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COMING THROUGH AGAINST ALL ODDS, NEW JERSEY TECH'S CLARENCE PIERCE HAS USED BASKETBALL TO SURVIVE A PERILOUS PAST

Oct. 24, 1995
Oct. 24, 1995

Table of Contents
Oct. 24, 1995

Scouting Reports

COMING THROUGH AGAINST ALL ODDS, NEW JERSEY TECH'S CLARENCE PIERCE HAS USED BASKETBALL TO SURVIVE A PERILOUS PAST

Last spring Clarence Pierce was on top of the world, or so it
seemed. He was the star of the basketball team at the New Jersey
Institute of Technology in Newark. In his junior season he had
averaged 20.8 points and 7.9 rebounds, been named a Division III
second-team All-America and led the Highlanders to a 28-2 record
and the final eight of the Division III NCAA tournament.

This is an article from the Oct. 24, 1995 issue

Everything was wonderful on the basketball court, but not at
home. "He almost didn't come back to school," says NJIT coach
Jim Catalano. Says Pierce, "I was worried about my family. Coach
knew my situation."

This was his situation: Pierce had decided to get a full-time
job to help support his two nieces and two nephews who were
living with his sister Peggy Nixon in his hometown of Paterson,
N.J. The family was on welfare, and Nixon's husband was serving
a prison sentence on drug charges. Pierce's two nephews weren't
Peggy's children; they were living with Peggy and her two
daughters because their mother, Jeanette, was in a drug
rehabilitation program.

"Clarence feels obligated," says Catalano. "He is the only one
who has an opportunity to help his family get out of what
they're in. But if he were to leave school and not get his
degree, that would only be a quick fix. I told him not to give
up on himself."

After talking with Catalano, Pierce agreed. "I figured that it
would make matters worse if I left school. If I don't graduate,
I'd be letting a lot of people down," he says, rubbing his hand
across his furrowed brow and over his bald head. Pierce decided
it would make the most sense to help the family financially
after he graduated. Catalano says he could play professional
basketball in Europe. So against all odds, Pierce, a 6'3",
205-pound swingman, is back for his senior season at New Jersey
Tech.

Whether he is talking about his family, school or basketball,
Pierce frequently says, "I don't want to let people down." Last
season the Highlanders were eliminated in the NCAA tournament by
Rowan. Pierce, who is usually a fine shooter--"As soon as he
steps in the gym, he's in range," Catalano likes to say--was
just 4 of 14 from the floor in the 101-87 loss. After the game
the normally gregarious Pierce was distraught; he walked around
campus for the next several days with his head down, speaking to
almost no one. "I was ashamed. I'm supposed to be a team leader,
and I let everybody down. The seniors ..." he says, his voice
trailing off.

Without question, Pierce has experienced greater heartache than
the loss to Rowan. When he was an infant, his father, Clarence,
died from a heart attack. His mother, Dorothy, raised her 10
children by herself in a cramped apartment in the Alexander
Hamilton public housing project in Paterson. In 1993 Dorothy
died from cardiovascular disease.

"Growing up there--and I'm not ashamed to tell people this,"
Pierce says, "well, it was an environment that was subject to
drugs. My brothers did drugs." Of his four brothers, one, who
was an IV-drug user, died while in prison; two are serving
prison sentences on drug charges; and the other, the youngest in
the family, has bounced in and out of prison on assorted
charges. Says Pierce, "I don't knock them, nor do I condone it.
Drugs were always there, but I didn't give in. Seeing what
happened to my brothers inspired me to do something to make my
mother happy."

It was at the end of Pierce's freshman year at New Jersey Tech
that his mother suffered her third stroke; she died three weeks
later. "She was 62, but she didn't look a day over 40," says
Clarence, the ninth of Dorothy's children. "She was a beautiful
woman. She was my best friend, she was my father, she was my
adviser."

Pierce wishes his mother could see him playing basketball now at
NJIT. Says his sister Peggy, "If she's looking down now, Mom is
smiling. My mom always said that Clarence was born with a veil
over him; that's why he escaped everything. He used his head. He
didn't get into trouble."

