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Hank Hersch
January 14, 1991
Ricky Pierce, the super sub of the NBA, has got Milwaukee on the move
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January 14, 1991

Sixth Sense

Ricky Pierce, the super sub of the NBA, has got Milwaukee on the move

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Every so often, Joyce Pierce, A former member of the pop group the Fifth Dimension, will sing the national anthem at center court to begin an evening at the Bradley Center, while her husband, Ricky Pierce, a swingman for the Milwaukee Bucks, stands behind her right shoulder, enjoying the show. After Joyce's spirited soprano ranges over the land of the free-e-e-e and the home of the bra-a-a-a-ave, inspiring patriotic delirium in the stands, Ricky gets a few pats on the back from his teammates and a challenge from his coach, Del Harris. "O.K., big boy," Harris says. "Now go out and top that."

Of course, Harris doesn't mean right away. The Pierces are the NBA's odd couple: She starts games, he comes off the bench. For the first half of the first quarter, the 6'4", 220-pound Ricky Pierce will sit, studying the play before him with practiced ease. His elbows rest on his knees; his hands hold a towel; his gaze darts out from above his high cheekbones. After six or seven minutes have passed, Harris will summon Pierce and usher him into the game as Milwaukee's first substitute at big guard or, more often, small forward. Ricky is the league's leading sixth man, but it would be a mistake to call him a sixth dimension since his task is mainly one-dimensional. "My job," he says, "is to come in and score."

The 31-year-old Pierce is known as the Deuces by his teammates, as much for his ability to quickly pile up points in pairs as for his jersey number, 22. Last season Pierce averaged 23.0 points and 29 minutes a game, which gave him a projected scoring average of 38.1 points for a full 48 minutes; only Chicago's Michael Jordan (41.4) and Utah's Karl Malone (39.1) had higher projected scoring figures. Also, Pierce shot better than 50% from the field for the sixth straight year. His remarkable offensive production last season earned him the NBA's Outstanding Sixth Man award for the second time in the award's eight-year existence, a feat equaled only by Boston's Kevin McHale.

This season, despite being hampered by a pulled groin muscle in his left thigh, Pierce through Sunday was averaging 21.9 points in 28.1 minutes (a projected 37.4 points) on 49.1% shooting. And he was a major reason that the Central Division-leading Bucks were off to a startling 24-8 start, including a 17-0 record at home.

The blue-collar Bucks are an odd mix: Shooting guard Alvin Robertson leads the team in offensive rebounding, center Jack Sikma is third in three-point shooting, and frontcourtman Frank Brickowski and backup center Danny Schayes—last season they were journeymen at best in San Antonio and Denver, respectively—have revived their moribund careers. The bench-warming Pierce fits in as Milwaukee's steadiest scorer. "You know Ricky's going to be there after the game starts," says Robertson. "And you know he's going to be there down the stretch."

Some examples. In Washington on Nov. 9, Milwaukee held a 92-91 lead over the Bullets with 4:03 to play. Pierce poured in 13 of the Bucks' last 16 points to provide a comfy 108-100 win. In Milwaukee on Nov. 27, the Bucks trailed the Indiana Pacers 52-49 at intermission. Pierce scored 29 of his 37 points in the second half, including 18 in the fourth quarter, laying waste to an ascending trio of Pacer defenders—6'6" Mike Sanders, 6'8" Chuck Person and 6'10" Detlef Schrempf—in Milwaukee's 112-98 victory. Last Thursday Pierce poured in 15 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter—he has averaged 8.3 for that period—to lift the Bucks to a 97-87 win over Dallas.

The callous Darwinism of the NBA has weeded out many a "tweener" of Pierce's size (small for the frontcourt) and speed (slow for the backcourt). But the Deuces' attacking style snares defenders in a Catch-22. He'll draw taller, slower forwards through a thicket of screens to the perimeter, where he's a threat to pop his gentle jumper or, if the coverage is tight, explode with a dribble into the lane. He'll also drag smaller, quicker guards down to the box, where he uses his strength and his rump to post up with impunity. Either way, he frequently heads to the free throw line, where he's an 89.6% shooter.

"Ricky has the outside shot and he's strong down low, but what makes him really difficult is that he has the in-between game," says Atlanta Hawk guard Doc Rivers. "He can take the ball into the lane on one or two dribbles and pull up for the short jumper. That's the hardest shot to make, and it's his best shot. Then, he's so mentally tough. Against some guys you go into the game with one plan on how to stop them, and you can get them frustrated. With him that may work for five minutes, but then you have to change the plan. When I do summer camps and I get asked who's the hardest guy for me to guard, I don't hesitate. It's Ricky Pierce."

Being a sub is a role to which Pierce has grown accustomed; he has started only 82 games in nine NBA seasons, the last seven of those seasons with the Bucks. A native Texan, Pierce bellies up to his job with a down-home blend of pragmatism and orneriness. "To be honest with you, I don't even worry about starting," he says. "If it happens, it happens. But there are nights I want to go out earlier, in the beginning of the game, and set the tone. I want to let the other team know what type of night they're going to have."

Since the Celtics first used 6'3" swingman Frank Ramsey as a sixth man in 1954, the task has been best performed by multiposition players who could make a sudden impact on offense or defense. Ramsey's successors—John Havlicek, McHale and Bill Walton—played crucial parts in each of Boston's championship years, just as Billy Cunningham and Bobby Jones did for the Philadelphia 76ers, Michael Cooper for the L.A. Lakers and Dennis Rodman for the Detroit Pistons. For Milwaukee, Pierce barely rebounds (2.5 boards over his career) and passes (1.8 assists), but after he pops off his warmup jersey and waves in at the scorer's table, he can put on an offensive surge that will tilt the game.

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