The moment that shook a courtroom at just past noon on a South African Wednesday might not have an equal in the whole damned history of sports, of watching sports, of following sports, of thinking about sports and of thinking about those who excel at sports. Have we ever seen a mighty athlete rendered so pitiful? Have we?
Oscar Pistorius, the world-famous runner accused of murder after his long run of strength and arrogance and Paralympic medals and Olympic participation, had come under the barrage of a prosecutor. And as gasps reportedly filled a chamber, Pistorius' voice quavered into a tone you might have trouble forgetting.
It sounded like helplessness.
The big star with the big hankering for the big firearms had become enfeebled.
If Pistorius' testimony on Monday and Tuesday seemed dramatic or even "electrifying," as the New York Times judged, then we're left groping for some word for the tenor of that moment on Wednesday.
Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor with the aim to alter a two-day defense narrative that featured the sight of Pistorius without his prosthetic legs and made him seem like a sympathetic fool who erred -- rather than a murderer with intent -- chose tactics that spurred immediate debate on their appropriateness. The defense attorney, Barry Roux, found them inappropriate. The judge, Thokozile Masipa, agreed with the defense attorney. A tweeted chorus of some agreed with the defense attorney and the judge.
In his need to jolt, Nel had come to compare a human brain to a watermelon.
As the cross-examination began, Nel and Roux debated the admissibility of a Sky News video, prompting Masipa to adjourn briefly. Ultimately, all agreed the video could air in the room. It showed Pistorius at a shooting range blasting a hopeless watermelon with the same 9mm pistol with which he killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, either accidentally or deliberately in the wee hours of Feb. 14, 2013. The gourd exploded, loosing audible male merriment at the scene, followed with a voice sounding like Pistorius, which Pistorius would confirm was his: "It's not as soft as brains but f---, it's a zombie stopper."
That sent Nel and Pistorius into a quibble about whether Pistorius meant a human brain or a zombie brain, and that sent Nel to his next concentric circle of the hard stuff. On a nearby computer screen he showed a close-up photo of Steenkamp's head after the shooting, and he asked Pistorius to look. Pistorius would not, and Nel would not relent. "You know that the same happened to Reeva's head: It exploded," he said, adding, "It had the exact-same effect, the bullet that went into her head."
Then, as Pistorius refused to look, Nel said, "I know you don't want to, because you don't want to take responsibility," whereupon, in a voice that grew so pathetic it had detached completely from the world-class athlete, Pistorius retorted. He said he had taken his responsibility through the time spent waiting "for my time on this stand, to tell my story," and that in that process he had shown "respect" for Steenkamp. Then he became especially wrenching. All but wailing, he said, "As I picked Reeva up, my fingers touched her head! I remember! I don't have to look at a picture!"
Ground all the way down, he just wept as the court went silent and disbelief at this whole thing took another of turn. Steenkamp's mother, June Steenkamp, buried her face, and a debate ensued about whether she had known Nel would show the photo. (Multiple reports would indicate that she did.)
Roux objected with the phrase "an unfair question." Masipa said, "I think it's unfair." And then Masipa, epitomizing her calm stewardship of the trial, said, "And can you just remove this (photo) from the screen."
From there, even Nel agreed Pistorius needed an adjournment, so an adjournment came while viewers rummaged around for some context. Tweeted Mandy Wiener, a Johannesburg-based TV reporter and author, "I don't think I've ever witnessed quite such an emotive, harrowing exchange in a courtroom. It lingers. Twitter doesn't quite suffice."
After resumption, Pistorius would say his "brain" comment at the shooting range had been "distasteful," and Nel would pick at Pistorius' account of the events of the night of Steenkamp's death on the Paralympic athlete's estate. The prosecutor would delve into the essential questions of plugs and porch fans. Those would be the more pertinent details determining intent or accident. They also won't be the most memorable.
We've all seen elite athletes in voluminous postures and situations and expressions and emotions. We just never saw one like this.