Making his long-awaited Kansas return, Paul Pierce didn’t have to worry about packing a coat this go-round.
The former consensus All-American with KU basketball was the keynote speaker at Tuesday night’s Best of Kansas Preps event at Kansas Expocentre, returning to the area for the first time since a 2011 alumni game at Allen Fieldhouse. Speaking in front of more than 1,200 high school athletes and their families, Pierce covered a wide range of topics in his Q&A with The Topeka Capital-Journal, with a large portion dedicated to his time with the Jayhawks.
As Pierce revealed, his KU origins included an early culture shock that played out in late 1995 when the Inglewood, Calif., product experienced his first snow storm.
“Coming from California, I never needed a winter coat,” Pierce said. “I remember the first day it snowed, I get dressed like a regular day, I go outside and it’s snowing. I turned back around and went back up to my dorm room, and I think I sat in my dorm room for, like, three days.”
It wouldn’t be Pierce’s only run-in with winter weather his first year in Lawrence, as a departing bus and a patch of black ice outside Jayhawker Towers proved a dangerous combination for the scrambling freshman.
“So I come runnin’ — ‘I gotta get to the bus stop, I gotta make this bus,’ ” Pierce recalled. “I take three steps, whoosh, boom, right on the ground. Bus passes me and everything, and I miss the bus.
“I’m like, ‘What’d I get myself into?’ ”
Truth is, Pierce didn’t slip often at KU.
The 6-foot-6 forward averaged 16.4 points and 6.3 rebounds across three stellar collegiate seasons en route to his selection as the No. 10 pick in the 1998 NBA Draft by the Boston Celtics. The 10-time All-Star won an NBA championship and NBA Finals MVP honor in 2008, part of a 19-year professional career that ended with his retirement in 2017.
Reflecting on a stint at KU that set the table for everything that followed, Pierce traced it all back to an official campus visit the then-high schooler took to a Nov. 26, 1994, game against San Diego at Allen Fieldhouse.
“It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was just like, ‘I have to come and play here,’ ” Pierce said. “I’ve been to so many basketball games. When I came to KU and saw the game, it just pulled me in and I knew I wanted to come and play for the Kansas Jayhawks.
“It was just my first experience of really seeing what basketball is really about, ’cause people in Southern California, you know, that’s Hollywood. They’re into the acting. They show up to see who else is there. This is like truly homegrown, fanatic basketball, and I truly knew I wanted to come here after just going to one game.”
Once Pierce got to campus, he realized then-coach Roy Williams wasn’t going to be a pushover. The two at times had a contentious relationship, but Pierce credited the Naismith Hall of Famer for laying the foundation and establishing the drive and hard work he needed to be an NBA success.
“You think you’re a five-star recruit, aw yeah, you’re going to come in here, it’s going to be a cakewalk. Nothing was easy with him,” Pierce said. “He really pushed me to the limit. I remember days he kicked me out of practice. But it made me better.”
While Pierce indicated he doesn’t make it back to Lawrence as often as he’d like, he said he still follows the Jayhawks closely, particularly during the NCAA Tournament. He said current coach Bill Self sends him new KU swag — T-shirts, polos, hats — annually.
“Coach Self is a great coach,” Pierce said. “The thing is, I never played for coach Self, but me and him talk all the time. He makes me feel like I’m still — and I am — part of the KU family.”
Here are other highlights from Pierce’s Q&A:
THE NEXT PHASE — Pierce, 40, said he’s enjoying “a pretty smooth adjustment” into retirement, which includes a role as a studio analyst for ESPN and ABC’s coverage of the NBA.
“It’s fun because I still get to talk about the game,” Pierce said. “I can be around the game, I travel, and so I’m still connected with the players and keep up on a day-to-day basis on what’s going on.
“It’s not easy getting up and not waking up, putting the tank top on, going and practicing for three hours when you’ve been doing that your whole life. But I’m not as fast as I used to be, I don’t jump as high as I used to jump, so for me to sit behind that table and talk about them now, it’s perfect.”
So where does the superstar-turned-pundit think LeBron James will land when the forward hits free agency this summer?
“That’s the toughest question of the night,” Pierce said. “Well, I know he has two homes in California, in Los Angeles, I know that. I’ve heard rumors that his son is checking into a school in California, I’ve heard that. But I don’t know. Hey, I didn’t think he was going to go to Miami and he went to Miami.
“LeBron’s a great player, man. It feels like the whole world of NBA hinges on his decisions every summer and then everybody else falls into place. But I have huge respect for him and what he’s done for the game.”
CHEF PAUL? — The strides Pierce made on the hardwood while in college were perhaps only matched by those he made in the kitchen, where he learned one of his most valued life skills — how to cook.
In fact, Pierce said he called his mom up to four times a week to ask about particular recipes.
“I would call my mom like, ‘Hey, Mom, I need that spaghetti recipe.’ That could last a few days. You’ve got leftovers with that,” Pierce said. ”... In high school I knew how to wash my own clothes, I knew how to iron, but when I got to college, that cooking was huge for me. It just gave me a sense of independence.
“I had to learn to be on my own. I couldn’t just drive down the street back home to my mom’s house being that she was in California, so it was good for me to get out of the state, personally, just to grow up into a man. Really college taught me a lot to be independent.”
PREP ADVERSITY — Pierce, a three-sport athlete at Inglewood High School, revealed he was cut from the varsity basketball team as a sophomore, a tough setback for the eventual McDonald’s All-American.
“It was rough,” Pierce said. “You really find out about yourself as a kid, who you’re going to be as an adult. I think from that point on, from being cut and just not giving in, not giving up, not accepting ‘No,’ I was always like that.”
SLEEP SECRET — Asked for a fact fans might not expect to learn about him, Pierce admitted he is a notorious snorer, an issue that’s created a playful back-and-forth with his wife, Julie Pierce.
“My wife, she video records me in the middle of the night and then she sends it to me in the morning. It’s so embarrassing,” Pierce said. “I’m just glad she doesn’t put it on Instagram.”