November 19, 2008

The Saving Grace of Basketball

Junior Jon Pierce overcame long odds to make it to Tufts and now leads his team on the court and off

By Paul Sweeney

Jon Pierce, co-captain of the men’s basketball team and a recent selection for the Division III pre-season All-American team, sits in the coach’s office and reflects on the amazing turn his life has taken—from a childhood filled with danger and abuse to a life full of opportunities for leadership and, most importantly, hope.

Click on the play button to see a slide show of Jon Pierce and his teammates during an early November practice. Photos: Alonso Nichols

“To think that I’ve come as far as I have now, with the love and support of a great family, being successful at a top-tier school, when six or seven years ago I didn’t know what the next day would bring?” he says. “To think that I’ve come through all that is humbling in a big way.”

Now 22 years old, with a support system that he didn’t have growing up, Pierce has made peace with his past. Under the showcase of a new Jumbo basketball season that began November 18, Jon Pierce is ready to deliver on his full potential, on and off the court.

Basketball is in Pierce’s blood. Adopted at birth, he doesn’t know his biological parents, but was told that his father was a professional basketball player. Born outside of Wichita, Kansas, one of Pierce’s earliest memories is of putting a basketball hoop up in the driveway with his adoptive father.

His fond recollections end at age six, when his adoptive parents divorced. His mother turned abusive. He was beaten so badly that at times he’d walk with a limp. He was made to feel like a burden. When Pierce was old enough to fend for himself, he ran away from home several times, once sleeping on the streets for a few nights.

When his adoptive mother sought to make him a ward of the state as a young teen, he left for good. During his high school years, he had four different addresses and attended five schools. Verbal abuse was commonplace.

Basketball was the one thing he could control in his life. Entering his sophomore year in high school, Pierce was being recruited by several NCAA Division I teams, including Indiana University and Purdue. But he blew out his knee early that season, and would never be able to play the same. The injury, though, triggered a series of events that changed his life.

A New Start—and Family—on the East Coast

With major college basketball no longer in his future, Pierce committed to play at Wabash College, a small liberal arts college in Indiana. But he’d heard that a postgraduate year at prep schools was a possibility, and Jay Tilton, the coach at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, invited him for a campus visit.

Pierce immediately saw an opportunity to make a fresh start. Having shown academic talent regardless of his circumstances, Pierce nailed the last open spot for a senior year at Exeter. He moved East in 2004 and never looked back.

“In that one year, he really evolved athletically, academically and socially,” Tilton says. “He found out that he could be a lot more than just a basketball player. He didn’t have to use that as the saving grace of his identity. He really found his academic passion.”

Pierce was a long way from home in many ways, and the comfort that he felt at Exeter helped him come to terms with his past. He wrote a senior meditation about his experiences and was selected to read it in front of the school community—baring his soul in public for the first time.

“It was an illuminating experience, both for me and the people around me,” Pierce says.

Pierce also found family like he’d never experienced before. He became fast friends with basketball teammate Trygg Larsson-Danforth, even though they came from very different backgrounds. Through their son’s friendship with Pierce, Carlene Larsson and Fred Danforth of Belmont, Mass., also developed a close bond with him.

When no one showed up for Pierce at his Exeter graduation, it reinforced the Larsson-Danforth family’s concern that he had nowhere to go from there. They invited him to live with them for the summer, and got him a job at a law firm in Boston.

“By the time Jon was to head off to Drew University, we had started the challenging process of expanding our family from three to four. Although Jon is legally an independent, he has emotionally become our son,” says Fred Danforth. “Trygg always wanted a brother. Now he has one. Jon’s presence has been an amazing gift to us, and now Jon finally belongs somewhere where he is loved absolutely.”

Pierce hit another turning point as he entered college. “I realized that the situation in basketball at Drew wasn’t a good fit for me, and I decided not to play there. I wanted to see what life was like without basketball,” he says. “I really matured that year. I learned that I was someone far beyond just a basketball player, but I also learned how much I loved it and how important it was to me.”

Tufts assistant Reggie Hobbs had recruited Pierce at Exeter and never lost touch with him, and in the fall of 2006 Pierce transferred to Tufts to give the game one more shot.

He immediately proved to be an outstanding individual player, leading the team in scoring. But he was still young, and growing emotionally. He defiantly argued with the coaching staff during that first year. The patience that Tufts Head Coach Bob Sheldon and his staff showed Pierce led to another important development in his maturation process—that of building trust.

“When he first arrived, he didn’t trust anybody, and that showed up in how he played,” says Sheldon. “It’s come full circle now, to where he’s a captain, respected by everyone and has trust in all of us. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of his growth as a basketball player and as a person.”

Now in his third year at Tufts, Pierce feels at home. He’s part of a tight junior class on the team. His folks are in the stands at every game. He’s enjoying the academic challenges. His future is unlimited.

“Tufts,” Pierce concludes, “has given me hope that the previous 22 years of my life haven’t been futile.”

Tufts Sports Information Director Paul Sweeney can be reached at

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