Getting to Know: Chuck Person
In the third of our series of getting to know Mike Brown's assistant coaches, we were joined by Chuck Person, who detailed his basketball past and present. Person, the No. 4 overall pick out of Auburn in the 1986 NBA Draft, had a successful 13-year career as a player before fulfilling a longtime goal of moving into the coaching ranks.
MT: How would you describe growing up in Brantley, Alabama?
Person: The first thing that comes to mind from my childhood is a lot of trees and open space. We had a lot of fruits and vegetables, and various produce were constants in a farming community in the 1960's, as well as the presence of cows and chickens right on the streets. It’s a place to grow up that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Brantley was very safe, and all the parents in the community would raise the kids together. If you got in trouble, you could be disciplined right on the spot by some other parent, which is unheard of today. It was a good way of life in our town of only 2,000 people, where everyone knew everybody else, all of their habits both good and bad.
MT: Clearly, sports have had a massive impact on your life, particularly basketball. What was the sports culture like in Brantley?
Person: Sports was the biggest parts of my growing up. We didn’t have many – just basketball, football and baseball – so all the kids played them all. It was close-knit like that, and if you were good in one of the sports you were probably good in all of them. I was pretty good, and we had pretty good teams despite how small our school was. I stopped playing football after my 10th grade year because I got my knee undercut, and didn’t think I’d want to go further with the sport. But I continued to play both basketball and baseball, and even though baseball may have been my favorite, basketball eventually won out because of how I developed. I remember going to the Sonny Smith basketball camp, when he was the head coach at Auburn, and Jerry West was one of the speakers. He was the guy who basically taught me how to shoot properly. The things he did on the floor, the speech he gave had a great impact on my life. I remember everything he had to say about the game and the art of shooting*.
*For the full story of Jerry West’s teaching Chuck how to shoot, click here:
MT: Are shooters born? Is it an inherent gift, or can it be learned regardless?
Person: I do think that shooting is part gifted. We all have certain gifts that we’re bequeathed, but how good you are and the level that you can achieve comes down to determination, discipline and the amount of time and work you put into your craft. I put an amazing amount of time into my shot and playing basketball in general, my coaching and all aspects of my life.
MT: How did you end up choosing to go to Auburn, which is roughly two hours away from Brantley?
Person: At the time, Auburn had a small forward that was 6-2, and I was 6-8. I thought that if I came in and worked hard, I had a chance to beat him out for a starting spot. I knew I wasn’t going to go to other schools in the region because various better known players had committed to them, such as Buck Johnson, a future first-round draft choice who went to Alabama, or Kenny Walker, who went to Kentucky. Auburn was the best destination for me, because I knew I had a chance to play right away.
MT: Were you always a tall kid? Get it from the Person gene pool?
Person: Yes, I really was always tall. I hit 6-8 by the start of my junior year in high school as a 15-year-old; my mom’s 6-feet tall and dad is 6-5. I played almost exclusively in the post in high school, but I could also shoot and even bring the ball up if need be, since our coach, Earl Henderson (Brantley High School was in class 1A, the smallest of six divisions) had us do everything to try and prepare us for the next level.
MT: Your decision to go to Auburn looking for opportunity proved smart as it took you only seven games to earn a starting role. Some look back at you as a shooter, but didn’t you actually spend most of your time in the paint, alongside Charles Barkley?
Person: Indeed I did. One misnomer about the way I played is that I started my career as an inside player. Sonny Smith was a coach that liked to post up, so Barkley was on one side of the rim and I on the other; we played smash mouth basketball. We always led the SEC in points in the paint, rebounds, field goal percentage and offensive rebounds. It was very effective, and as I got older, I expanded my game to more of an inside-outside game and became a better shooter as I continued to work at it. I later added a dribble-drive game prior to my senior year, and just kept shoring up weaknesses in my game.
MT: You played well enough at Auburn to eventually be nabbed with the fourth overall pick by Indiana in the 1986 Draft, and finished your career with averages of 15.7 points, 5.1 boards and 2.8 assists per game. How do you reflect back on your career today?
Person: I’d like to think that I was a good team player. Could I have done more individually? Probably, but I think I’ve always been a good teammate. I had some good teammates over the course of my career, such as Reggie Miller and Rik Smits with the Pacers, where we were young and exciting and could score the basketball … but we couldn’t guard anybody. Indiana was where I had my best individual success, but my best team success was with San Antonio. When you talk about players being pros, you have to be able to fit in with the system, and in San Antonio, I knew I wasn’t going to be the focal point offensively, so I had to be a piece of the puzzle. There were post up guys like David Robinson, so I had to become an outside threat only, and I worked hard on the one thing I really had to do, which was shoot threes.
MT: That’s not an understatement … you actually attempted 1,853 field goals in your three years with the Spurs (1994-95, 1995-96 and 1997-98), of which 1,184 were threes. So 64 percent of the shots you took were from long range.
