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
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
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
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
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†