BearShare: Eliza Pierre, Part 1

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By Viet Nguyen, Staff Writer
Posted Feb 24, 2013
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2014 BearInsider.com


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Senior Eliza Pierre is completing her career for the California Golden Bear women’s basketball program.

The 5’7 point guard, a product of Pasadena’s John Muir High School, where she was a McDonald’s All-American (2009) is a team captain and key reserve for the 24-2 Bears, averaging 22 minutes a game.

Pierre is a lockdown defender, as she was named to the conference All-Defensive Team in her first two years. She also earned an Honorable Mention nod in her junior year. A true student-athlete, Pierre was also a member of the Pac-12 All-Academic team (HM) last season.

Known for her irrepressible energy on and off the court, Pierre sat down recently with the Bear Insider for a lengthy interview. In this Part 1, Pierre discusses her basketball journey from the parks of Pasadena to her final home game at Haas.


Bear Insider: How did you start playing basketball in the first place?

Eliza Pierre: I started when I was seven. My cousin Sean, we did everything together, so when he started playing football, I did too, flag football. Then when he played basketball, I was like, “Oh I’m going to do it too!” So I continued to do it, and eventually I stopped playing football and focused on basketball. I ran track too. Everybody always says, “Oh she’s fast, she’s so fast!” So I guess that was my advantage. But that’s how I started.

What position did you play in football?

I was the runningback.

Of course. Now all those drives where you cradle the ball with both arms make total sense—it’s the runningback protecting the ball before getting hit so he, er she, doesn’t fumble.† So were the football games organized, or just with neighborhood kids?

It was a rec league. I played with the team at the local park—Villa Park in Pasadena.

Was it a co-ed team?

Yes. I was the only girl.

Oh, so you made it co-ed.

I think I made it co-ed. [Laughs] Yeah, I may have done that! There were three other girls in the league at that time, but on my team, I was the only girl. I was six when I started and I played until I was 10 or 11.† And I played basketball with Sean when we were both seven, at Jackie Robinson Park in Pasadena. We played together on the same team for a long time. And eventually, he went to play for a travel–ball team. And I was like, “My cousin left me. I need to find something to do!” And then I got picked up for a travel-ball team too, when I was in middle school.

Sean got you started in basketball, but what made you stick with it?

I decided that I liked it more. I actually really liked football, and I was OK at it, but I knew it wasn’t anything that I could build a career off of. My mom was like, “Let her do it. It’s fun now, but eventually, she’ll have to stop.” She just let me be free and run with things. So at one point, my mom just had a real talk with me, and I was young, so I was like, “Aww, I have to give up football.” But basketball, that was my first girls team. So it was nice to be around other girls, finally. I made some great friends, and I stuck with it.

It seems unusual that a mom would let her little girl play football. I just read where President Obama said that if he had a son, he’s not sure he would allow him to play football, because it’s such a violent sport. Can you talk about your mom and her decision around that? She seems like the kind of mom who allowed you to do what you wanted to do—“Let Eliza try new things.”

Well, she was an athlete. She ran track. She loved watching sports—football, basketball. I think it gave her something to do on the weekends, to watch me play, and I think it brought joy to her. And with my brother, she got to watch us together, back to back. So she was at the park all day with us, and we loved it. We were outside of our community.† It put us in a place where we weren’t just surrounded by the kids on our block. We were able to make friends outside of the little block that we were on. So that was a big motivation for her, just to let us do whatever we wanted to do.† She was all up for opportunities, and if an opportunity presents itself, to take advantage of it. She taught us all that lesson, and that’s something that I’ve inherited from her.† So when I wanted to play football, there was a big question mark above it, like, “You’re a girl, you’re going to get hit!” and I was like, “No. I’m gonna dodge everybody, I’m fast!” I said the little-kid answer.† And I never got hurt in football. My cousin, he was a blocker, so he made sure I didn’t get hurt.† And then over the years, my mom realized, “OK, she is good, and I’m enjoying her.” And people would compliment me. But I never got into tackle or anything. When it came to that point, that’s when I had to make a decision. I knew that I didn’t want to be tackled. I was OK with people pulling my flags, but I didn’t want to be tackled! She knew that I was still a little girl, so I just wanted to have fun.

And she knew that eventually you would decide on your own that football was no longer for you. In your family, it was you, your mom, and your brother?

I have an older sister, and another older brother. The four of us, and her.

She ran track. How serious was she about it?

She was good. She was really good. She was training for the trials to get into the Olympics. So she was really fast. There were newspaper articles she would always show me about when she was younger.

What was her specialty, her event?

Whoo. Please don’t put this on the record, but… the 400?

Eliza, you should know this! You’re going to be in trouble so bad when she reads this…

Yes, it was the 400, because I ran the 400, and I remember her being so happy that I ran it. So I’m going to say the 400.

