Pierre Pierce, the former Westmont High School (and University of Iowa) basketball player is back in Chicago, for the moment, rehabbing his shoulder from an injury he suffered earlier this year while playing in France. When we spoke this morning, Pierce said he was feeding his five-month-old son, Jackson Pierre, who I could hear cooing in the background.
“Fortunately, I have a boy,” Pierce said. “I am very happy and very blessed and very fortunate to have a son.”
The below photo was taken two weeks after Jackson Pierre was born in November. Pierce met Jackson’s mother while at the University of Iowa, where his name was carved into the cave walls of college basketball ignominy.
A corollary of UCLA’s decision two weeks ago to hire Steve Alford as head coach of the men’s basketball team has been an excavation of the sordid scandal involving Pierce, who was twice charged with sexually assaulting women while playing for Alford at Iowa, from 2001-2005.
“I have learned from my mistakes and made costly mistakes and I point a finger at nobody but me,” Pierce told me. “I have always taken responsibility and have learned from it, and it has helped me build a mature and stronger character and better moral values and now it is my responsibility to instill that in my young son. It definitely is a change. It changed my life.”
The Pierce affair went largely underground after Alford left the school to coach at New Mexico, but when he decided last month to make the leap to UCLA—the school he dubbed the “pinnacle” of college basketball—he encountered a whole new round of questioning from a whole new press corps. So intense has this wave of scrutiny been that yesterday, nine days after his introductory press conference, Alford finally confessed his handling of the Pierce situation was “inappropriate, insensitive, and hurtful.”
His contrition, expressed through a sanitized press release, narrowly focused on initial public statements Alford made after Pierce was charged for sexually assaulting a women’s basketball player in 2002.
“At that time, I instinctively and mistakenly came to [Pierce’s] defense before knowing all the facts,” Alford said in the statement.
What Alford didn’t say is that he had recently spoken to Pierce, who called to congratulate him last week for accepting the Bruins job. (A UCLA athletics department spokesperson said he would pass on my request to Alford to comment about the conversation.)
“I heard the news when I was in France still and the first thing I did was give him a call and congratulate him,” Pierce said. “We still speak from time to time. I just wanted to give him congratulations. Coach Alford is always someone I respect.”
I then read Pierce part of Alford’s statement from yesterday.
ALFORD: At that time, I instinctively and mistakenly came to his defense before knowing all the facts. I wanted to believe he was innocent, and in response to a media question, I publicly proclaimed his innocence before the legal system had run its course. This was inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful, especially to the young female victim involved, and I apologize for that. I have learned and grown from that experience and now understand that such proclamations can contribute to an atmosphere in which similar crimes go unreported and victims are not taken seriously.
“I don’t have an issue with anything he had to say,” Pierce said. “He has always been in my corner since he recruited me, so I have nothing—you will never find me saying anything about coach.”
Indeed, Alford was very much in Pierce’s corner. Not only did he publicly vouch for his players’ innocence, he helped to enlist Athletes in Action, an Evangelical Christian organization, to try to intercede with the victim.
In a recent interview with the Orange County Register, the former prosecutor in the case, J. Patrick White, said Alford’s constant public lobbying forced his hand in making a plea bargain with Pierce that didn’t include jail time. Three years later, Pierce was charged with breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment and assaulting her. This time, he was kicked off the basketball team and eventually spent a year in jail.
Last Friday, a new allegation against Pierce emerged: Iowa City Press-Citizen sports columnist Pat Harty wrote a column alleging that Pierce once attempted to assault Harty’s niece, when she was an 18-year-old college freshman at Iowa. According to Harty, the incident took place just weeks after he brought this incident to the attention of the school’s sports information department, but the basketball coaching staff stood by Pierce. He wrote his niece decided against pressing charges so she could focus on her studies.
I read Pierce a portion of Harty’s column where he laid out the details of the accusation.
HARTY: My niece was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Iowa, who had met Pierce on campus completely by chance. He showed up in her dorm room one afternoon that same fall — unannounced and uninvited — closed the door and refused to leave. I hate to think what might have happened to this bright, beautiful girl had her screams not scared him away.
“I wish Pat Harty nothing but the best, but I can’t respond to everyone’s allegations or false allegations,” Pierce said. “I have moved on from my past. I am not calling it anything. If he wants to say anything about me, he can say it, and do with it what he wants to. At this point, I have moved on from Iowa, the writers, I have moved on from them all—far from them.”
So did he deny this incident?
“It couldn’t be more false,” he finally said. “If they wanted to press charges, why wait 10 years [until] Coach Alford has a job at UCLA to bring more negativity to it? My focus was about the future and nothing about the past because it has no merit.”
Pierce’s probation from the sexual assault conviction wiped out any chance he had to make an NBA roster in 2007. But an Iowa judge allowed him to travel outside the country to play professionally, which he has done ever since.
He headed first to France, where he played for the club Hyeres-Toulon, then bounced around teams in Greece, Ukraine and Georgia. He broke his foot in 2010, has twice dislocated his shoulder, and suffered a blood clot in his leg last year. The latter requires him to wear compression socks whenever he flies. He returned to Hyeres-Toulon for a brief stint this past December, replacing Daequan Cook, when he was signed by the Chicago Bulls.
Pierce turns 30 in June, and he thinks he still has a three or four more years of basketball left in him, “as long as the Lord blesses me with opportunity.”
I asked if he has ideas yet about his post-playing career, whether or not he ever thinks of being a coach.
“I do give it thought,” he said. “I do have knowledge. I would like to continue in some aspect. I wouldn’t be opposed to coaching or helping young kids. I feel like the things I have learned and coaches I have had and the experience has been a great teacher. I feel I could be able to give back.”
And, of course, he’s got a friend in Westwood, Calif.
“We have a coach-player relationship,” Pierce said of Alford. “And it was more than that when he was coaching me. From time to time, I check up on him and he checks up on me. He wishes me the best and I wish him the best.”