LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He has grown up to be Ivy League Freshman of the Year, and the ones who best remember when and how a young boy’s basketball obsession began will be at the KFC Yum! Center on Friday night cheering Caden Pierce and Princeton on against Creighton, with an improbable South Regional berth in the Elite Eight on the line.
“Am I dreaming this by the way?” Greg Pierce asks over the phone. “Is Princeton really in the Sweet 16?”
He is the father who played tight end at Northwestern. His wife, Stephanie, is the 5-foot-11 mother who played volleyball at Northwestern. Their 24-year-old son, Justin, plays basketball overseas in Montenegro. Their 22-year-old son, Alec, was a rookie wide receiver for the NFL Colts last season.
Their 18-year-old son, Caden, is now a 6-6 forward averaging 30.2 minutes, 8.3 points and a team-high 7.4 rebounds for Princeton.
“We would drag him along to all of his brothers’ games,” Greg told The Post. “At age 4, he would take that ball during timeouts at halftime and shoot 3-pointers and make it, and slowly work his way back as far as he could physically throw a ball and make a lot of these shots during breaks in halftimes. He just had that hand-eye coordination really early. The crowd would encourage him to just throw these shots up as like a 4-, 5-, 6-year-old.”
Stephanie: “We would go to see Justin and Alec’s basketball games, and he’d always have a ball with him, and every single time there was a timeout or anything on the floor he’d go out and shoot. He was tiny, tiny, tiny. He’s the smallest I’ve ever seen be able to shoot on a 10-foot hoop. He could somehow use his body and could maneuver and throw the ball up and make a 10-foot basket. And the refs would, like, stop and watch him and pet him on the head. He was obsessed with it, really.”
Caden’s favorite player growing up in Glen Ellyn, Ill., was Derrick Rose. “We would play on the front driveway all the time,” Caden recalled. “Usually my dad would be the fourth player. Sometimes we’d switch up the teams, but I was the weakest one at that point.”
He never stopped playing. “We played a lot of two-on-two during COVID, during quarantine with some of our neighbors, some of our friends. We weren’t really supposed to during quarantine, but we got the cops called on us a couple of times because of breaking the quarantine rules,” Caden said with a smile, “but we were saying we were playing with another brother.”
Greg and Stephanie encouraged their boys to be active.
“Athletics had been such a huge part of my family growing up,” Caden said. “Both my parents played in college, both my brothers played in college, and beyond even. So just seeing how hard they all have worked has just inspired me and it’s made me who I am today.”
Justin was at William & Mary for three years before grad-transferring to North Carolina. “He went to North Carolina thinking he was gonna make the tournament, but it ended up being that COVID year,” Alec told The Post by phone.
So forgive Justin for living vicariously through his baby brother. Who somehow grabbed 16 rebounds against Missouri in the second round in Sacramento.
“He’s super kind and he’s super sweet and his teachers would always compliment him on just being a very kind person in class and very smart,” Stephanie said. “But then he’s looking pretty tough out there, he’s looking pretty fierce, and he’s going up and he’s attacking and coming down with those rebounds and fighting. He’s a different kid when he’s out playing than in real life.”
Caden led Glenbard West to the Class 4A IHSA State championship a year ago. He was a two-time All-State selection.
“I think I kinda just embody toughness,” Caden said. “I think grittiness, doing the dirty work. And then selflessness, I think I just kinda do whatever the team needs me to do, whether it’s some games giving up some scoring opportunities and crashing the offensive glass, or some other games knocking down shots.”
He is proud to play on a brotherhood Princeton team that is not scared of anyone.
Alec: “Me and my brothers, we used to always watch the tournament growing up, and it was like something that we always loved watching, and something you always dreamed to be in. My older brother never got a chance to play in it — it’s really cool watching my youngest brother be able to live out that dream.”
Greg: “Cade was always like the little guy coming around to all those things for the older boys. We’re all here for him. It’s like his time.”
Stephanie: “The fact that both the big brothers have to get to sit there and cheer for their baby brother when his whole entire life was spent watching them do everything, I think is really, really special.”
“It’s a dream come true,” Caden said. “I think I can speak for the whole team, but it’s why I got into basketball, just playing in March Madness in general, watching it on TV, seeing “One Shining Moment” at the end of the tournament every year, it’s a true inspiration for me and I think the whole team.”