Chuck Person Laid Foundation for Pacers' Future Success
The Indiana Pacers were kings of the ABA, winning three championships with Slick Leonard manning the sidelines and stars like Roger Brown, Mel Daniels, and George McGinnis leading the way on the court.
But after the ABA-NBA merger, the Pacers struggled to find any success in their first decade in a new league. Over their first 10 seasons in the NBA, the Pacers managed just one playoff appearance (in 1981, when they were quickly swept out of the postseason by Philadelphia).
But in the mid-1980s, the franchise began a dramatic transformation from cellar dweller to contender. That all started when assistant coach Donnie Walsh was promoted to general manager. Walsh's rebuild began in the 1986 NBA Draft, where he had his eyes on a young sharpshooter out of Auburn named Chuck Person.
As he told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth in a podcast earlier this week, Walsh had previous experience with the draft process from his brief stint as head coach of the Denver Nuggets.
In 1980, the Nuggets had the fifth pick in the draft. They really wanted to take Kevin McHale, a forward out of Minnesota, but they made the mistake of letting other teams know of their intentions.
The night before the draft, Boston traded the first and 13th picks in the draft to Golden State for center Robert Parish and the third overall selection. The Warriors took Purdue star Joe Barry Carroll with the number one pick, while the Celtics dropped down and took McHale with the third selection, cementing the core of what would be one of the NBA's all-time great dynasties (having missed out on McHale, the Nuggets drafted Jacksonville forward James Ray, who lasted just three seasons in the NBA).
So when the Pacers had the fourth overall pick in 1986, Walsh knew better than to let other teams know which way he was leaning. When he got calls asking what he planned to do, Walsh told teams he would likely take a big man.
"I didn't just out-and-out lie to them, (but) I came close to it," Walsh said.
On draft night, after Brad Daugherty, Len Bias, and Chris Washburn came off the board, Walsh gladly nabbed Person with the fourth pick.
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Person joined a Pacers team that had averaged just 23.5 wins over their last four seasons. Clark Kellogg, the Pacers' best player over that stretch, was forced to retire at age 25, just four games into Person's rookie season, due to chronic knee problems.
That allowed new head coach Jack Ramsay to move the rookie into the starting lineup and Person flourished, putting together the greatest rookie season in franchise history. He led the team in scoring (18.8 points per game), rebounding (8.3 boards per contest), and 3-point percentage (.355), living up to his nickname of "The Rifleman."
Person was named the NBA's Rookie of the Year (to date, he's the only Pacers player to ever take home that honor) and led Indiana to a 41-41 record, a 15-win improvement over the previous season.
In the playoffs, the Pacers matched up with Dominique Wilkins and the Atlanta Hawks. After dropping the first two contests on the road, the best-of-five series shifted back to Market Square Arena, where the rookie put together a pair of memorable performances.
In Game 3, Person amassed 23 points, 17 rebounds, and seven assists to lead the Pacers to their first-ever NBA playoff victory.
Two days later, Person scored 40 points, going 14-for-27 from the field and 12-for-15 from the free throw line while also tallying seven boards and six assists. The Hawks came away with a four-point win to eliminate Indiana, but Person's prolific output would stand as a franchise record for 14 years until Reggie Miller surpassed him with 41 points in a 2000 playoff game against Milwaukee.
Just how good was Person as a rookie? In NBA history, only two players have ever averaged at least 18 points and eight rebounds per game while also shooting 35 percent or better from 3-point range. Person is one of them. The other is Larry Bird.
Walsh, for one, was not surprised at Person's instant success.
"I thought he could (win Rookie of the Year)," Walsh told Montieth. "I knew he could score. I absolutely knew it. And I knew that Chuck was very knowledgeable about the game for a guy coming out college. He really knew how to post up, he knew the nuances of the league. And those things he didn't know, he kind of caught on very quickly. He was a really good first pick."
A year later, Walsh made another inspired pick, drafting Miller with the 11th overall selection. Together, Person and Miller formed one of the NBA's most formidable sharpshooting duos. Joining forces before Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were even born, Person and Miller were the original Splash Brothers.
They combined to make 244 3-pointers during the 1989-90 season, 191 a year later, and 261 in 1991-92. In an era when the 3-point shot wasn't utilized with nearly the frequency that it is today, those were astronomical numbers.
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Individually, Person continued to excel, leading the team in scoring in both his second and third NBA seasons, including a career-best scoring average of 21.6 points per game in 1988-89. The Pacers missed the playoffs in each of those years, but Walsh was slowly building a strong core around Person and Miller, drafting 7-foot-4 center Rik Smits in 1988 and trading for skilled forward Detlef Schrempf in Feb. 1989.
The Pacers returned to the playoffs in the 1989-90 season, the first of what would eventually be seven consecutive postseason berths. The first three of those teams were led by Miller and Person, who finished first and second on the team in scoring in each of those years, combining to average 44.3 points per game in 1989-90, 41.0 in 1990-91, and 39.2 in 1991-92.
