Two years ago, during a holiday basketball tournament in Chino, Paul Pierce, a 6-foot-4 sophomore forward from Inglewood High, arrived at a crossroads in his young career.
Since arriving from the junior varsity that season, Pierce's impact on a program that has produced such college and NBA stars as Harold Miner, Reggie Theus, Jay Humphries and Ralph Jackson had been, well, nil.
"He was on the verge of being cut," Inglewood Coach Patrick Roy said.
Then three of Inglewood's top post players had to miss the next tournament game--all because of family obligations--and there were no other options but to play a struggling 10th-grader.
Much to the surprise of his teammates and coaches, Pierce sparked an Inglewood victory that night.
He averaged 14 points for the rest of the season, and followed that with averages of 23 points and 11 rebounds as a junior.
Now he is the consensus choice among college coaches and talent scouts as the top senior prospect in California, joining an elite trio that includes 6-10 Jelani McCoy of San Diego St. Augustine--who gave an oral commitment to UCLA recently--and 6-5 Tommy Prince of Compton Dominguez.
Pierce has grown another inch since last season, and at 6-7 and 200 pounds, seems to have the skills and savvy to play guard in college. It's his versatility--as a scorer, passer and rebounder--that has drawn comparisons to former Arizona All-American Sean Elliott, now with the San Antonio Spurs.
"Whatever you need on offense, he can do it," one Pac-10 assistant coach said.
Based on his play at the ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., and other summer tournaments, Pierce was chosen one of the nation's top 25 players by Bob Gibbons of All-Star Sports Report, a basketball recruiting publication in Lenoir, N.C.
Prince also made the list, while Mater Dei's Schea Cotton was one of two non-seniors--and the only sophomore--selected.
Pierce also held his own while playing in pickup games at UCLA over the summer, when the competition often included current and former Bruin players and pros such as Olden Polynice, Mark Jackson and Sedale Threatt.
Former UCLA guard Shon Tarver told an observer that he assumed Pierce was an NBA player too.
After one game, Threatt complimented him on his talents. "That made me feel great," said Pierce, whose older brother, Jamal Hosey, played basketball at Wyoming.
No surprise, then, that Pierce has been contacted by virtually every top college program in the country. Dean Smith and John Chaney have called; Indiana and Michigan are among many that have written.
Pierce has narrowed the list of colleges he is considering to six--Kansas, UCLA, USC, California, Arizona and Oregon.
Since he has not yet scored high enough on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (he scored 650 on his first try, and is scheduled to retake the exam on Saturday), Pierce cannot take any paid campus visits. Thus, he says, he will almost certainly wait until the spring before signing a letter of intent. Basketball players can also sign during the Nov. 9-16 signing period.
He denied the validity of a recent radio report that said he had already orally committed to UCLA.
Pierce did agree to handicap his short list of colleges (in no particular order):
* Kansas: "I liked Kansas, and especially Danny Manning, before I ever knew that I would be good enough to play in college. Roy Williams is one of the best coaches in America."
* UCLA: "Great academics, tradition, and it's close to home. Lately, it seems that most of the top players in California are going there."
* USC: "I like George Raveling a lot. He was one of the first coaches to show interest in me. He also spoke at our (Inglewood High basketball) banquet last year. Plus it's close to home."
* Cal: "Cal is a program on the rise. They've had some good recruiting classes. Young coaches, and good academics, too."
* Arizona: "I like Coach (Lute) Olson, and I think the style of play fits me. He told me he might play me at point guard sometimes."
* Oregon: "They were one of the first schools to start recruiting me. I like the coaches; they have been very honest. And they graduate their players. In the near future, I think they'll have a pretty good team."
Mater Dei shooting guard Clay McKnight has a scholarship offer from UC Irvine, but will probably wait until the spring before signing. He also likes Syracuse and UCLA.
Teammate Shaun Jackson, a 6-7 power forward, is considering Washington State (where brother Ray, a former Mater Dei player, is a defensive back on the football team) and Nevada Las Vegas, among others.
Though the weeklong early-signing period is only five weeks away, many of the nation's most heavily recruited players are still awaiting academic clearance from the new NCAA Clearinghouse before they can take paid recruiting visits. One school that managed to work around that restriction was Cal, which shocked the college basketball community recently by receiving an oral commitment from 6-9 forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim of Marietta, Ga.