Did all the kids inherit your mom’s athletic ability?

Yeah. My sister, she did cheerleading. My oldest brother played basketball, and the one closest to me, he was in football for a while.

OK, let’s get back to basketball. When did you know that you were talented in it?

I knew that I was OK, that I was good enough to play, to compete. I was never a big scorer. I was always a defensive player.† So I’ve always felt that I was good at defense, but I know that all these other people could score. I could always get to the basket, that’s never been my problem. †And believe or not, I was not a bad shooter when I was younger. I was a decent shooter, I just never did. I was more of a passer; I liked to do the fancy things and make the nice pass. And eventually, I got into organized basketball. And things started to transform. Roles started to happen, and expectations. I started to see that more teams wanted me, more people were saying things to me on the sidelines, when I was waiting for other games.† I really didn’t know I was that good until my senior year, when I played for West Coast Premier, with Layshia, because that was an elite team on the West Coast. Everybody was talking about our team, because we were a team that had just been built, and we have all these elite athletes. I was starting on that team, so I was just like, “Woohoo, I must be good.”

You didn’t get that impression from recruiting? I’m sure that by that time, many schools were recruiting you.

A lot of schools were recruiting me. I wanted Rutgers; I wanted Rutgers bad. I really liked their style. I liked Vivian Stringer. But I hadn’t gotten a letter from Rutgers yet. Then eventually, throughout the process, you started to learn more and more about different teams, you started watching more.† Then things started to change with me, and I started thinking about other schools, like UConn. And then I get letters from Cal, and, I was like, I’ve never seen them play. I didn’t know anything about them. Then I see them play, and I was like, “This is the team.” I had already seen the school, but I had never seen them play. I liked the team—the coach, the players, at that time, it was Devanei, Ash, Natasha, Alexis, Lauren, all of those ladies. They were really real women. They weren’t like, “Oh my gosh, come to Cal!” They were just saying, ‘This is who we are, and we aren’t going to give you anybody who we aren’t.” So that separated Cal from the pack, and I stopped thinking about the UConns and everything. I started thinking how far I want to be from home, and what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go after basketball, because eventually that has to end. My mom really helped. She didn’t come on any of my recruiting trips; she said she wanted me to experience that by myself. She wanted me to enjoy the team, and she didn’t want them to change the way they act because, “Oh her mom’s here.” So she just wanted me to make that decision on my own; she was really good in that aspect. One day she was just like, “You’re going to Cal, huh?” And eventually, I was just like, “Yeah, ma, I’m going to Cal.”

Your mom sounds pretty great. Here you are, her baby, her youngest, and she always allowed you to make your own choices, to do what you wanted, from when you were a little girl playing football, all the way to choosing your college. So you better figure out what event she ran!

I’m telling you, it was the 400!

Oh, are you really confident enough to go on the record with that?

Yes!! I’m pretty sure…

You might want to do a Google search right now.

No, I’m sure!† Yeah, but you’re right, she was definitely supportive of everything. She’s the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and she has always been such a great support system for me. She has always gone above and beyond for me. Like she does for all of her kids, and I really do appreciate that. That’s just the kind of woman she is. Like there are people we know that she calls her daughters and sons that aren’t her real daughters and sons but she doesn’t treat them any differently. Everyone says, “Oh my god, your mom is so nice and funny and sweet!” And she is! And that’s exactly who she is. She never changes it for anyone. I think that I just got lucky, to have a great mom.

You mentioned the recruiting process and also playing with Layshia on the same club team. Did the two of you talk about your recruiting process at all back then?

Yes, we did. I asked Layshia what school she wanted to attend, and she was like, “I don’t know.” We were just like little kids, like we just wanted to do it all, to go on all our visits. By the time I got down to three, I was talking to Layshia, “Are you ready?” And she was like, “Yeah, I’m so tired of going on these visits!” We actually ended up at Cal on our recruiting visit together, and also at UCLA. We roomed at UCLA. We ended up really close after AAU, so we always used to talk. We had a silent joke that we always made that none of the coaches ever knew about, that the two of us were a package deal. But it was always a joke; it just happened that we both ended up at Cal. And we’ve been great teammates.

You came in with that great recruiting class, ranked No. 1. There were seven of you to start with. Then you went through a couple of disappointing seasons, and they culminated in a big transition of losing your coach and one of your close friends, DeNesha Stallworth.