Trouble is easy to get into at the Alexander Hamilton project.
The drab brown buildings are indistinguishable from one another.
There are more people standing in the parking lot than cars.
"Don't be alarmed if people come running up to your car," Pierce
cautions gently. "They'll think you're here to buy some drugs."

Not too far from the parking lot filled with dealers is a
recreation area with a basketball court and a playground. The
place is teeming with kids. A few of the girls hang upside down
on the jungle gym, pigtails dangling. In the background is the
sound of sneakers shuffling on the blacktop. A kid whizzes by on
skates, the old-fashioned kind with four wheels. Laughter fills
the air.

"Staying out of trouble?" everybody asks Pierce, just to make
conversation. It is a rhetorical question, of course; everybody
knows he is Dorothy's fourth son, the one she swore was born
with a veil over him. Pierce responds to the question anyway.
"Trouble and I never got along," he says.

Though Newark is just 15 miles south of Paterson, Pierce is
amazed that he ever found his way to New Jersey Tech. One day in
1992, Barlow Taylor, then an assistant basketball coach at NJIT,
who had grown up in the same housing project as Pierce, told
Catalano about him, about his basketball prowess. Catalano
wanted to find out if Pierce would fit in at NJIT, so he invited
him to the school to meet with him and Taylor. Pierce showed up
in a suit, and the three never even talked about basketball.
Catalano was sold on Pierce's character. That summer Pierce sold
Catalano on his basketball. The coach watched Pierce play in a
pickup game. "I was rubbing my eyes after the game," says
Catalano. "I just couldn't believe it. I was saying to myself,
'What did we stumble onto?' Here was a classic case of a player
who fell through the cracks. He could have played Division I
ball." That September, Pierce became a student at New Jersey Tech.

He had played very little organized basketball until then. As a
student at Eastside High (the school that was portrayed in the
movie Lean on Me, about principal Joe Clark, the
baseball-bat-wielding disciplinarian), Pierce had joined the
basketball team his freshman year, but after playing only
sparingly, he quit early in the season. "I was disappointed that
nobody would give me an opportunity. I hated basketball after
that," he says. During his senior year he decided to try out for
the team again. This time he became a starter, and soon he began
to love the game again. He would play basketball at all hours on
the court outside his apartment building. "We would be shooting
in the dark," he says.

After graduating from Eastside in 1989, Pierce began to look for
some direction in his life. But again he was shooting in the
dark. In January 1990 he enrolled at Passaic County Community
College in Paterson, only to drop out three months later. He
then worked for a short time delivering furniture for his
uncle's trucking business. Pierce began to hang out with his
friends until three or four in the morning, not doing much of
anything. Some of his friends were dealing drugs, but they did
not try to drag Pierce into that world--out of respect for him,
he says.

On the evening of Jan. 21, 1991, Pierce and a few buddies went
to see a movie. On the drive home, he asked one of his friends
to stop at a corner store so he could buy some juice and cough
medicine for a cold he had. As soon as Pierce got back in the
passenger's seat of the car, he heard a gunshot. The bullet
struck him in his left arm, just below the shoulder, lodging in
the bone.

Pierce contends that the person who fired the shot--the gunman
fled after the incident--was someone from a neighboring housing
project. "Some groups from the two projects didn't get along,"
he explains. "Somebody must have known that I was from the other
project, so they just fired a shot at our car."

Pierce saw the shooting as a sign. "I think it was a message to
get my life together," he says. "It motivated me to go back to
school." Soon everything started to fall into place for Pierce.
He reenrolled at Passaic County in the fall of 1991, finishing
the year with a 3.75 GPA. The following year, after being
interviewed by Taylor and Catalano, he was at NJIT, which is
annually ranked as one of the top science and liberal arts
schools in the country.

The bullet is still in his arm, but he feels no pain when he
plays basketball. It is, however, a constant reminder of what
might have been. Says Pierce, "Had I not been shot, maybe I'd
still be hanging out on the street or even be dead by now. But I
got the message; I went back to college."

Sometimes it's hard for Pierce to fathom that he is one of the
best Division III players in the country and that he will soon
have a degree in marketing from one of the best schools around.
"Three years ago, if you told me that I would be in this
position, I wouldn't have believed you," he says.

