Lloyd Pierce comes to the ATL with a strong background in teaching and team-building. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

New Hawks coach comes at the job from a quiet place

A quiet man can coach, Lloyd Pierce will tell you, well, quietly. Yet confidently, if the listener only understands that volume does not always equal conviction.

Said the new Hawks coach, smiling, “My voice doesn’t go that high.”

“There are different ways to show emotion, to show passion, to lead. Yelling and screaming is not leading, it’s yelling and screaming,” he said. “Leading is preparation. It’s organization. It’s communication. It’s being a willing and active listener. To lead you have to be able to listen, also to be able to follow. Our players are going to tell us who we are.”

The quiet man just may be the one you really have to pay attention to when he’s on the court. He isn’t out there to turn a game into a mirror in which to admire himself. He’s there to make sure that the man across from him stays quiet, too. Because the quiet man plays defense.

That’s how it was when Pierce was at Santa Clara (Calif.) University, during which he shared a couple of seasons with Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash and was part of the school’s past two appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Scoring was never Job 1 with Pierce – he averaged seven points a game for a career. Fierce denial was. 

Said his one-time coach at Santa Clara, Dick Davey, “I knew he was going to be able to stop the guy he was defending and he’d get a few extra rebounds that most guys wouldn’t be able to get and he was going to run the court better than 98 percent of the guys in the country.”

It sometimes can still be that way for a 42-year-old coach who has kept himself fit and flinty and is predisposed to joining practice to exchange sweat, the discreet foul and sometimes the indiscreet ones with his players. 

Just eight months older than the sage veteran Vince Carter who the Hawks signed to both play and mentor, Pierce is in a unique position to get down on an eye-to-eye level with his otherwise callow team. He likes to get involved in practice and this quality can be an advantage in these early days of training camp when new players are learning the ways of a new coach. And this coach will have to be the one internally setting expectations, because, frankly, the outside world is expecting so little of it.  

“He works on his game. If your coach is doing that, you got no excuse,” Carter said.

“Some of older coaches can explain it and yell at you, but it’s another thing when your coach can get in front of you and defend you,” Carter said. “When you think you can get it done and your coach can lock you up, that says a lot.”

So, this to the player once known as Vinsanity, can your coach lock you up, shut you down?

“I won’t let him. He’s too little.”

File that away, coach, as a challenge for some future practice session.

A quiet man has assumed control of the Hawks’ bench. In search of someone to nurture a rebuild after Mike Budenholzer took his bruised ego and his talents to Milwaukee, management went young and untested with its head coach, too.

Pierce brought credentials as a skilled teacher. Maybe it’s something in the blood. While he didn’t grow up close to his father back in the Bay Area of California – Pierce was raised by his mother, who worked in accounting for a Silicon Valley firm – there’s a link there, somewhere. For after retiring as a correctional officer at San Quentin State Prison, his dad went back to college, actually graduating after Pierce did, and became a history and special-ed teacher.

Pierce has lived the kind of gradual, sometimes painful, growth through the draft that the Hawks hope to emulate. For five years he was the assistant coach/defensive specialist in Philadelphia, a team that won nearly as many games last season (52) as it had the three years prior, combined. He assisted at Golden State back in 2010-11, back before it became “Golden State,” back when Steph Curry was just learning his way in the NBA. And before that he was in Cleveland, where he made a great impression. LeBron James still calls him one of his favorite coaches.  

Such associations have bred a certain high-bar outlook in the coach.

The Hawks’ first-round draft pick, guard Trae Young, may want to pay particular attention to this observation from his coach:

“The beauty of guys like Nash and Steph and LeBron, guys I’ve been around, is that I already know what the top looks like, first-hand and personal. I know what an unbelievable point guard looks like, I played with him for two years and have known him for 25 years. 

“Guys say I can’t do this or that, well, I’ve already seen it done. I know it’s possible. And I know what it takes for someone to have a Hall of Fame career and what they put into it. So, do you hold your guys to (that elite standard)? No. But you let them know that regardless of what they’re doing, there’s always more. Because I’ve seen more.”

