Rice basketball legend returns to the university to finish degree

Ricky Pierce has come full circle. He went from being an Owl to a Piston, a Clipper, a Buck, a Supersonic, a Warrior, a Pacer, a Nugget, a Hornet and then back to a Buck. Now he’s an Owl again.

Pierce, a former NBA All-Star who twice won the league’s coveted Sixth Man Award (in the 1986-87 and 1989-90 seasons), has returned to Rice to finish his degree in kinesiology, 30 years after he left the university as the 18th pick in the 1982 draft.

“I had anxiety attacks at first,” Pierce said. “But after the first couple of weeks, I settled down and I started feeling fine. The student body — they accepted me well. As a matter of fact, a lot of them would come up and tell me, ‘My dad used to watch you play.’ It’s pretty cool hearing that.”

Ricky Pierce

Pierce’s No. 25 jersey hangs on the wall at Tudor Fieldhouse. In his three years at Rice, he scored 1,847 points and made more than 50 percent of his shots. After 16 years in the NBA and 13 in the private sector, Pierce decided to come back to attend to unfinished business. He said he ran into alum David Gibbs ’71, who encouraged him to return to campus to take the last classes he needs to graduate and to help out with Rice’s current crop of athletes.

“I’ve always wanted to finish my degree at Rice,” he said. “With the degree plan, it gives me more credibility when I’m talking to parents and schools about staying in school, going back to school. It’s never too late to go back to school. I’m going to be a living witness to that — at 52 years old sitting in the classroom with 18-year-olds.”

Reflecting on the changes since his previous stint as a student, Pierce noted the passing of the blue book and the widespread technological advances. “We didn’t have laptops when I was here,” he recalled. “I sit behind a girl in class, and if the professor mentions something, she types it up right quick on her computer and she has everything he’s talking about right there.”

The professors, Pierce said, haven’t changed. “They’re still as smart as ever. And if you listen and pay attention, you can learn a lot.”

As for his own study habits, he said he’s adjusting. He also gets help from another undergrad — his daughter, who is a junior at Stephen F. Austin University. “My daughter will call me at home,” he said. “She’s just left the library, and she tells me, ‘Dad, you can’t be watching basketball on television if you have a test coming up, if you have a paper due. You need to be studying, Dad.’ She keeps me in check like that.”

The average NBA player’s career is less than five years. Pierce attributes his lengthy tenure in professional basketball to conditioning. He worked tirelessly during the off-season lifting weights, doing drills and keeping his skills sharp. Known as a sharpshooting guard, Pierce averaged just under 15 points per game, for a total of 14,467 over his career. He made 49.3 percent of his field goals and 87.5 percent of his free throws.

He played against some of the greatest basketball players ever, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon. Pierce remembered dreaming in high school of competing against NBA stars. “But once you get there, you’re one of the guys,” he said. “They have to respect you as well — if you bring your game. I look at it as they’re going up against me, too!”

As for today’s Owls, Pierce sees real promise. He likes how the younger players are beginning to assert themselves. “They’re going to be very, very good — especially in the next couple of years,” he said. “If they just stay with it, I think they can do a lot of damage.”

After retiring from the NBA in 1998, Pierce turned his attention to helping youngsters develop their basketball skills. He invented a basketball training aid, called accushot22, designed to help with accuracy and consistency. He also created BouncingBilly.com, a kit aimed at reducing childhood obesity.

Pierce is justifiably proud of his accomplishments on the court, but he continues to have higher aspirations. Looking at the other banners hanging on the walls at Tudor Fieldhouse, he said, “Players say your jersey’s hanging over there, but I’d like to be with the Nobel Prize winners. I don’t have a ceiling on my success.”

Overall, he’s happy to be at Rice and delighted with the reception he’s gotten from fellow students. “They’re opening their arms to me and saying, ‘Hey, man, welcome back.’ I’m just privileged to be back and they accepted me.”

About Rice News Staff

The Rice News is produced weekly by the Office of Public Affairs at Rice University.