Of all the burdens Ricky Pierce has borne in his young life—sharing a bed with four brothers, being stiffed for ah entire summer's wages, having a "scholarship" to a junior college turn out to be a loan he had no way of repaying—playing basketball, and losing with numbing regularity, for Rice may have been the weightiest. "Ricky's had so many disappointments, but he never complains," says Rice's Coach Tommy Suitts, whose name rhymes with shoots, something Pierce does very well.
Pierce, a 6'4", two-time All-Southwest Conference forward, is now a senior, and as a reward for his patience, the "who" heard whenever the Owls play is no longer meant as an interrogative. Pierce has received a measure of national acclaim as Rice, 8-6 at week's end, has gotten off to its best start since 1971; he is one reason the league race is likely to be the most wide open in years.
The conference's nine schools have a combined non-league record of 66-27 and collectively retain 37 of 49 players who could have been classified as regulars last season. Pierce may be the best of them. Until last weekend he was tied for third in the nation in scoring at 27.4 points per game and had been in double figures in 63 of 66 games as an Owl. A sprained shooting hand was his alibi in the other three.
Pierce packs 205 solid pounds, 15 fewer than last season, thanks to an off-season running and weightlifting program, and his game matches his strapping physique. He's a no-frills player, rarely fiddling with the ball or going outside the foul line. He prefers instead to flash across the lane from the weak side, get the ball and use his considerable strength inside, or to simply let go with his accurate jumper from the corner. "You see very few guys who look like a blacksmith who also have that feather touch," says Suitts.
Last week, despite facing an array of man-to-man, zone, trap and combination defenses. Pierce scored 37 points in Rice's conference opener, a 63-61 defeat at Houston, and another 26 as the Owls dropped a 65-64 game to TCU. Those close losses were easier for Rice to take in light of what had happened the week before at Hawaii's eight-team Rainbow Classic, where the Owls were supposed to have been served up as the roasted pig at the luau. If you've gone 70-196 over the past decade and the tournament's host school schedules you as its opening opponent, you better consider the leis they drape over your neck as nooses, not garlands.
Instead, Rice knocked the Rainbows out of their own tournament with a 69-59 win as Pierce scored 40 points, pulled down 12 rebounds and—not incidentally—shut out the two Hawaii forwards he guarded at various times. He tailed off to 15 points the next night, but the Owls got 24 from 6'2" Center Renaldo O'Neal to make Rice-a-roni of fourth-ranked, previously undefeated San Francisco, 78-66. Pierce was back on form in the final, getting 23 points in a 51-47 defeat of North Carolina State, which also had been unbeaten.
When a team that was 12-15 the season before wins a tournament against nationally ranked opponents and the biggest personnel change is the coach, credit would seem to belong to the man at the end of the bench. Suitts became that man last April when Mike Schuler left Rice to become Larry Brown's assistant with the New Jersey Nets.
"Mike and I didn't see eye-to-eye on anything," says Suitts. "I feel very bad about that because, as his assistant, I probably should have felt the way he did." On defense, the Owls now play man-to-man instead of zone. On offense, with a 6'8" perimeter player and a 6'2" post man, Rice is freelancing more than under tightly wound Schuler, who went through basic training for head coaching at places like Army and VMI and handled one Owl loss last season by stalking out of Rice Gym, getting in his car and driving off, abandoning his team, wife and child.
But the secret of the Owls' success is more complex than just a change at the top. Partly it may be traced to a tendency toward the unorthodox when it comes to finding players and assigning them their roles. For example, Tyrone Washington, a 6'2" guard, leads the team in blocked shots; 6'8" Kenny Austin is the leader in assists. Washington and O'Neal came to Schuler's attention through form letters their high school coaches had mailed out, and Austin wasn't even a, starter in high school. Only Guard Bob Tudor was really wooed, or whooed, as it were.
Certainly Pierce had not been. "Ricky walked in off the street, almost," says Suitts. In 1979 Homer Johnson, an athletic administrator for the school system in Pierce's hometown of Garland, Texas, called academically prestigious Rice on Pierce's behalf. Schuler had missed out on the forwards he had been recruiting and offered a scholarship; Pierce, an average student in high school and junior college, was only too happy to accept. He had just spent a disillusioning season at Walla Walla (Wash.) J.C., where, through a misunderstanding, he'd gotten $400 in debt—the cost of tuition for one quarter, which he was able to pay back in weekly installments.