Person: Shooting threes was what I worked on every day, because I knew that’s what was going to help our team. I made two hundred three-pointers before practice every day, and two or three hundred more after practice. On the other hand, I wasn’t a great individual defender by any stretch, but I was a good team defender, and I focused on those techniques. We had a system that was predicated around being able to defend for a dribble and a half, keeping your man from blowing by you on one dribble, and being able to help the helper under Gregg Popovich’s design. All in all, it was a joy to be around guys like Robinson, Avery Johnson, Vinny Del Negro, Doc Rivers, Monty Williams and Dell Demps, all of whom are still very much involved in the game.
MT: Why weren’t you a better individual defender? Just a lack of quickness compared to a league featuring a ridiculous amount of offensive talent at small forward?
Person: Lateral foot speed makes a huge difference, plays a great factor in how good an individual defender one can be. But I don’t think anyone should be automatically labeled as a bad defender, because everyone can work at being a decent team defender. How so? Making multiple efforts, hustle plays and understanding the defensive system regarding where to send the basketball particularly if you’re isolated against a player you know can beat you off the dribble. You have to influence that player into a certain direction to where your help is, and that’s out of a scoring area. Being a good defender includes knowledge of the offensive player as well. When a player is just flat out better than you, and you know you’re going to get beat, how do you adjust? Lest we forget, during the time that I played, the small forward position was the cream of the crop, especially offensively: Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, Bernard King, James Worthy, Alex English, Dominque Wilkins, Kiki Vandeweghe, Mark Aguirre, Larry Nance and even Michael Jordan at times. Needless to say, we all needed help guarding the small forward position on most nights.
MT: What lead you to coaching?
Person: I’ve always been intrigued by the coaching aspect of the game. Even in high school, I’d sit in on the meetings with the coaches, and I continued to do so at college and in the pros. My first coach in the NBA, Jack Ramsey, allowed me to sit in on coaches-only meetings. One moment I’ll always remember came under Ramsey during my rookie year. I was having a bad day, just being disruptive, and he asked me if I wanted to be a coach in this league one day. I said yes. His next question was, ‘Are you willing and able to deal with a player such as yourself?’ He didn’t want an answer. He just walked away. That was a defining moment in which I realized that you have to allow coaches to do their jobs, you have to allow people to direct you in areas where you’re lacking. That was the meaning I drew out of Ramsey’s question.
MT: What made you want to stay in Los Angeles to work under Mike Brown, with whom you coached in Indiana?
Person: When Mike first came to Indiana, I was working upstairs as an assistant to the GM, Donnie Walsh, and when (then Pacers head coach) Rick Carlisle came, he brought Mike and a few others. I had a more hands-on relationship with the team from that point forward, and had a chance to see first-hand what type of worker Mike is. He’s a guy that’s dedicated to preparation; Mike taught me some things about preparation and defense that I didn’t already know. His system helped our Indiana team reach new heights on defense. So it was a very easy decision to stay here with the Lakers under Mike, even though being able to interview for other jobs, having other opportunities, was really gratifying for me. When teams want you, it means more to an individual than having to make calls asking for a spot on a team. But I wanted to be a Laker, I wanted to stay, and it worked out that Mike became the coach and he and I had history together. The transition of him hiring me was seamless; there wasn’t anything that he and I had to learn about each other, because we already knew.
MT: Is it safe to assume that you’ll be more focused on defense and John Kuester on offense, with Quin Snyder weighing in as well?
Person: We all have to know the system at both ends, but coaches do have areas in their repertoire where they excel. John has a great offensive mind, while my niche that I think I coach best is defense. That’s what I’ve been since I got into the league, a coordinator on that side of the ball. Mike is obviously also a great defensive mind, so I’ll be able to learn more things as we collaborate and figure out what we need to do for this team to excel on defense.
MT: Many a night flying home from some road game last season, I’d look up while most were sleeping, but you’d be wide awake, studying game film. Is that in your nature?
Person: I just like to work. With basketball, I like to know everything there is to know about our opponent. If you can figure out one play to stop down the stretch … the tendency of the coach you’re coaching against … the tendencies of their best player or their 12th player … anything that can give us an edge going into the game or preparing for the next time we play an opponent is vital and essential to winning. The only way I know how to do that is put the time in. When you sign on to be a coach, you sign on to do things the right way, and for me that’s coming in with a great work ethic. I feel like there are few people that can match what I bring to the table in terms of being prepared, knowing my strengths and weaknesses and knowing the team framework. In other words, I focus on staying in my lane and not going outside those parameters.
MT: Do any reflections from your time spent with Phil Jackson stand out?
Person: Right after I realized I couldn’t play any longer, Phil asked me to stay along and help mentor players. I still really wanted to play, but I told Phil that the court got long, and I just wasn’t good anymore. Then I told him that the real reason I wanted to retire: in my last year, Rick Fox was kicking my behind, and I didn’t think he was a really good player. So that’s why I knew it was time to hang it up.
