Sichting living his hoops dream

By Conrad Brunner

Indianapolis (Oct. 6, 2011) -- Jerry Sichting knows full well the hand fate can play in guiding a career path.

Consider his senior season at Purdue. In 1978-79, Lee Rose's first season on the bench, the Boilermakers shared the Big Ten title with Michigan State and Iowa. In the era of the 32-team NCAA Tournament, no more than two teams from any conference could receive bids, so a tie-breaker had to be applied, which sent the Spartans and Hawkeyes into the NCAAs and left Purdue with an NIT berth.

"Unfortunately, it didn't work our way," said Sichting. "We had split with Michigan State but we lost both times to Iowa. I think we had maybe one guy suspended and two guys sick when we played Iowa at home so we lost that game and it ended up costing us a chance to go to the NCAA. We were ranked, I think, 11th or 12th in the country and won 27 games but we had to go to the NIT."

That, of course, set up two dramatic championship games, one universally remembered, one not so much. Earvin Johnson led the Spartans past Larry Bird and Indiana State in the NCAA championship game that changed basketball forever.

Sichting's Boilermakers wound up losing to arch-rival Indiana 53-52 in the NIT Final.

Had the tie-breaker gone the other way, the world might've seen Sichting vs. Bird. It would've lacked the magic but that would've been fine with the scrappy guard from Martinsville.

"It was (painful)," Sichting said. "That was probably the last year the NIT was good because they changed the rules and all the good teams were going to the NCAA. But to show you how good the Big 10 was, the (NIT) Final Four was us, Ohio State, Indiana and Alabama. We matched up with I.U. in the final game and I actually missed the last shot that could've won the game for us, so that made it particularly distasteful."

The following year, the NCAA Tournament field was expanded to 48 and the restriction limiting no more than two teams per conference was lifted. Rose guided Joe Barry Carroll, Keith Edmonson and the Boilers to a Final Fourth berth, while Sichting, a fourth-round pick of the Warriors, was out of work after being cut.

His hoop dream could've died there. As it turned out, it was just beginning to be realized.

He signed with the Pacers in 1980, not only making the team but establishing himself as a solid NBA player, averaging 8.3 points and 4.1 assists while shooting .501 from the field in five seasons.

"I barely made the team as a rookie," said Sichting. "I was a free agent, I'd been cut the year before at Golden State. We had a pretty good team my rookie year but the owner of the team at the time was a guy named Sam Nassi and he didn't want to sign any of the veteran guys.

"We made the playoffs my first year, then when guys became free agents he either traded them or let them go outright. But what it allowed me to do was kind of get a foothold in the league. Out of necessity, they kind of had to play me so I ended up getting a niche in the league."

Sichting knew his days with the Pacers were numbered when the Simons purchased the team in 1983. When his contract expired in 1985, it didn't represent the end, but yet another new beginning. Sichting joined Bird in Boston.

"It was difficult because I had never lived anywhere but Indiana and I wanted to see what it would be like," he said. "I knew I wasn't good enough to make that much of a difference with the Pacers in terms of helping turn their team around. I knew I was a role-player. I started a couple of years out of necessity because we didn't have anything else. I got to where I at least proved I could play in the league.

"To me, it was a chance to go to a really good team, a team that had already won a couple of titles, and it was a chance to see if I could play on the big stage coming off the bench. It was quite a thrill that first year when we went ahead and won the championship."

In that 1986 NBA Finals series against Houston, Sichting's name was forever stamped in league history when the 6-1 guard was involved in a fight with 7-4 Rockets center Ralph Sampson. Sichting was battling Sampson in the post, a mismatch forced by transition, when the big man took exception, turned and threw two punches to ignite a melee. Sampson was ejected. Sichting played on. The Celtics lost that game but won the title.

"I've never spoken to (Sampson) since," Sichting said. "I kind of got 15 minutes of fame out of it. People remember that fight and I get asked about it a lot but I've never spoken to Ralph. He just kind of threw a sucker punch, I don't know. It was a crazy atmosphere down there, it was a wild game."

Sichting would move on to play for the Trail Blazers, Hornets and Bucks before retiring in 1990, launching a diverse post-playing career that included broadcasting, scouting pro and college players, serving as an assistant coach in the NBA and at the college level (including three seasons with Tom Crean at Marquette), most recently with the Golden State Warriors in 2010-11.

New head coach Mark Jackson assembled a staff for 2011-12 that did not include Sichting, who is now, as he put it, "a free agent."

With his broad range of experience, Sichting has much to offer -- still the ultimate role-player -- and hopes to return to the league this season.

"I just would like to be with a good organization either coaching or in the front office," he said. "Coaching's probably my first love but I enjoy scouting, being a part of basketball, being a part of the game, no matter what (role) it is."

A career that seemed ill-fated in 1979 turned out to be anything but. Sichting spent 10 seasons in the NBA as a player, won a ring with the Celtics, and has remained closely involved with the game for more than two decades.

"My career was really kind of funny because when I was a kid, my favorite pro teams were the Pacers and the Celtics and I ended up playing for both of them," he said. "Basketball was it when I was growing up through high school and college. Being from Indiana, that's what it was, trying to be a basketball player or a coach, try to play for your varsity team. … It's most kids' dream and I was able to live it."