Player with a Past: Pierre Pierce

If you watched the opening days of Summer League, you saw a lot of jittery players, and that's no surprise: Many are in this setting for the first time in their lives. Just about no one performs their best when they barely know their coaches' and teammates' names.

The players aren't the only ones who are still learning names. When one of these newbies puts on a good show, people in the stands and on press row scramble for the hastily photocopied media guides the teams have distributed.

Pierre PiercePlenty of people have been turning to the page that describes Pierre Pierce.

In his first two games for Golden State's summer league team, he is averaging an efficient 21 points per game on a mix of creative drives and a pretty longball jumpers. Sure, he's a little winded at times, and yes, he has been thinking shoot-first more than most point guards. But he has showed plenty of promise.

The media guide will tell you he was one of the best players in University of Iowa history, at both ends of the court. It says that he is from the Chicago suburb of Westmont. It says that there's practically no good reason this guy wouldn't be a good NBA player. He's 6-4, and has no major flaws ... certainly nothing is guaranteed when you're an undrafted player trying to make the NBA, but every scout I have talked to thinks Pierce has a very real shot at making the league this year.

Judging by the buzz in the Cox Pavilion's section 119, the roped off section of the stands where the basketball minds tend to congregate, it seems that if the Warriors don't invite Pierce to training camp, another team will. And it won't be a mystery why. Even though his conditioning is still coming along after an extended period with a subpar exercise regimen, Pierce can play either guard position, has a good handle, and defends hard.

What's more, he's showing signs of being exceptionally responsible and coachable: He brought his father with him to Las Vegas, he says he is not going out on the town because he wants to be well-rested for the games, and he talks like this about playing for the Warriors: "I'm just really fortunate they gave me this chance," he says with humility. "I'm just trying to learn every day in practice."

The media guide also says that the Pierce was not drafted, which is a little odd, and he last played basketball in any organized fashion in 2005.

So, um, where was he? And why was he undrafted?

The Past
There's something the media guide is not telling you, and if you are not a big college basketball fan, or don't live in Iowa, it may be a little shocking.

The reason Pierre Pierce has not been playing elite basketball is because he was serving time for the second of his two sexual abuse-related criminal offenses.

Here's an Associated Press account of his story from October 2005:

Former Iowa basketball star Pierre Pierce was sentenced Friday to two years in prison for assaulting a former girlfriend at her apartment last January. The 22-year-old player wept as he hugged his parents and relatives after he was sentenced.

Moments later, he was handcuffed and escorted a block down the sidewalk to the county jail.

Reading from notes, Pierce apologized to the victim and blamed himself for what happened.

"Not a single day goes by that I don't think about how things could have been different," Pierce told the judge. "Truly, deep down in my heart, I am sorry for my actions."

Pierce pleaded guilty in August to third-degree burglary, a felony, and assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, false imprisonment and fourth-degree criminal mischief -- all misdemeanors.

In 2002, Pierce was also charged with third degree sexual abuse, but plead guilty to a lesser charge and eventually had the incident expunged from his record. He is reportedly on probation until 2010, and when asked if he is free and clear to travel the nation, and to Canada as an NBA player, Pierce can't say for sure, and refers the question to his lawyer. This is a man who is still very much in the grips of the legal system after a serious conviction.

Makes you wonder -- what do you have to do to get uninvited from the NBA?

The Present
Pierre Pierce walks into the lobby of the Mandalay Bay casino and hotel in a Warriors t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers. He smiles easily, and extends his hand for the shaking. Except for a bloodshot left eye -- which met the wrong end of a teammate's elbow in practice -- he is as clean cut as they come after recently cutting off his cornrows.

There are people who want to make excuses for Pierre Pierce. (As the story goes, predominantly white community, tired of athlete misbehavior in football and basketball at the University of Iowa, was in no mood for a black player maltreating a white girlfriend, which some say led to aggressive prosecution.) He is not one of them.

Some of what he has to say about his eleven month incarceration at the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, which was followed by close to eight months when the 24-year-old was not allowed to leave Iowa for his parents; Illinois house, which is home for now:

It has been really difficult for me. I just knew that one day I would get an opportunity to play for a spot in this league, and I just tried to stay focused on that.

It just felt great to be able to get out there and play basketball. Finally in May I got a chance to go back home and see my family in Illinois.

In Iowa, I couldn't really work with the best trainers and I couldn't play against the best competition. In Illinois, I'm close to Chicago and I can train with the best, like Tim Grover.

Just being home, the last six weeks, it has been good. It has been really good for me. The loss of freedom & It definitely humbled me. Made me wiser as a person. I made mistakes, and being locked up makes you really look forward to getting an opportunity to show you learned.

I read a lot of books. I also worked, on the recreation staff. I set up softball games, refereed basketball games. I even gained some respect for referees. That's a difficult job.

I have learned from my mistakes, definitely. I understand about taking responsibility for my actions. And personally, where I am right now, I never want to go back to that place again. Hopefully people can forgive me for those mistakes, and see me as the person I am, on and off the court.

And here we join Warriors GM Chris Mullin wrestling with the ethical dilemma of the 2007 Summer League.

Is it wrong to give Pierre Pierce a high profile job? Mullin sounds sincere when he says he has wrestled with that question.

"Someone was really hurt by what he did," says Mullin. "He might have ruined someone's life. I'm not discounting that. If people were upset that he is playing for us, I would understand that. I'm not saying it didn't happen. I'm not condoning what he did.

The key to Mullin's decision, however, was hearing the kinds of things that Pierce said to Mullin directly. "I met with him and his dad," says Mullin. "They were both 100% ready to admit that he had done wrong, and they did not pretend that he hadn't. And they seemed like people who were ready to learn and move on. Talking to them made me comfortable enough to feel like it was an OK thing to do to give him a chance."

n you listen to Pierre Pierce talk, it seems to be an insane argument that the world would somehow be better, or safer, or more fair if, instead of playing basketball on TV, he were bagging groceries or clerking in a law office or whatever it is he'd be doing. Not that the way one acts in the lobby of a hotel for a half-hour is the best window into one's soul.

But for what it's worth: if there is a more ready smile in the NBA, I can't recall it. He appears to be sincere, and remarkably unguarded. He has all that stuff (for instance, a supportive two-parent family, a high GPA in high school) that society tends to associate with stability and success. And he just does not come across as someone with a lot of emotional baggage.

On the other hand: if an elite athlete is in a situation where he has the opportunity and inclination to do wrong & he SHOULD be worried that getting caught could ruin his career, right? The spotlight of the NBA is bright, and it is right that teams not celebrate the worst people around. Surely there are some crimes after which you should not be considered employable in the NBA, right?

I asked Mullin what crime a player could have on his record that would simply be too much. What past is too much to prevent a future on Mullin's team? Murder?

His answer may surprise, but it is not without its wisdom. Pierce is the beneficiary of Mullin's blatant refusal to define anyone strictly by their past.

"I would always be willing to at least meet with someone," replies Mullin. "I always hate to pre-judge people. I like to find out for myself. So I did my homework. He's a player the organization has been watching for years. We have talked to people who have coached him, people who were around in Iowa. I have made some bad decisions in my own life, and people were there for me. After meeting him, it felt OK to take it day by day and see what happens."

Mullin says that the mandate to Pierre Pierce, at least as long as he is in a Warrior uniform, is to be a good person, and a good player one day at a time. How will that turn out? We'll see.

(Photo: Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images)