Thursday, March 09, 2006

Pierre Pierce Paying the Price With His Own Kind of March Madness Inside the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility

Lacy J. Banks of the Chicago Sun-Times has demonstrated some pretty fair newspaper skills and determination by cranking out a good story on Pierre Pierce, the former Iowa basketball player whose address now is the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility 40 miles from Iowa City.

Pierce is serving time for third-degree burglary and assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, false imprisonment and fourth-degree criminal mischief.

Pierce wouldn't agree to be interviewed by Banks, but the reporter was able to put together a well-done story nonetheless.

Here it is:

Mount Pleasant, Ia. -- Pierre Pierce lives in a four-man, dorm-like room, perhaps not unlike the one he resided in at the University of Iowa.

He still plays basketball, although Pierce won't be making the trip with the Hawkeyes to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament, which opens today. Pierce only can sit and struggle with what might have been, whether it was continuing a stellar career at Iowa or opting for the NBA after his junior season last year, as he had planned.

Those broken dreams likely conspire to form their own version of March madness for Pierce.

His current campus is 40 miles south of Iowa City on the grounds of the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. It's a three-story, red-brick facility that houses 1,000 men and 100 women -- 30 percent over its official capacity.

"We are surrounded by a 20-foot, electrical, high-voltage steel fence topped with wound razor wire,'' said superintendent Rusty Rogerson, who described the facility as "a high-to-medium-security prison.''

Pierce, 22, is serving a two-year sentence after pleading guilty last year to third-degree burglary, a felony; and assault with intent to commit sexual abuse, false imprisonment and fourth-degree criminal mischief, all misdemeanors. The victim was a former girlfriend.

Pierce, who starred at Westmont High School, is eligible to be released with good behavior in October after just 11 months. If he had gone to trial and was convicted, he could have received a 56-year prison sentence. But his lawyers and those representing his victim, a graduate honor student studying to become a doctor, allowed him to plea bargain to lesser charges.

It wasn't the first time Pierce caught a break with the legal system. He was allowed to plead to a lesser charge in 2002 when he was initially charged with sexual assault. Pierce not only avoided a trial on a Class C felony charge of third-degree sexual assault, he was allowed to stay on campus and keep his scholarship.

"I just wish the authorities had pursued the matter the first time when his previous victim came public after he assaulted her,'' his latest victim said. "If they had done so, [the second incident] probably never would have happened because he would have been made to be accountable. He had been abusive to me on previous occasions. That's why I decided to stop associating with him. But he refused to respect my decision.

"While I don't totally agree with [the light sentence] that he received, I have to accept it and understand that this is simply the reality of much of the legal process. Not everything was up to the judge. I just hope that [Pierce] can finally accept accountability for his actions and get the treatment he needs.''

He apparently is in the right place.

"We are also a treatment center with programs geared to get our inmates well,'' Rogerson said. "We are the only prison in Iowa, however, that offers a sex-offender treatment program [in which Pierce is enrolled]. Treatment in that program can run from 12 to 18 months.''

Pierce, who refused several interview requests, plays in the prison's state-of-the-art recreational facilities.

"He wants to put all this behind him, and he still dreams of playing in the NBA,'' said Pierre's father, Maurice Pierce. "He's working out regularly in the facility's fitness center, and he's playing basketball with other guys in the gym.''

Pierce still might get a shot at the NBA.

"He was on a lot of NBA teams' radar screen,'' said Chicago-based agent Mark Bartelstein, executive director of Priority Sports Entertainment, which represents 35 NBA players. "I've seen him play, and he had the talent to play in this league.

"It's hard to say whether he would have been a first-round pick. But he would have been drafted.''

Alfredo Parish, Pierce's attorney, said several NBA teams, including the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors, had expressed interest in having Pierce work out for them.

Chicago-based trainer Tim Grover, whose 75 NBA clients over the years have included Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dwyane Wade, also got a chance to see Pierce scrimmage with NBA players in his gym at the West Loop Athletic Club last spring after Pierce had left school and was awaiting trial.

"Although he never was a client of mine,'' Grover said, "he definitely showed me he has NBA potential.

"He's what they call a 'tweener' with his [6-4] size [between shooting guard and small forward]. It's a shame he's not in the NBA. But he's simply another example of a long list of guys who are not there because they failed to distinguish themselves off the court as well as they did on the court.

"That's why our program addresses the total individual.''

Grover doesn't dismiss the possibility of Pierce eventually playing professionally.

"Pierre could still recover, get his life back together and play in the NBA,'' Grover said. "There's no question about his talent.

"But during the year or so [that he spends behind bars], I don't know what conditioning programs he'll have access to. He's still young. There's not a lot of miles on his body. It just will depend upon whether he has learned from his mistakes, has become a better person and can convince a team that he'll play trouble-free basketball.''

Pierce averaged 7.1 points and 3.3 rebounds as a freshman while helping lead coach Steve Alford's team to a 19-16 record. But he was charged with raping a member of the university's women's basketball team on Sept. 7, 2002. The woman had to be treated at a local hospital, which found evidence of both anal and vaginal damage.

The severity of the allegations stunned Alford, while Pierce claimed -- also to his teammates -- that he was innocent. Alford took a leap of faith and defended his star and was later reprimanded by the faculty.

"I totally believe he's innocent,'' Alford told reporters at the Big Ten's media day in October, 2002. "I believed it from Day 1, and I still believe it.''

Insiders claim Alford even told friends he believed Pierce was the real victim and was being dragged through the mud. There also were unsubstantiated reports that Alford and some of his friends in Athletes in Action, a Christian group, tried to persuade the woman to resolve the controversy by praying with Pierce and that she refused.

The university's failure to take quick, strong action generated tremendous controversy and ill will toward the school's athletic program in general, Pierce and Alford in particular.

"A lot of people get hurt in these situations,'' said Karla Miller, a 29-year veteran counselor of rape victims and the executive director of Iowa City's Rape Victims Advocacy Program. "In this case, the school got hurt, the team got hurt, the program got hurt, the coach, the player committing the crime and especially the victim. Rape is one of the worst of crimes because it violates and assaults the victim's body, mind and spirit for the rest of her life.''

The woman agreed to avoid a trial when, on Nov. 1, 2002, Pierce pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of assault causing injury instead of the initial charge of sexual assault. His only real punishments turned out to be 200 hours of community work and being red-shirted his sophomore year, meaning he could still practice with the team but not compete.

As a junior, Pierce averaged a team-high 17.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.5 steals. He was enjoying a career that had flashed great promise when he averaged 36.4 points and 9.1 rebounds in his senior year while leading Westmont High School to fourth place in the 2001 Illinois state basketball tournament, the school's best finish to date. He was named the Sun-Times' Class A Player of the Year.

But it's alleged that on the night of Jan. 27, 2005, Pierce -- in a fit of jealous rage -- drove 120 miles from Iowa City to [West] Des Moines to allegedly beat his victim, choke her, force her to take off clothing, threaten her with a knife and assault her with the intention of sexually abusing her.

Two nights later, he scored 25 points in his last game with Iowa to lead the Hawkeyes to a 72-57 victory over Indiana.

Four days later, when Alford got the news of Pierce's latest charge, Alford immediately kicked him off the team.

While awaiting trial, Pierce, in violation of bond restrictions, exacerbated matters by allegedly using stolen cell phones to make more than 200 calls to the accuser trying to coerce her into dropping charges.

"We tend to make prima donnas out of our athletes, and many of them become spoiled early and think themselves above the law,'' Des Moines attorney Mark McCormick said. "Also, at the college level, often they are not mature enough to handle the attention they get.''