The kid who grew up in a family infected with trouble has proved
somehow immune to it. The kid with the bullet in his arm has a
flawless outside shot. The kid who always worries about letting
others down continues to give them hope.

Pierce considers this and rubs his smooth brow. For the moment,
the wrinkles have been ironed out, and there's a trace of
contentment in his smile. "Hard to believe," he says.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Pierce's talents were discovered in the place where he grew up--the paved playgrounds of Paterson. [Clarence Pierce looking through chain-link fence]COLOR PHOTO: WARREN RUDA LaBuda puts Wilkes at the top of the charts. [Matt LaBuda]

TOP 25

DIVISION III

Team (1994-95 Record)

1 Wilkes (Pa.) (25-5) Eight lettermen, including all five
starters, return from team that lost in Elite Eight to Trinity
90-85

2 Rowan College (N.J.) (27-4) Senior guard Terrence Stewart
needs 434 points to become Profs' alltime leading scorer

3 Illinois Wesleyan (24-4) Tough opener: Titans host tournament
featuring No. 7 Washington U and No. 8 Nebraska Wesleyan

4 Trinity College (Conn.) (24-5) Bantams have two 20-point
scorers back but lose entire starting frontcourt

5 Hampden-Sydney (Va.) College (28-3) Ryan Odom, David Hobbs
are sons of coaches--Dave Odom (Wake Forest), David Hobbs
(Alabama)

6 New Jersey Tech (28-2) Three NCAA tournament wins last spring
were first three in school history

7 Washington University (Mo.) (23-4) Two all-conference
starters back, including Kevin Folkl, brother of Stanford star
Kristin

8 Nebraska Wesleyan (21-7) Conference schedule, against NAIA
scholarship-granting schools, is one of Division III's toughest

9 Wisconsin-Platteville (31-0) Defending champs try to come
back from death of point guard Gabe Miller last spring

10 Hope College (Mich.) (26-1) Springs eternal, as three
starters return to team that was undefeated until losing in
first round of NCAA tourney

11 Franklin & Marshall College (Pa.) (27-2) Only team to
make it at least to second round of NCAA tournament each of past
nine seasons

12 Millsaps College (Miss.) (25-3) Should return to Sweet 16
despite graduation of alltime leading scorer Phillip Robinson

13 St. Thomas (Minn.) (27-1) Last year guard Karnell James
(20.6 ppg) became first sophomore to be named conference MVP

14 Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology (21-5) In '94-95
made first NCAA tournament in 19 years

15 Williams College (Mass.) (23-4) Purple Cows plow ahead
behind sophomore point guard Chris Farmer (4.7 apg)

16 Wittenberg (Ohio) (21-8) Tigers have most wins (1,283) and
best winning percentage (.699) in Division III history

17 Manchester College (Ind.) (31-1) Dick Hunsaker, former Ball
State coach, replaces Steve Alford as man in charge

18 Hamilton College (N.Y.) (21-6) Forward Joe Mrozienski
averaged 18.7 ppg and was eighth in Division III in rebounding
(11.9 rpg)

19 Tufts (Mass.) (20-5) Jumbos have to replace the 24.6 points
per game of graduated All-America Chris McMahon

20 Wooster (Ohio) College (26-3) The Scots lose four
all-conference starters but get help from strong freshman class

21 St. John Fisher College (N.Y.) (16-10) Cardinals started
four freshmen in last 12 games--and won 10 of them

22 Roanoke College (Va.) (19-9) Maroons will make 16th
tournament appearance despite finishing behind Hampden-Sydney in
conference

23 Salem (Mass.) State (21-7) In eight years as coach, Jim Todd
has led Vikings to seven conference titles

24 Calvin College (Mich.) (17-10) Knights spent two weeks in
Australia this summer; after last visit Down Under, they won
national title

25 Otterbein College (Ohio) (15-11) Last season was first time
in seven years Cardinals didn't make NCAAs; they'll be back this
year

PLAYER TO WATCH

Wilkes forward Matt LaBuda, known around campus as LaBuda the
Shoota, averaged 17.5 points per game and nailed 80
three-pointers in '94-95