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Former Iowa guard Pierre Pierce's NBA fortunes rest not on the opinions of Hawkeyes coach Steve Alford, who dismissed him from the team on Feb. 2, but on the recommendation of Alford's top assistant. Pierce fell out of favor with Alford after authorities launched a second sexual assault investigation in three years involving the deposed Hawkeye, but he is still held in high regard by associate head coach Craig Neal, who has an eye for talent and the ear of the league, having spent the previous eight seasons as a scout and assistant for the Toronto Raptors.
"There's no one litmus test for evaluating a player who has baggage," says Boston Celtics G.M. Chris Wallace. "A positive report from someone you know and trust can help the prospect."
Which is why Pierce may still get his chance. "He's a great kid with a good heart," Neal said last week. "As far as talent and ability, he was by far the best player in the Big Ten. I've probably gotten 10 to 12 phone calls on him already."
The latest trouble for Pierce started in the overnight hours of Jan. 27-28 when he was two hours west of the Iowa campus in the West Des Moines town house of a woman he says he has been dating since 2002. While Pierce describes their encounter as nothing more than "an argument," police say Pierce forcibly disrobed her, threatened her at knifepoint, then trashed her home. On Feb. 9, Pierce, 21, turned himself into West Des Moines police, who charged him with first-degree burglary, two counts of domestic abuse/assault, assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, false imprisonment and fourth-degree criminal mischief.
This is not the first time Pierce has had legal trouble: He was charged with third-degree sexual abuse in October 2002 but pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, and the conviction was expunged from his record after he performed 200 hours of community service, attended counseling and served a year of probation. ( Pierce redshirted that season.) That incident, Alford said in a statement, factored heavily in his decision to dismiss Pierce: "Pierre has betrayed the trust we placed in him when he was given a second chance two years ago."
Pierce, who is free on $32,000 bond and still on scholarship, was to meet with Alford this week in the first step of his appeal for reinstatement to the team. If his motion is rejected, the 6'4" Pierce, Iowa's top scorer (17.8 points per game) and the Big Ten leader in steals (2.45) when he was booted, likely would forgo his final year of eligibility and turn pro rather than transfer to another school. "A lot of NBA people missed on Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels--midsized wing players who can guard three different spots," Neal says, "and they don't want to miss on guys like that again."
Another thing in Pierce's favor is time. He has four months before the June 28 draft to resolve his legal woes, and rehabbing his reputation may be as easy as just showing up and playing well at the predraft camps in Portsmouth, Va., and Chicago. "If he goes to both," says one NBA executive, "he'll be labeled a 'good kid.'"-- Andrew Lawrence