wheelchair

The Truth’s rumored gastric distress during the 2008 NBA Finals is one of the league’s enduring legends

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Memory is a malleable thing. In which game was it that Allen Iverson stepped over Tyronn Lue? When did Michael Jordan, wearing no. 45, score 55? That was the season before the Bulls won 72 games … or was it 73?

The fluidity of memory is part of why the NBA is the most fertile ground, among the major American sports, for conspiracy theories — the parts of the league history that I call the “shadow history.” To be sure, every sport has its conspiracy theories. But none is as shaped by them as the NBA. The frozen envelope, Jordan’s retirement, Donaghy — these are things that are taken as if not exactly fact, also not exactly fiction, by NBA fans.

On December 20, early in a game between the Utah Jazz and the Golden State Warriors, Jazz marksman Rodney Hood left the court due to what was officially referred to as “gastric distress.” Now, “gastric distress” could refer to any number of digestive maladies, resulting in various negative symptoms which one would not want to go through live on television. But since there are numerous examples of athletes and coaches gutting out mere nausea — Michael Jordan’s Flu Game, Alvin Gentry yakking into a wastepaper basket, then-Nuggets player Rodney White vomiting on the left elbow at MSG after Allan Houston attempted a jumper over him, the Butler Bulldog during the Big East tournament — I immediately thought Hood had likely fled to avert the worst possible version of “gastric distress.”

After all, losing your lunch in the course of competition is, if anything, one of the culturally agreed-upon marks of a “warrior,” found in the same category of athletic lore as limping around the court after a devastating injury. It suggests athletes pushing themselves beyond the limits of human endurance, into the hallowed realm of Willis Reed, MJ, and Isiah Thomas. Willie Beamen was the hero of Any Given Sunday for a reason.

This led me to wonder, quite normally, why, in the 70-plus-year history of the NBA, during which thousands of players have cycled through the league, no one had ever soiled himself during the course of play. It has to have happened at least once. Certainly, if something like that occurred in the Association’s early history — when reporters wore fedoras and paper name tags that read “Reporter,” and the Finals were aired on tape delay — then it would make sense that gastric mishaps might never become part of the league’s vital shadow history. But if it happened in the past 10 years? With HD cameras, YouTube, Vine, Twitter, and the like? We would know. It would be impossible to not know. But without these things, we rely on memory, and memories can get clouded.

Yet there are hints, scant visual scraps that something of the like may have occurred — like late-era Kobe burbling down the floor against the Nuggets, wearing what appears to be a full diaper — but nothing definitive.

All this led me to one of the weirdest and least-known NBA conspiracy theories: that Paul Pierce’s famous wheelchair ride in Game 1 of the 2008 NBA Finals was a ruse to cover for him pooping his shorts. Could this really be the cause of one of the most famous, and questionable, moments in NBA Finals history? I had been aware of the theory but I had never looked into it. And as a Knicks fan whose personal happiness has been shattered by the actions of Paul Pierce on numerous occasions — the game winner at the Garden, for instance, with Pierce doing a victory lap, arms out like an airplane, a delighted Lil’ Nate Robinson falling off his back like a swollen tick — I want this to be true, more than I’ve ever wanted anything else.

If Paul Pierce had to be carted off the floor during the Finals because he didn’t want people to see his stained butt, then I would talk about that every day. Like, I would just walk up to strangers and say “Hey, did you know that Paul Pierce shit his pants during the NBA Finals and covered it, brilliantly, by riding off the floor in a wheelchair?”

The Kobe Contest, the Fall, and the Chair

(Reddit)
(Reddit)

You are probably aware of the official story, it being one of the most famous events in recent NBA history.

With the Lakers leading 60–58, Pierce is guarding Kobe on the left wing. Bryant calls for a Pau Gasol pick, Kevin Garnett shows, and Pierce goes under the screen. Kobe loops out wide, away from KG. Bryant finds a small seam, hits turbo, and plunges through the lane before taking a jumper, contested by Pierce. As the shot drops, Pierce crumples to the floor and stays there, writhing in apparent pain.

Did he come down on Kendrick Perkins’s foot? Tear a ligament in his knee? Whatever the case, the trainer calls for the infamous wheelchair, Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine carry him to it, and Pierce is trundled off the floor to be medically evaluated.

