When Paul Pierce announced he was leaving the University of Kansas to go pro in 1998, he didn’t hold the press conference at his college campus, as many expected. He brought the news cameras back home to his high school gym — an homage to his longtime mentor and former coach, Patrick Roy.
Pierce, the one-time shooting guard with the buzzer-beating bank shot, who spent most of his 19-year NBA career with the Boston Celtics, believes his success is due to the coach who saw his potential when he himself had doubts.
“He was the first one to tell me,” said Pierce. “We were playing one-on-one on this court and I’ll never forget it. That’s the first time I ever heard somebody say, `You can play in the NBA.'”
For a kid from the inner city, it was more than Pierce had dared to dream. “When I was growing up, you just wanted to get to college,” he said. “If you got to college, that was everything, especially a Division 1. But [Roy] was like, ‘Man, you can go to the NBA’ and that’s what had me start thinking. He put the vision there for me and I just never looked back.”
The Celtics retired the 10-time All-Star’s jersey in 2018, alongside 21 other numbers that adorn the rafters at TD Garden, including Larry Bird, Bill Russell, and Bob Cousy. But Pierce’s rise to fame was never a foregone conclusion.
As a high school freshman and sophomore on Roy’s junior varsity team, Pierce was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and, reportedly, carrying a little extra weight. He could shoot very well, but his ball-handling skills weren’t yet developed enough to land him a varsity spot.
In a bid to elevate his game, he opted to change schools so he could play varsity elsewhere. It didn’t last long. That same year, the incoming principal at Inglewood High School asked Coach Roy to take over the school’s basketball program, including its varsity team.
“I immediately called up Paul’s mom, Lorraine,” he recounted. “And I said, ‘Lorraine, I’ve got to get him back. He’s got to come over here and be a Sentinel.’ And she did just that. She checked him out of school and brought him back over here with me.”
With raw determination, a lucky chance to fill in for a varsity player who was traveling during the holidays, and the support of his tough-but-encouraging coach, Pierce got permanently moved up to varsity, where he dazzled his teammates and college recruiters alike. In his senior year, he was awarded a scholarship to the University of Kansas and was later picked in the first round of the NBA draft.
According to Pierce, Coach Roy became an important role model for him when it mattered most, encouraging him to keep up his grades, dream big, and always treat others with respect. The two spent plenty of time together off the courts, too, sharing dinners, discussing goals, and playing tennis in their free time.
“I’d be up in his office and he got telling stories and we just bonded right away,” said Pierce. “You’ve got to understand. When you’re a kid growing up in Inglewood, most of the kids here, the black kids especially, don’t have fathers. Your basketball coach or your football coach, they become father figures, and he represented that for a lot of the kids in the neighborhood as a head basketball coach. You just gravitated towards that as a young kid.”
Roy’s selfless support continued even after Pierce left for college. The teenager who had grown up in the outskirts of sunny Los Angeles hadn’t realized how cold a Kansas winter could get. During his first winter away, he picked up the phone and called the one man who had always had his back.
“He asked me, ‘Coach, can you send me a coat?’” said Roy. “That’s important to me. I knew he was a star at the University of Kansas because I had a chance to go out and watch him play about five or six times. And I was like, ‘Wow, I got this kid, who’s an up-and-coming star, and he still calls me.’ We still have a relationship.”
Pierce, now retired, is quick to acknowledge that Coach Roy’s presence in his life made all things possible.
“The advantage of having a mentor like my coach is it’s somebody you’re close to, who you trust,” said Pierce. “Somebody you can open up to, who has watched your game. Somebody you can go to and ask them, ‘What do I need to do to get better?’ That’s what was great about having a guy like Coach Roy. He was someone I could always fall back on when things didn’t go my way.”
To express his gratitude for the community that nourished him, Pierce gives back to Inglewood whenever he can, supporting kid’s camps, refurbishing computer labs, updating locker rooms, and buying the athletes new uniforms. “It’s something I enjoy doing, giving back to a community and a school that made me who I am,” he said.
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