This has been a time of profound change in Pierce’s life, even beyond getting his first head coaching gig. Getting that job at a relatively young stage of life, he took on another responsibility relatively late, becoming a first-time father six weeks ago. Little Maya Joy Pierce has rearranged all the furniture in his life.  

Balancing his time as an entry-level head coach and entry-level father is, he acknowledges, “the one part I don’t have down.”

“It’s a different challenge,” he said. “I’m used to going home, sitting in front of my TV, pulling out my laptop, watching sports, doing work. My own sanctuary. It’s different now.” Why, a baby requires even more concessions than a rookie point guard.  

The young Pierce showed few signs that he would take up the coaching life. He was so introverted as a teen, remembered Davey, that the coach tells of the painful in-home visit in which he could drag precious few words from his recruit. He figured the kid just wasn’t interested in Santa Clara, and was shocked when Pierce called back the next day and said he wanted to visit the school.

“I said you can come on one condition: You got to be able to talk,” Davey said.

“He was quiet and shy and unassuming,” Davey said, “but very assuming when he got on the court.”

Four years later, though, this same quiet guy spoke for more than an hour at a senior gathering, thanking just about everyone on campus.

A business administration major, Pierce easily could have followed those interests into some kind of real-world job after he finished playing basketball abroad. It was Davey who noted how young players gravitated toward Pierce when he was home working out between his overseas gigs in Mexico, Australia, Germany and Turkey. His old coach made a standing offer, saying that a job at his alma mater was there for Pierce whenever he was done globe-trotting. Pierce accepted in 2003.

What the Hawks got 15 years later was a coach who can sound as “coachly” as the best of them.

“I’m not arrogant, but I don’t lack confidence,” Pierce said. “Confidence comes from preparation. I’ve prided myself on a mid-major mentality. I don’t mind working. I actually enjoy the process of what you have to go through, it’s like research and development – the more you study, the more you get out of it. You try things, you figure what works.”

On being slotted as a defensive specialist, he can be downright defensive: “I tell people all the time, I have the biggest offensive advantage out of any coach, because I got to study 29 teams (offenses) every night. I get to study what they run, what they do, what their counters are. From an offensive standpoint I feel I’ve learned more doing the defense. I got to watch something we weren’t strong (defending) at in Philly – which was the pick-and-roll – I got to watch Boston run pick-and-rolls. I got to watch Detroit run pick and rolls. I felt like I gained more offensively than defensively, just studying.”

Yet, he is not exactly the straight-line, narrow-focused coach of yore. With a quiet man, you never can tell exactly is going on behind the muted exterior. 

Asked what book – you remember books, right: Words, paper, ideas fleshed out beyond 280 characters – he’s reading now, Pierce digs into his briefcase for evidence. 

There it is, a paperback version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words to his teenaged son about being black in America, entitled “Between the World and Me.”

His summer reading also included a book on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., another that offered an “eight-week plan for finding peace in a frantic world.”

And, he said, “‘The Power of Habit,’ has been a great book for me, too.” 

Doesn’t sound like he’s real big on fiction.

You want a recommendation for the new coach, beyond his reading habits? The coach’s coach will be happy to supply one. 

“I don’t think you’re going to see a coach in the NBA that the players respect more. I mean anybody,” Davey said. “I think Lloyd is going to be right up there with the best of them in regard to players having respect for what he tries to do and his work ethic.”

You want big promises for what Pierce is going to mean to the Hawks, how he might return this team to a prominent place in the city’s sports consciousness? The quiet guy is not going to make loud assurances. That’s not him.     

“We want to represent a town that loves sports,” Pierce said. “They love the Falcons. They love United. They love the Braves. And they love college football. I understand that. We want to be a part of what’s going on in the city of Atlanta.

“You don’t get that with one great year. (The fans) are going to stay if they know what we’re doing is consistent and we’re growing. We’re all about trying to get to that last level and bringing to this city something that is special.

“It’s going to take time. It’s not like we can go out and get a fan base overnight and keep them here. We got to show up and show out every single night.”

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