We had a great recruiting class, like you said. Then we get the news that Tierra can’t play. And then you get Brenna Heater, who transfers. And then you get the team not doing so well. So we have a bunch of dynamics kind of messing up the team, outside of basketball. So that caused a lot of disappointment for us and for our fans. The next year, we tried to pick it up, and then it was another bad season. Then you get DeNesha who leaves, and now we’ve lost two people, plus Tierra. We needed to figure out something to do. After that second season, when our coach left, and DeNesha has transferred, we just sat down and said, “This is our team. No more excuses about why we aren’t achieving. No more saying that we’re kids; we’re not young anymore.” We wanted to be a better team. After that meeting, and this was before we even had a coach, we just wanted to come together. Let’s make the remaining years at Cal the best. And last year, we did better. This year, we have been killing it. But we’re still rising up; we’re still not where we want to be. I appreciate Coach G because she never lets us settle, wherever we are. That’s what we needed. We needed a leader, and she came in and she led. I remember she came in for her interview, and we were just like, “We’ve got the tools, we just need a leader.” And she came in and did just that.

You could have left as well. Did you ever consider jumping ship?

I think everyone had that feeling of, “This is going bad. This is not what I expected my season to be. This is not what I expected basketball to be at Cal. I came here to play good basketball, to be on an elite team, and that’s not what we are. I have the choice right now, I can leave or I can stay and fight it through.” And everybody went through that, silently, but I think everybody went through that.

What was the decision-maker for you? What made you decide, “Okay, let’s stay, and let’s build this.”

CeeCee [Associate Head Coach Charmin Smith]. She stayed. And my mom. She said to me, “If you’re going to leave, you need to leave now.” This is the time when I was calling her, “Hey, this happened. That just happened. Now this just happened. Mom, I think I should just leave.” And she was like, “Either leave now, if not, don’t talk about it, and just make the season better.” And that was what it was. And CeeCee was like, “I’m never going to give up on you, E. If you’re going to leave, then we will still have that friendship. I would understand, but I want you to stay.” For CeeCee to say that to me, for a coach to say, “I don’t really have a place right now. I don’t know if I’m going to have a job when a coach gets picked, but I’m going to stick here because of you…” So I was like, “Well, if you’re doing that for me, I can do that for you.” And it was pretty much a loyalty thing, so I stayed. I couldn’t leave my teammates. I couldn’t walk in and say, “Hey, I’m transferring.” I think it was like that for a lot of us. DeNesha was my close friend, but me and Layshia are close in another level. Me and Tierra, Mik, I could go down the line. I’m really close to my team. That would have been a really hard decision for me to make, and I think I would have backed out on it anyway. So I was never going to leave.

Can you trace for me your growth over the last four years?

The whole team is different. We came in like little freshmen. “Oh, oh my god, Alexis Gray-Lawson, she’s going to score all the points for us. She’s going to take us where we need to go.” We had Natasha Vital and Alexis Gray-Lawson, two of the people who built this program before us, two of the reasons we came to Cal. I think we were looking for that leader to teach us how to be the next person, how to take on that role of continuing on the legacy of Cal. We kind of under… I don’t know how to say this in a nice way, but we didn’t perform well that year. It was a lot of things outside of playing basketball with the team. And it wasn’t like we didn’t like each other. For the four years I’ve been here, we’ve always enjoyed each other, and we always have fun with each other. But that connection on the court just wasn’t there.† We had people who could score, we had people who could defend, but we just needed a leader. We didn’t find that, or we didn’t feel that connection. So the next year, we come in, and we do bad again, and it’s even worse, because now Alexis is gone, now Tasha is gone. Now who do we really look to? Still, we were just lost as a team. And we get Mikayla, Afure, Avigiel, Sherb, who come in, and they’re looking for a leader, and they didn’t have one, because we didn’t have one. We didn’t know. And I think it was Mooch who tried her best to lead the group. But it was hard; it’s hard to lead 12 people when it’s only one, you know? And again we had a disappointing season, and it was still because of the connection on the court, arguing about the little things on the court, like a bad pass. I remember us coming in and saying, “This won’t be our season next year.” And we were at a point when we had just lost a coach. When we lost that coach, we could have lost all of our recruits. Not one of them de-committed. When we lost the coach, we were making calls to these people, like, “You know what, we understand what your position is, and we’ll never tell you to do anything differently. But we just need to know, are you going to be here? And if you are, we’re letting you know right now, that our past seasons do not show who we are and the talent that we have on this team.” It was, for all of us, a growing moment, but for me, it was a moment where I changed from a freshman. It was the first moment I changed from a freshman, and now I was about to be a junior. So me, Layshia, Talia, and even Tierra, we really stepped up. We’ve been here, we’ve been through the fire. We’ve been through the bad games, the upsets, and we just wanted a good season. We wanted to enjoy basketball again, because we just weren’t enjoying it. Tierra was a great player in high school, and to have it taken away, and not only that, but to have your team doing so bad, it had to hurt her some kind of way, and she just started expressing herself, she just started saying more. She had that impact silently, but she began to use her voice. For me, it was just being on people, making sure we were on top of our stuff, no more half-doing things. Especially during our workouts during the summer, I think that was what it was. Same with Talia, same with Layshia. And it wasn’t just with basketball, it was with school. “What do we need to do? You have a test? Are you studying? Papers? You need some help?” Just opening an avenue. And things just got better. And I didn’t have to go into anger mode, or Angry Eliza…

There is an Angry Eliza?

