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Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has come a long way from that kid at the playground

A young Pierce played pickup ball against grown men, shared a backcourt with Steve Nash and paid his dues as an assistant

During the summer of 1990, I made numerous trips to Cherry Park in San Jose, California, to play some of the best pickup basketball in the Bay Area. It’s where you learned toughness playing against grown men, were challenged playing against former and current college players and high school stars, and dealt with pressure to win since a loss meant you wouldn’t play again for hours. It’s also where I first played against a quiet and athletic 14-year-old kid named Lloyd Pierce, now the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks.

Some NBA fans probably have asked, “Who is Pierce?” after the former Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach landed the Hawks job on May 11. Truth is, nothing has ever come easy for “L.P.,” who went from playing against grown men at the playground to being overshadowed in his college backcourt by Hall of Famer Steve Nash to paying his dues as an assistant coach in college and in the NBA before being announced as Hawks head coach during a news conference in Atlanta on Monday.

“This is a day I’ve been working towards for a long time and it’s an honor to be the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks,” the 42-year-old Pierce said in a news release. “I have great respect for [general manager] Travis [Schlenk] and strong belief in his plan to bring a championship to the city of Atlanta. After spending time with ownership, it’s clear they have a deep investment in and commitment to making this a model organization. This opportunity is a perfect fit for me, and I’m eager to get started.”

At San Jose’s Andrew Hill High School, we hated yet respected the kids from Yerba Buena High, which had one of the Bay Area’s best prep basketball programs. Pierce had some buzz, as he was expected to play on varsity as a freshman for a Yerba Buena team that had won its league title the previous two years. I saw an athletic offensive player in Pierce, who loved defense, and I kept tabs on him through the years.

While Andrew Hill High would redeem itself as the league power during the Pierce years, Pierce made a name for himself as one of the best high school players the San Jose area has ever seen.

“I met Lloyd as a freshman in high school at Yerba Buena,” said former Chico State forward Brian Bell, who was a star senior when Pierce was a freshman. “We were just coming off a successful few years at that time and I was thinking, this kid is going to continue what we started here. He turned out to be a really nice player. He was really athletic, and his potential was through the roof.”

Pierce didn’t venture too far, as he earned a full basketball scholarship to Santa Clara University. Not many kids of color from East Side San Jose had the grades to go to the prestigious Catholic school. But Pierce had the game and the grades.

Unbeknownst to Pierce, he would be playing alongside two future NBA players in Nash and Marlon Garnett. Garnett played 24 games with the Boston Celtics during the 1998-99 season and was an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns the past two seasons. Nash became a two-time NBA MVP and will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame this year. The defensive specialist Pierce and the Broncos played in three NCAA tournaments from 1995-97 and made the Sweet 16 twice. Pierce also guarded University of San Diego star guard David Fizdale, now the New York Knicks’ head coach. Santa Clara has not been back to the NCAA tournament since the Pierce days.

“Lloyd was very quiet in college,” said Garnett, the 1997 West Coast Conference Player of the Year. “But being mute worked to his favor as he was very observant, cerebral if you will. He was taking everything he saw and heard and storing it to use to his advantage. This attention to detail made him a great defender as he would analyze and decipher all the info he absorbed and would always be ahead of the play. His anticipation and ability to read situations combined with his athleticism made him a tough on- and off-the-ball defender.

“We joke to this day that the scoring duties and shots were left to me and Nash and we would make him do the dirty work of the difficult defensive assignments. Was never a doubt that he had the capacity to become a coach at the highest level, and with his passion and work ethic, there’s no doubt he will be successful leading his group.”

Pierce also learned from one of the West Coast Conference’s top coaches in Dick Davey, who had a 251-190 record and three league championships in 15 seasons at Santa Clara. Pierce was a finalist for the Santa Clara head coach job two years ago, but veteran coach Herb Sendek was hired instead.

“We’ve learned so much together, under coach Dick Davey, about effort and hard work,” Garnett said. “Persevering and never wavering in believing we are built to be great. That whole group of SCU guys are doing well in their respective careers. The bond that we all share is unbelievable, an unbreakable brotherhood.”

While Santa Clara had a predominantly white student body, Pierce grew up in a diverse San Jose that was 4.7 percent black, 26.1 percent Hispanic, 19.6 percent Asian or Pacific Islander, 12.1 percent other and 63 percent white when he arrived at Yerba Buena High in 1990. Today, San Jose is predominantly Hispanic, Asian and white. Pierce’s wedding DJ when he married his wife, Melissa, in 2015, was one of his Filipino buddies from high school.

John Hilton, who is black and Japanese and attended Santa Clara, described his longtime friend as a natural leader.