In 1990, Indiana was swept in the first round by Detroit, the eventual NBA champions. But the next season, the Pacers drew a first-round matchup with the Celtics, setting the stage for another memorable postseason performance from Person.
Person loved to talk trash and had created a personal rivalry of sorts over the years with the great Larry Bird.
Being the competitor that he is, Bird didn't shy away from Person's bravado. According to legend, when the two teams met in the month of December, Bird drilled a 3-pointer in front of the Pacers' bench. Aggravated by something Person had said to him earlier, Bird had promised Person a Christmas present. As his shot was falling through the net, he turned, found Person sitting on the Indiana bench, and exclaimed, "Merry...Christmas!"
Needless to say, Person was fired up for the chance to go head-to-head with Larry Legend in a playoff series.
PHOTOS: Chuck Person Career Gallery »
"The thing about Chuck, no matter if it was the regular season or the playoffs, he came to play," Bird told Pacers.com in a 2004 oral history. "I think he played harder against me than anybody else, but it was good. In this league, a lot of times the players don’t give you any resistance. But when you played against Chuck, you knew you had to play and you had to play hard – and if you didn’t play well, they’d probably beat you."
Indiana dropped Game 1 of the best-of-five series in Boston, but stunned the Celtics with a 130-118 win in Game 2. Person starred on that particular night, scoring 39 points and hitting what was then an NBA playoff record seven 3-pointers.
The Pacers, however, squandered homecourt advantage in Game 3 at Market Square Arena, as the Celtics smothered Person, limiting him to just six points on eight shot attempts.
Indiana bounced back to win Game 4 behind 30 points from Person and 27 from Miller, sending the series back to Boston for a winner-take-all Game 5.
Bird exited that contest late in the first half after a hard fall against the hardwood, but returned midway through the third quarter and led the Celtics back into the lead, dueling with Person down the stretch.
Bird finished the night with 32 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists. Person went 5-for-9 from 3-point range on his way to 32 points, four boards, and four assists.
Boston led by as many as 16 points in the second half, but Indiana rallied to cut the deficit to two in the closing seconds. Off a busted play, Person took a deep 3-pointer that would have given the Pacers the lead, but it rimmed out and the Celtics survived to take the game and the series.
The Pacers returned to the playoffs the next season, where they met up with the Celtics once again, but this time they were swept in three games.
By that point, it had become clear to Walsh that he had to make a move to get the team to the next level. Person admitted he saw the writing on the wall.
"We had Rik Smits, who was coming into his own, and myself and Reggie and Detlef Schrempf," Person told Pacers.com in 2004. "Those four guys alone, we all had a lot of talent, we all had the opportunity to become great players but, obviously, we didn’t have enough minutes and enough balls to go around so some changes had to be made. I was the one that got traded."
That trade came in Sept. 1992, when Walsh sent Person and Micheal Williams to Minnesota for Sam Mitchell and Pooh Richardson. Mitchell wound up being a valuable role player on two Eastern Conference Finals teams. Richardson was part of a package that Walsh used to acquire Mark Jackson from the Clippers two seasons later, setting the stage for the franchise's greatest run of sustained success.
You know what happened from there. After Person left, Miller blossomed into the team's clear go-to option in crunch time. The Pacers grew into arguably the most consistently successful franchise in the NBA, reaching the playoffs in 16 of 17 seasons from 1990-2006, making six trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and, of course, reaching the NBA Finals in 2000.
Person, meanwhile, never quite replicated the success he had in Indiana. He averaged 16.8 points per game in his first season with the Timberwolves, which wound up being his last as a full-time starter. His scoring average dipped below 12 points per game in each of the next three seasons. He missed the entire 1996-97 campaign due to injury, but managed to last three more seasons after that before retiring in 2000 at age 35.
Person spent a combined seven seasons in Minnesota, San Antonio, Charlotte, and Seattle, but he will always be best remembered for his six years in Indiana.
To this day, Person remains the Pacers' NBA franchise leader in scoring average at just barely under 19 points per game. Despite spending only six seasons with the franchise, Person still ranks sixth in NBA franchise history in points scored and fifth in 3-pointers made.
Most importantly, Person was the first building block for the franchise's most successful period. Together with Miller, Person helped turn the Pacers from a laughingstock into a perennial playoff team. He wasn't around to enjoy the greatest fruits of their labor, but "The Rifleman" was as important as anyone to the Pacers' emergence on the NBA stage.
On Saturday night, the Pacers will honor Chuck Person with a commemorative bobblehead at the 1980s Decade Game against the New York Knicks. It will be a fitting tribute to one of the greatest players in Pacers history, a man who helped lead the franchise out of a decade of darkness and into the light.