Another Phil story: When I first got here as a coach, it was on a trial basis, and he called me into his office and said, ‘Chuck, I don’t know you outside of the times I coached against you from your playing days, but I’m a straight forward guy. I’ve heard really good things about your coaching acumen, but as I sit here today, I’ll be straight: you have one week to show me that you’re as good as everyone says you are.’ Talk about pressure coming from the greatest coach that ever coached the game; basically, you better show up or you’re going home. I wasn’t intimidated by those statements, but instead embraced them. I learned the triangle right away and worked hard, and it ended up being an easy transition.
MT: What’s one thing you learned about Phil Jackson that we might not know?
Person: The one thing that I find very strange and disturbing to a point is that people will say he’s unapproachable, that he seems like he’d be hard to talk to. I thought those things too before I actually sat down with him, but he’s actually very easy to talk to, and very refreshing. The one thing that separates him from a lot of coaches is that he is, and I stress is, the most intelligent, brightest person I’ve ever met in my life. The guy has knowledge beyond anything I can imagine while talking to one single person.
MT: Phil always seemed to leave you wanting more, as if no matter what he was talking about, he had more interesting things to offer.
Person: Absolutely. And he’d do that. He gave me all the time in the world. I’d always want to know the answer or the meaning to the latest riddle, if there was one, and he’d give it to me. Furthermore, he’d engage you in conversation, and then come back at a later point in time and re-engage you to see if you truly understood the things he was trying to tell you.
MT: OK, classic hoops argument: do you believe that players can get hot, or that some guys are just good shooters and have better chances to make shots?
Person: Absolutely. I do believe in it. It’s called “the zone.” The good shooters, when you work them out in practice, make eight or nine out of ten on a consistent basis. During a game, the best shooters typically hit 40 percent with a hand in their face. Now, when you talk about “the zone,” you’re talking nine or 10 shots in a row, when every time you shoot, everything goes in from everywhere: off the dribble; step backs; one-foot runners or whatever. When this happens, people say that “he’s feeling it,” but to me it’s the opposite. You don’t feel it. The ball seems weightless. You just let it go, and it goes in the hoop. And good shooters will tell you that they don’t feel anything, they don’t see anything, the game just slows down and it’s tunnel vision. If anyone said they got in the zone more than 10 times in their career, they’d be lying.
MT: Not Jordan? Bird? West?
Person: Anyone. There are very few times where you make that many shots in a row. You could consider the zone making six or seven in a row and miss one before making six more. But this isn’t lay ups. It’s jumpers outside of 15 feet when you know you have it going. It’s an amazing thing.
MT: It sure sounds like fun. In your rookie year against Phoenix, you had 44 points on 18-of-23 field goals (.783), including 6-of-6 from three. Or, in the 1991 playoffs, you hit seven threes in a row with Larry Bird guarding you for a total of 39 points (no free throws). That would qualify as “the zone,” yes?
Person: Yes, those are fair examples. I’ll give you those.
MT: Last week, we did a quick piece about your NBA JAM character being pretty bad at everything but shooting. But on the bright side, at least you can get in the zone! Right?
Person: I’m sitting here sobbing at the fact that I’m just relegated to being a shooter, and nothing else in that game. I like to think I did other things. For example, we had six fouls, and I know I used a lot of mine. And I think I was a good rebounder in my prime, but when you play a long time in this league … well, Father Time is undefeated in this league and in this life. But yes, I’ll acknowledge that at least I can get in the zone. I guess.
MT: When you’re not watching basketball or other sports, what’s your favorite show on TV?
Person: This new series that’s come out that’s intriguing to me is called “Torchwood,” where a miracle day happened in which no one dies. That’s been interesting to me so far, as they try and find out what happened to the world that day.
MT: No other shows? “Mad Men?” “Breaking Bad?” “The Office?” “Justified?” “Jersey Shore?” “Saved By the Bell” reruns?!
Person: Nope. Never seen them, haven’t heard of them. Definitely no reality TV.
MT: Wow. That’s unfortunate. So what’s another favorite way to pass time?
Person: What I like to do is play chess and dominoes online. I’m at an advanced stage, and love playing both. Anybody who wants to play, come find me. In fact, I asked Phil if he wanted to play chess, but we didn’t get a chance during the season. I tried, but he said he hadn’t played in a while.
MT: Finally … would you rather eat a live spider that wouldn’t kill you, or have to swim through a rip tide at Venice Beach with no lifeguards on duty?
Person: I always had this fear of suffocating, so eating a spider would be by far the easier thing to do. I wouldn’t even hesitate; I’d just add hot sauce and ketchup versus risking the chance of dying. Then I’d ask for seconds. Now, I don’t really go to the beach. I like swimming … but only in a contained area, not out in the ocean where I could just go forever. You read about the undercurrent and rip tide that can take you out to sea. No thanks.