“From the first day I met L.P., which now reaches back more than two decades, I was struck by his ability to say a lot without saying much at all,” Hilton said. “Lloyd is a natural leader who always made crew love an absolute priority. His crew rolled tight and you could tell they respected and loved him and that the feeling was mutual. To this day, the crew still stands strong. L.P. doesn’t just form community, he forms tribes.”

Pierce was a regular at the Juneteenth Festival in San Jose as a kid and enjoyed being near the Civil Rights Museum during his time with the Memphis Grizzlies. The hip-hop and rhythm and blues fan attended the Anita Baker concert with his Stanford University graduate wife, his mother and sister in Atlanta on Sunday and met Baker after the show.

But along with having a diverse group of friends, Pierce has a group of older non-black men whom he confides in in Davie, former Santa Clara coach Carroll Williams, Steve Seandel, Arturo Santo Domingo and Seamus McCracken. McCracken, a Santa Clara alumnus and basketball fan, connected with Pierce when he was a player despite being 20 years older.

Pierce has gone to many San Francisco Giants and Oakland Raiders games with McCracken and leans on him and the other men for advice. Pierce earned a bachelor’s degree from Santa Clara in business management. The Hawks have had their share of race issues over the years, and part of the attraction to Pierce is he has the ability to connect with anyone — black, white, rich, poor, from the ‘hood or country club.

“From the time he gave the most impassioned and deeply moving senior banquet speech ever at Santa Clara to his focus on his career path up the NBA ladder, I knew it was only a matter of time before he reached the pinnacle of his chosen profession,” McCracken said. “He always treats people with dignity and respect, and he genuinely cares for people. It won’t matter if you are the star player or meeting L.P. for the first time, he’s going to be genuine and true to everyone. He’s going to be L.P.

“He is always learning and teaching. To this day I recall the email he sent a group of friends when he played professionally in Germany. He visited Munich one day on his own and did not know much about the massacre that had happened during the ‘72 Olympics since it happened before he was born. However, during his visit to Munich, he got to understand the impact and emotions of the tragedy and was able to bring that forth in the moving email he wrote as if he had been there at the time.”

After playing professionally overseas, Pierce began his coaching career as an assistant at Santa Clara from 2002-07. I remember his excitement when he joined the NBA for the first time as an assistant coach and player development coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2007-10 under head coach Mike Brown. Pierce built a rapport with NBA star LeBron James, who sent him congratulations after he landed the Hawks job.

Pierce was an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors during the 2010-11 season under head coach Keith Smart. He built a rapport with NBA star Stephen Curry and bonded with Schlenk, who at the time was a Warriors front-office executive. Curry also congratulated Pierce after he was hired by Atlanta.

Pierce was an assistant coach and player development coach with the Grizzlies for two seasons before joining the Sixers as an assistant in 2013.

Pierce spent five years as an assistant coach with the 76ers, who finished this past season third in the Eastern Conference at 52-30 and advanced to the conference semifinals. Under head coach Brett Brown, Pierce was in charge of the Sixers’ defense and often wrote plays in the timeout. Pierce helped the Sixers grow from a laughable young team to an NBA force that landed the East’s third seed entering the playoffs. Brown has strongly stated that Pierce was ready to be an NBA head coach.

“He understands today’s NBA,” one former Sixers player said. “No nonsense. He sets expectations. He holds players accountable. He gets along with players in a responsible way.”

Former assistant coach Lloyd Pierce reviews a play with Robert Covington (center) and Ersan Ilyasova during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics on May 5 at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The young Hawks had the East’s worst record this past season at 24-58. Atlanta, however, has a top-five pick in this year’s draft and three first-rounders overall. Pierce’s time in Philadelphia made him a nice fit for the Hawks, who are in their own “Trust the Process” situation in a renovated Philips Arena. Pierce had a very strong interview and checked all the Hawks’ boxes, according to a source. The Hawks believe he has the ability to handle and talk to the media daily with a positive attitude about their rebuild.

“We are excited to start a new chapter of Hawks Basketball with Lloyd as head coach of our team,” Hawks’ principal owner and chair of the board of directors Tony Ressler said in a release. “Each part of our organization, from our ownership group to basketball to business operations, is aligned, and we are all committed to building a first-class organization that is working to bring a championship to Atlanta.”

Pierce’s agent, Bobby Height, called him May 1 to let him know the contract terms on his first NBA head coaching job was complete. While Pierce is known for being cool and mild-mannered, finally landing a head coach gig in Atlanta caused him to crack a smile.

“When I called, I specifically asked him, ‘So how does Lloyd Pierce, head coach of the Atlanta Hawks sound?’ ” Height said. “He told me that it felt great and he would definitely get used to hearing being head coach. Lloyd has his usual poised and calm demeanor; however, I could sense excitement in his voice and that he was smiling on the other end of the phone.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.