Celtics Nation held its collective breath. El Presidente Para Toda Vida of Celtics Nation, my boss Bill Simmons, writing mere hours after the game, would name the weakened home crowd’s voice, a sudden diminution from a throat-rending roar to a fearful hush, “The Horrible Sound.”

The Nation needn’t have worried. Pierce came literally skipping out of the tunnel and back into the game mere minutes later. The crowd erupted. Willis Reed’s name was sacramentally invoked. The Celtics rode the unbridled Ubuntu enthusiasm to a convincing 98–88 Game 1 win.

The official story of Pierce’s wheelchair excursion was that, upon contesting Kobe’s jumper, he heard a pop, felt a pain in his knee, and feared he had blown his ACL. Maybe he was just geeked up by the moment and overreacted to the twinge of pain in his leg. That would be a natural human response. Whatever the case, seeing as how Pierce, minutes later, bounded out of the tunnel like Thumper in the heat of spring, the chair was clearly the result of an abundance of caution. And, perhaps, a bit of that trademark Pierce showmanship.

Surely, if Paul Pierce needed to use the facilities during a game, to say nothing of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, AT HOME, he could’ve simply asked to get subbed out and walked the probably-not-significant distance to the restroom, which he would have totally to himself. The theory seems dubious, at best.

But, let’s take the Pierce video frame-by-frame, just to be sure.

(ABC)
(ABC)

Here’s Pierce after the initial fall, balled up and clutching his knee. Not a natural position to be in if there’s something wrong with your stomach. If that were the case, you’d be on your back, keeping the area from view, and those legs would be locked up tight. Not scrunched up in a way that might cause further seepage.

(ABC)
(ABC)

This, for me, is the picture that totally debunks the Poo Pierce theory. First, there are no signs of an accident. Second, and more importantly, his legs are spread, surely an attempt to stretch whatever ligament he tweaked. Think back to any time you’ve experienced “gastric distress.” What happens? Your butt cheeks involuntarily snap shut like a mousetrap, as your body tries to keep what might happen from happening. Sidebar: It is fun imagining Pierce whispering, “Dude, I gotta go two,” to the trainer.

(ABC)
(ABC)

I think I’ve made my case, but let’s keep going, because I’m enjoying this. Again, no stain, the shorts are white as driven snow. Pierce’s body posture isn’t right for a person who just involuntarily pooped or is attempting not to do so. Tony Allen, who, it must be said, is making a sort of diaper-change face, is touching Pierce’s leg in an area that you would definitely not want to handle if the Poo Pierce theory were true. Brian Scalabrine (who I emailed for a comment and who, for some reason, did not respond) looks appropriately concerned.

(ABC)
(ABC)

And here again. No sign of poop. Shorts unsoiled. Dude pushing the wheelchair doesn’t have the demeanor one would expect of a guy pushing a human barrel of night soil through the TD Garden. It was fun while it lasted. So consider this theory thoroughly debunked.

This, however, leads to another question: How did this theory begin?

Clearly, this spurious legend began with a video, posted to YouTube on June 9, 2008, the day before Game 3 of the Finals, titled (brace yourself), “Paul Poo Pierce — Poo Stain.” Watch if you dare.

The clip shows Pierce rising up for a jumper, as Mike Breen silkily intones, “Pierce, already here in the first half, nine points. Celtics shooting 53 percent from the field. They’ve hit three 3s. What a start to the second quarter.”

The video appears to show a dark spot of unknown origin (sweat? Coffee? Sat on an M&M? A shadow in the folds of the fabric? Some weird image artifact resulting from recording a television screen instead of sourcing the video directly?) on Pierce’s ivory-white shorts. Whatever the source of the mark, Pierce’s game performance was clearly unhindered.

(YouTube)
(YouTube)

Despite its uncertain provenance, the stain seems to definitively exist, especially as Pierce gathers and rises for his jumper.

Could it be mere sweat? There’s plenty of precedent for this; body parts perspire. Here, for instance, is Rick Mahorn’s lurid sweat-stain Rorschach test from a Pistons practice circa-1989.

The problem with “Paul Poo Pierce” as proof of a wheelchair cover-up is a simple one. It’s stated right in the video’s description:

(YouTube)
(YouTube)

The images are from Game 2 of the Finals. Pierce’s wheelchair ride happened in Game 1.

And so ends, definitively, the weirdest of the NBA conspiracy theories. Memory is a malleable thing.