The seventh child of Carl Pierce, a janitor, and his wife, Dorothy, Ricky shared a bed with his four brothers growing up in Garland. "It was a queen-size bed," says Pierce, "but my brothers were bigger and stronger, and they were going to get their positions."
Ricky was big enough and strong enough in his own right to be called Giant in elementary school, and as a fifth grader, he began to play pickup ball regularly with several older kids. His grade school had a team, but being shy and convinced it would involve costs his family couldn't afford—for a physical, at least, and probably for extra sneakers and socks—Ricky refused to try out. Then one day he met up with a press gang. "I was in my gym clothes, and these guys grabbed me and put me in a truck and took me to practice," he says. "I figured there was no use scuffling with them every day. After that, I'd always be the first one on the truck."
By the time he entered Garland High in 1974, Pierce was already an accomplished player who, by his own assessment, needed guidance. All that summer he had mowed lawns for a man who paid him back by moving away without settling up. Johnson took notice of and sympathized with Ricky and, the following summer, put him to work distributing athletic equipment, taking inventory, cleaning stadiums. To Johnson, who wanted Pierce to become a football star, the quiet kid from the impoverished family was Big Rick. To Pierce, the 47-year-old man who gave his time and advice so freely was Mr. Homer.
"He always said, 'You've got to put effort into the books, too,' " says Pierce, now a C student in physical education. "He told me that hard work would pay off. I chose basketball over football because I didn't think I'd work as hard playing a game I didn't like as much."
For three summers Pierce joined the future college football stars then at Garland High—players like Oklahoma's Herbert Young, Texas' Herkie Walls, Rice's Freddie Johnson and North Texas State's Marvin Walker—early in the mornings of 100� days. Homer Johnson would have them run five miles, spirit them off to rake a field, then take them into a stadium press box where he and his secretary, Elaine Baker, held classes in typing and public speaking.
"They couldn't see a whole lot of value in that," says Johnson. "But we had them read the sports pages and write about what they'd read. And sometimes we videotaped their speeches and played them back so they could see exactly how they looked. In one of Big Rick's first classes at Rice, he had to give a 10-minute speech. He got an A."
Homer Johnson's study group included a future Southwest Conference 60-yard-dash indoor champ in Walls, and a high school long-jump star in Freddie Johnson. "Herkie could outrun Big Rick at the 50-yard dash, but only by a foot," says Homer Johnson. "After Freddie won the long jump at the Texas Relays in his senior year, I called the kids together and said, 'I want you all to know that Freddie's the best long-jumper in Texas.' Rick said, 'No, he's not. I can outjump him.' And Freddie said, 'Well, he always could.' So we had a little contest. Big Rick didn't hit the board right, but you could tell he could have done it."
Pro scouts want to know if the kid who rarely misses but rarely dribbles can handle the ball well enough to play big guard in the NBA. "At Rice, I'm needed at forward, but if they want me at guard, I'll practice every day over the summer at that position," says Pierce. "I can play any position. I mean I have the ability to play any position. I'll work at it." And this time, presumably, be paid for it.