Taller than Life: The ascent of Eliza Pierre

Whether she is needed on the basketball court or at home, Eliza Pierre assumes the role of a leader when she is needed most.

Derek Remsburg/Senior Staff

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Despite being the shortest player on the Cal women’s basketball team at 5-foot-7, Eliza Pierre makes herself stand above everyone on the team.

Whether in the locker room, on the team bus or on the court, her vivacious presence has fueled the Bears.

“You know those commercials of Energizer with the bunny that always runs around,” says teammate Avigiel Cohen in a thisiscalbasketball.com interview. “She’s got that much energy. It’s just endless.”

But her leadership abilities aren’t simply confined to the court. When tragedy struck her home, Pierre stepped up when her family needed her most.

One of the seven top-50 players in the 2009 recruiting class, Pierre was part of the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation.

But rankings, like any other statistic, don’t produce wins.

In her first two years, the Bears failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

“We had people who could score, we had people who could defend,” Pierre says in an interview with BearInsider. “But we just needed a leader.”

The team members found themselves arguing on the court and playing sloppy basketball. The talent was there; the chemistry was not.

The team lost several 2009 recruits to transfers and misfortune. The highest-rated player, Tierra Rogers, collapsed during practice from a rare genetic disease that permanently ended her basketball career.

Then-head coach Joanne Boyle departed for Virginia in the spring of 2011, leaving behind a broken locker room. The Bears needed someone to step up as a leader more than ever.

Pierre rose to the call, but it was not instantaneous. Much like virtue, leadership never tested is no leadership at all. She had to prove her worth.

She even thought of leaving the program.

Pierre turned to her family, especially her mother, for advice. Just as her mother helped her choose Cal two years ago, she helped Pierre to stay at Cal.

“She was like, ‘Either leave now; if not, don’t talk about it, and just make the season better,’” Pierre says.

In a private player-only meeting, Pierre and her teammates met to make clear their expectations for the team and their season. They shed the veiled excuses and vented their problems.

“We just sat down and said, ‘This is our team,’” Pierre says. “No more saying that we’re kids; we’re not young anymore.”

Pierre assured those promising high school prospects like Brittany Boyd that their recent season was an aberration of the past, not a reflection of the present.

Not long after the decision, Cal hired current head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. With a new coach in place and all the players refocused, things were looking up for the Bears.

Then, tragedy struck back home in Pasadena. As one world calmed down, another flipped upside down.

In the early hours of Aug. 20, 2011, Pierre received a frantic call from her mother informing her of her brother Wilson’s death. He had been at a party and had been murdered after an altercation.

“I just freaked out,” Pierre says.

Pierre returned home to care for her grieving mother. She and her sister immediately took control of her brother’s funeral and affairs, ensuring that their mother had to do as little as possible.

“My mom, she never asks for help. (She said) ‘Y’all don’t have to,’” Pierre says.“Yes, we do. We want to.”

One month ago, Pierre turned to her mother for hardship. Now, Pierre played Atlas to a world of tragedy. But this time, she was ready.

She returned to campus only a week later, still physically  and emotionally exhausted.

Not wanting to distract the team, Pierre considered leaving the team.

“The team was going on a high right now,” Pierre says. “I didn’t really want my grieving to affect the team.”

But in talking to the team, her family away from her family, she knew she couldn’t. She owed it to them, her mother and her herself.

She was going to stand tall in front of life and death. She’s going to carry the torch, but she knows she has family and friends standing behind her.

“I’m going to be the leader they need me to be,” Pierre says. “And when I’m going through my things, they’ll be there for me.”

Vincent Tzeng covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].