No. There’s not. [Laughs] Angry Eliza is the sweetest Eliza. Everyone says I’m so nice when I’m mad, but I think that I don’t know how to be mad. But no, I didn’t have to change who I was completely. I didn’t have to go into this whole hierarchy thing. It was always with respect to the fact that you were an adult, whether you’re 18 or 22. We are all adults. I can’t tell you to go to class. I can suggest you go to class. I can tell you that if you don’t go to class, you’re hurting our team. But I can’t make you do it; I’m not going to hold your hand as I walk you to class. It was just that transition that we all made, after having such a bad season.

You found your own way of leading.†And now here we are, and we get to talk about all the positives, the fruits of your labor. For example, you all are making history, like this current win streak that you’re on. Talk about this season, and what this success has meant to you.

We are the midst of the season and we don’t get the chance to reflect. At this moment and time, I think all we’re worried about is the next opponent. But of course we are very happy. The work that we have put in to be where we are right now, it’s unspoken. No one understands the struggle it was our freshman and our sophomore years. Nobody understands how hard the transition was, going from one coach to another. For the seniors, Talia has transformed as a player. Before she was in the shadows of DeNesha Stallworth, but Talia had made her own name here. She has done what she needed to do. The fact that she has scored a thousand points, she has never said much about that. She’s never even cared about it that much. The fact that we’re making history is enough to attest to what we’ve done. For me, all I want to do is do whatever I need to do for the team, whether it’s getting stops, whether it’s giving a good pass for a winning shot, whether it’s sitting on the bench and cheering for my team. I have bad games; we all do. Layshia could go 0 for nine in the first half and then nine for 11 easily, and that’s a bad game for her, because she’s our offensive player. She’s the engine that makes things go at times. Brittany, you have a sophomore who has to lead a team, no lie, she has to lead a team. Her energy, her toughness, what she does, what she gives, it really reflects how this game is going to go. I could go down the list of people, we’ve always had someone come in and step up. It’s totally different, and something we didn’t have before. We’ve won a lot of games based on the fact that we can change our line-up, that at the end of a game, if we need a three or a stop, we have people we can put in. And just the trust. We trust that if we need a lay-up, and Layshia is being guarded by the whole team, that somebody else will make the lay-up. †We are just really at the point where we are way more trusting of each other, and we know each other a lot better on the court. And it’s because what we do off the court. So, yeah, making history, that feels good, but it feels even better because we’re enjoying it. I think we all have been, “This is our season. We’re doing so well. These are the possibilities. This is where we can go.”

You’re about to play your last game at Haas, your home for the last four years. What do you think you will be feeling that final minute of the game, as you step off the floor one last time?

I think I’ll be bawling, crying. No, I’m not a big crier. But I will say the four years that I’ve been here, I’ve been around the best people. Our fans, our coaching staff, our media staff, my teammates, I’ve been around great people. It’s unreal, the people I’ve met. The opportunities that people have given us as a team, we really appreciate, and I think it shows in how we play. We do a lot of this for the fans. We love playing at home, and we love having events after games to talk to the fans, because those are the people who have supported us even when we weren’t that good. They came to WNIT games, flew out to Pac-12s in LA, just to support us. It’s unbelievable the support they’ve given us, and I think that’s something I’m going to miss. And to have my family here, to have people from home, and to bring them into this family, and to introduce them and to unite them, I guess, I’m really happy to do that, and I’m really going to enjoy it. It’s going to be a fun day. It won’t be all tears. It’ll be fun. It’ll be the last time I’ll get to play on this court with Layshia and Talia, the last time I get to mess with Tierra on the bench, the last time, at home at least, that I get to do some of these things. The last time our fans will get to see me dive on the floor probably, or Layshia score a million points, at home.† And we really appreciate all the things they’ve done for us and all the opportunities we’ve been given. We’ll play a good game for them.

As you complete your Cal career, how would you like to be remembered by the fans, your teammates, etc…

I want them to think of the great times that we’ve had, not just on the basketball court. I want them to remember the conversations we’ve had, the jokes we’ve cracked with each other. I want them to remember that they gave me the name EP. I was not EP before I came here. I was Eliza, I was Lize, I was everything but EP. They gave me that name, so I want them to remember that, to remember that energy.

For more, read Part 2†

http://www.bearinsider.com/news/story.php?article=476

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