Here, take a look at my computer screen. See what I see almost every week, for reasons I cannot explain. There are days when I’m visiting the IHSAA website and clicking the link for “career scoring leaders” – just to study a list of names I’ve already memorized. A new name joined the top 10 this spring when Cloverdale senior Cooper Neese launched an assault on the top scorers in state history. He passed the likes of Kyle Macy and Eric Gordon, Delray Brooks and Chris Thomas, then took aim at IU stars James Blackmon Jr. and Alan Henderson, and Butler’s Billy Shepherd. Neese finished just ahead of those three to sit seventh all time at 2,496 points, behind players – behind names – I no longer have to look up. But from time to time I still do, for reasons I cannot explain: Trevon Bluiett. Rick Mount. Brody Boyd. Deshaun Thomas. Marion Pierce. Damon Bailey.
Look at those names. That’s always my first thought. Followed by this: Who’s the guy way up there at No. 2? Who is Marion Pierce? Had to find out. Which is why I’m walking into this garage in Lewisville, about an hour east of downtown Indianapolis. There’s a man here changing the oil on his big orange riding mower. He’s about 6-4, and everything about him is huge: his head, his hands, his thick swell of silver hair.
The big guy, he sees me coming. He’s smiling. This happens to him, from time to time. He sure does wish he had that old rim, mm-hmm. Oh, sorry. That’s how 75-year-old Marion Pierce talks: Short sentences that he ends by confirming what he has just said. Mm-hmm. And that old rim, that was the one Marion Pierce used to hone the shot that scored 3,019 points in four years at Lewisville, nearly 1,000 more than anyone in state history had scored when Pierce was done in 1961. Kids don’t make rims like that anymore. Kids don’t make rims at all, do they? Marion was about 10 when he decided he needed a rim. His dad, who was just starting an auto salvage business, decided Marion needed to make it himself.
So here’s what Marion did: He worked some steel off an old Chevy and took it to a local welder. They hammered it into a circle. Marion took it home, took it out back and attached it to a corn crib. He didn’t have a net at first, but eventually he had to put something below the rim. He used a burlap bag. “If you didn’t hit the rim, you almost couldn’t tell if it went in or was an air ball,” he says. “My buddies and me got in a lot of arguments over that, mm-hmm.”
By the time he was a freshman at Lewisville High, he was 6-4 and averaging 24 points per game. As a senior he scored 38 ppg. His favorite shot was a turnaround jumper. “I’d post up anywhere in a 15-foot radius,” he says. “You might as well turn and run to the other end, because I’m going to bury it, mm-hmm.” So that’s how the basketball legend of Marion Pierce starts, with a rim and a gunnysack. How it ends? Well, that’s another story straight out of small town Indiana. Pierce went to Lindsey Wilson, a junior college in Columbia, Ky., and averaged 32 ppg as a freshman. He scored 79 in one game. He quit before his sophomore season. Told his coach: “Hey, this isn’t for me.” Marion Pierce went back home. Still here, 55 years later.
The keys are in the ignition. Marion Pierce leaves them there, the truck parked in his driveway, because this is Lewisville. “Nobody would even think about stealing it,” he says. “Mm-hmm.” We’d been talking in his garage about growing up here when Pierce decides to show me Lewisville himself. Who is Marion Pierce? Pinch me: He’s the guy driving me around town. That’s where the old high school was, mm-hmm, though it was torn down after Lewisville High consolidated with two others into Tri High. He takes me a mile north on Ind. 103 and shows me the new school. On our way back into town we pass a large wooden sign welcoming folks to Lewisville. Just behind that is a smaller green sign that says, in white letters: The Home of Marion Pierce. Inside the truck, Marion Pierce looks at me. Just wants to know if I saw that. “Mm-hmm,” I tell him.
This town of about 350 people had six filling stations when he was a boy. In those days U.S. 40 – it’s called Main Street in downtown Lewisville – was the main east-west thoroughfare in this part of Indiana. They built I-70 in the 1960s just north of Lewisville, just 4 miles away, the difference between economic life and death. There are no gas stations in Lewisville anymore. See that antique shop on Main Street? Used to be Peyton’s Corner Store, where everybody went after games to relive the action over a milkshake and tenderloin. “You just about couldn’t get in,” he says. “Mm-hmm.” Nearly everywhere we go, Marion is pointing out a home he owns. He owns 14 rental properties in all, including most of several blocks near the old baseball field where he hit .392 as a senior first baseman.
