Person has evolved into defensive specialist

by Conrad Brunner

Indianapolis (Sept. 7, 2011) -- For those that followed the Pacers of the last 1980s and early '90s, what I am about to write may come as a shock:

Chuck Person is a defensive specialist.

That's right, the trash-talking, brash-walking, unrestrained 3-point gunner known as "The Rifleman" during his playing career has undergone a dramatic evolution. He is now a soft-spoken, deep-thinking man on the verge of becoming a head coach in the NBA -- largely because of his work on defense.

What's next? Randy Wittman in a slam-dunk contest?

"That's kind of comical, in a sense," said Person with a chuckle. "It's funny to me at times when I think back on it, to say that Chuck Person would be coaching defense because of my offensive output when I played.

"But at the same time when you know basketball, when you understand the game, you understand both sides of the ball. You understand what it takes to score points and you understand what it takes to implement a system of defense that encompasses five-on-five team defense that can get stops on any given possession to make the game easier for the offense going back on the other end."

Now 47 years old, his 13 seasons as an NBA player more than a decade in the past, Person is on the coaching fast track. He got a strong taste of the job under Rick Carlisle with the Pacers from 2005-07 and moved on to Sacramento before joining the Lakers.

When Mike Brown was hired to replace Phil Jackson as the Lakers' head coach earlier this summer, Person was one of the few members of the staff to be brought back. Brown and Person worked together in Indiana under Carlisle.

"Working with Mike at Indiana when he was there with Rick Carlisle's staff, being a part of that staff I think gave me a head start on what possibly my role could be on this team," Person said. "Since I've been in the league, I've been able to work on the defensive side of the ball, as I did here with the Lakers last year.

"With Mike coming in, he's a great defensive coach, a great coach overall, but he does understand each coach will bring a strength and defense has always been my niche in the league just like I think (fellow Lakers assistant) John Kuester has a great offensive mind. I think Mike will use our specific talents in certain areas but also we need to be able to coach the team on both sides of the ball."

The first draft pick of former Pacers boss Donnie Walsh in 1986, Person was the NBA Rookie of the Year that season. Along with Reggie Miller, who joined the team in 1987, and Detlef Schrempf, Person helped bring respectability to a franchise that had been in the doldrums for most of the previous decade.

The Pacers reached the playoffs four times in his six seasons but failed to advance beyond the first round. But the breakthough that occurred in 1994, two seasons after Person was traded to Minnesota, came very close in a 1991 series with Larry Bird's Celtics.

With Person scoring 39 points, including what was then an NBA playoff record seven 3-pointers, the Pacers won Game 2 in Boston 112-105 and came home to Market Square Arena with a chance to shock the basketball world. But Person scored just six in a pivotal Game 3 loss, and the opportunity was lost.

"In any given moment in history, there are some defining moments that make or break a person's career, whether it be coaching or playing or any facet of life," Person said. "I thought that opportunity we had in Game 3 to come back home and put a stamp on the series after we won Game 2 in Boston, that really defined the Pacers' early career and personally it defined my career. If we could've gotten through that series, you never know how great the Pacers organization could've been -- it was already great but it could've gotten there a little sooner than it did if we could've pulled out that series."

He bounced back to score 30 in a Game 4 win, sending the series to Boston Garden for the deciding fifth game.
That was when Bird, who left in the second quarter after smacking his head on the parquet diving for a loose ball, made a dramatic re-entrance in the second half and inspired Boston to a 124-121 victory.

"I'll tell you, Larry Bird has wrecked a lot of people's lives when it comes to playing basketball, he's broken a lot of people's hearts," Person said. "And the Pacers' and my hearts are on the long list of casualties he's had along the way. But at the same time I thought it also propelled the Pacers into an area they hadn't experienced in such a long time so I'm grateful at the opportunity to be a part of that.

"I think it springboarded the guys into an area where they could compete for years to come and that franchise has been a model of consistency for a number of years after those early exits from the playoffs. The Pacers were not thought of as a team to be reckoned with, they were thought of as a doormat team and we changed the guard during that series."

Bird, who with Walsh was running the front office when Person rejoined the franchise in 2001, played a role in launching Person's coaching career, enabling his move from the front office to the bench. Carlisle took it from there. Person said he thanks all three for their roles in his life and career.

"Donnie Walsh has been a great mentor for me for a long time," he said. "He drafted me and trusted me with this team back in '86 and then rehired me with the Pacers to come back to the front office in '01.

"But I think the person that really escalated my career in the coaching aspect was Rick Carlisle. I was a guy that hadn't really been in the coaching profession but he asked me to come down from upstairs to coach his defense, gave me full autonomy on defense and he allowed me to have my own thoughts and implement my own gameplans. I have to really thank him for my career and how it has progressed up to this point."

And it has progressed rapidly.

In a relatively short time, Person's status has grown to the point his name is commonly in the conversation when openings for head coaches arise -- it reportedly was briefly in the conversation here before the decision was made to retain Frank Vogel.

And it mostly is because of his defensive work. He has other attractive qualities. Person described himself as "a good listener" who communicates well with players. That, too, represents something of a sea change from his playing days, when he was much more of a talker.

"I guess as we grow older we all mature a little bit," he said. "It takes some people longer than others to go through that maturation process to find out the better qualities of intellect, I guess. But coaching has always been a part of my being, even when I was in high school and college and even playing as a pro because I was very aware of the way things were implemented and communicated from each staff that I was a part of."

Chuck Person, defensive specialist.

I've got to get Wittman on the phone to found out if he's been working on his vertical.