Lakelin Conrad’s face broke into a big smile Tuesday evening as he reached out to shake the hand of basketball legend Paul Pierce.
Conrad, who graduated this spring from Wichita Collegiate, was honored as Boys Cross Country Player of the Year at The Topeka Capital-Journal’s inaugural Best of Kansas Preps Awards Banquet. He and other student-athletes named Players of the Year met Pierce, a former Kansas Jayhawks standout and now retired professional basketball player, who congratulated them, signed their awards and was photographed with them backstage.
A few, including Conrad, snapped a selfie with Pierce too.
About 1,200 people attended the event celebrating the accomplishments of student-athletes who were named top performers in 14 sports.
“It’s great to be able to recognize 600 student athletes from across the state,” said Stephen Wade, publisher of The Capital-Journal. “And for Paul Pierce to be able to come and speak to them — that’s phenomenal.”
In a question-and-answer session with Capital-Journal sports writers Rick Peterson and Brent Maycock, Pierce reflected on his time playing college basketball at Kansas and on his NBA career.
Pierce grew up in southern California, and during a visit to the University of Kansas, he attended a game at Allen Fieldhouse. It was his first experience seeing what basketball was really about, he said.
“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he said. “I was like, ‘I have to come here.’ ”
Pierce spent three years at Kansas between 1995 and 1998 and won numerous honors. He is one of seven players in KU history to score more than 700 points in one season, and his jersey was retired during the 2002-2003 season.
He spent the first 15 years of his 19-season NBA career with the Boston Celtics, who drafted him with the 10th overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft. He helped lead the Celtics to the 2008 NBA Championship and was awarded Finals MVP after averaging 22 points per game.
He credited both his high-school basketball coach and Roy Williams, his coach at Kansas, for helping him lay a foundation for what was to come in the NBA.
″(Williams) really pushed me to the limit,” he said. “He gave me the foundation of a competitive drive and hard work that took me to the next level.”
He spoke of Celtics teammate Kevin Garnett as “the most inspirational player I’ve ever been around,” noting that good teammates are selfless and motivate other players.
When asked to give advice to the student-athletes who were honored Tuesday, many of whom will play college sports, Pierce cautioned that they may not be the star in college that they were in high school.
“It takes even more work than you put in now,” he said.
The awards banquet, presented by The Capital-Journal and sponsored by Envista Credit Union and the University of Kansas Health System - St. Francis campus, is the first of its kind in Kansas.
“This is a lot of fun, and we’ll be doing it again,” Wade said.