Life in Lewisville has been good, see. His dad turned that old salvage yard into a used auto parts empire, with lots in Lewisville and Muncie and New Castle and even New Paris, Ohio. Cars were stripped and stacked, far as the eye could see. “We had 256 acres of cars,” he says. “Mm-hmm.” Marion and his eight brothers inherited the business and ran it until a few years ago, when they passed it down to some of their boys. Marion's retired now, he and his high school sweetheart, Sandy Cooley. They’ve been married more than 50 years. Lived in the same house for more than 40. Ol’ Tucker’s buried out back. Tucker was the last dog in Marion's house, and the last dog he’ll ever have. Broke his heart, what happened to Tucker. They were together at the foot of his driveway a few years back when Marion headed for the house. Tucker usually followed, but not this time. He went into the road instead. A car was driving by . Marion buried him behind the evergreens in his back yard. “Tucker jogged with me. Did everything with me,” Marion says. “No, I can’t do that again.”
Marion still jogs most days, jogs on that track right below his house, the one ringing the high school’s softball field. Tri High is building a new field, but for now the Titans still play on Lewisville’s old field. His granddaughter played softball last year. Marion would get on that riding mower and cut his grass on the hill above, while he watched Karly playing below. Today, Tri High is playing Cowan, a small school near Muncie. The Titans are on the field warming up as we drive past. Marion Pierce stops his truck behind the third-base dugout and calls out: “Hey Brian!” Yeah? “Come here!” Out of the dugout pops Brian Peggs, the Tri High coach. He has a team to prepare, but this is Marion. So he walks over with a big smile. “Everyone knows Marion,” the coach says. “This is one of the best guys in town. And if there’d been a 3-point line when he played, nobody would’ve touched the guy.” I look at Marion. He nods. “Mm-hmm.”
He doesn’t play anymore. Not competitively, anyway. He played in men’s leagues for years, played with friends and nephews and had no plans to quit, but he was 68 when he suffered the first major injury of his basketball career, a busted ankle. The ankle never did come back, and his team just sort of drifted away. Now when he gets the urge to shoot, he goes onto the slab of concrete he carved into the yard next to his house and shoots on a basket he installed about 40 years ago. Real rim, real net, real glass backboard, though the glass is so old it’s a frosty white. Marion figures he can still shoot. “It’s a gift,” he says. “I was just born with it, but you’ve got to work at it. You don’t want to get tangled up with me in H-O-R-S-E. Mm-hmm.”
In a town time seems to have forgotten, Lewisville remembers Marion Pierce. Strangers stop by his house, just as I did, just to see the man who scored all those points. They see him out at the local pizza place or in New Castle and talk about 1961. Marion is telling me that he took Sandy to La Hacienda on Indianapolis' east side a while back, and it happened there, too! He throws back that big head of his, and he just laughs. He’s happiest at home anyway, with three kids, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren – toddlers he and Sandy are baby-sitting the day I show up. When it gets a little warmer, Marion will take Sandy and some of the kids out to Lake Cumberland. They water ski and go tubing on his 25-foot Baja.
Yeah, life’s been good to Marion Pierce. He was passed on the IHSAA scoring list in 1990 by Bedford North Lawrence’s Damon Bailey (3,134), and he never became the college player that everyone else on that list did, but he’s OK with that. Three of the top 10 scorers in state history played at IU, one at Purdue, one at Iowa, one at Ohio State. Two went to Butler. One to Xavier.
And then there’s Marion Pierce, who left junior college as a sophomore and never went back. After an hour with the state’s mystery scoring machine, I try to ask him something. Those names on the scoring list, I tell him. Your name is different from the rest. If you had to do it over again … my voice trails off. Marion Pierce rescues me. “You know how people will say there’s always something in your life you’d like to change?” he asks. “Well, I don’t know what that would be. I wouldn’t change a thing, mm-hmm.”