Chuck Person
NBAE/Getty Images

Chuck Person's Star Burned Bright as the Pacers' Go-To Player

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

The phone rang at 1:32 a.m. Saturday morning. Chuck Person was returning a call. From Tuesday.

Such is life for a college basketball coach immersed in preparations for a conference game the next day. Later the same day, actually. Person is the associate head coach at Auburn, which has a home game against Mississippi on Saturday, which was reason enough for him to be in his office in the wee hours, particularly when the team is coming off two losses.

Person won't be able to attend the Pacers' game against New York on Saturday, when the players from the 1980s will be honored and he will be the subject of a bobblehead given to fans. He would if he could, though, and he should if he could, because he stands as the franchise's most significant player of that decade. Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, both drafted in the 1980s, had longer and more stable careers with the franchise, but Person came before them and did more to begin the process of changing the course of a drifting battleship.

"The Pacers mean everything to me," he said. "Donnie Walsh, the Simon family … they trusted me to come in and help get things turned around.

"Hopefully they appreciated what I tried to do. We had some great times. And, some times when it was not so good. But we did jump-start that franchise."

You would have had to be there to understand the state of the franchise in 1986. The Pacers had won 26 games the previous season, 22 before that, 26 before that and 20 before that. That's 94 victories in four seasons if you're counting at home, as most fans were then because actually attending games at Market Square Arena was an exercise likely to bring first-hand frustration.

The 1985-86 season ended with 11 losses in the final 12 games, and the team's best player, Clark Kellogg, out with a knee injury that would soon end his career. But better days were coming.

Walsh was elevated from assistant coach to general manager after that season. His first personnel move was to draft Person, a 6-8 forward from Auburn, with the fourth pick in the draft. He put out word within the league that he was going to "go big" with his selection – maybe William Bedford, or Roy Tarpley. But that was a ruse to prevent another team from trading up to move ahead of him in the order and take Person.

Person was among those fooled. Sitting at the draft in New York, wearing the white suit he had worn just a few days earlier when he was married in Muscle Shoals, Ala., he expected to go to the Knicks with the fifth overall pick.

"When I went through the interview with (Knicks general manager) Scotty Stirling, he said if I'm there at five he would take me," Person said. "I didn't have any idea the Pacers would take me at four. When it came time for the Pacers to pick in New York, I saw the cameras coming my way and I said, 'Whoa, it looks like I'm going to the Pacers.'

"I was kind of hoping the Knicks would take me, but I was grateful Donnie Walsh and the Pacers chose me to help turn their franchise around."

Fans booed the selection back in Indianapolis, just as they booed Miller and other picks Walsh made to build the franchise. Red Auerbach, providing commentary for the national television coverage of the draft, questioned the pick as well. And if Person wasn't viewed favorably as a draft pick, the Pacers weren't viewed favorably as a destination.

Before the draft, Len Bias – who went second to the Celtics -- had been asked by a USA Today reporter where he wanted to go in the draft. "Anywhere but Indiana," he said.
Person, though, was undeterred.

"Unlike Len Bias, I'm happy to be here in Indiana," he said at his introductory press conference. "I'm glad Indiana drafted me. I'm excited to be a Pacer."

Those words meant something to a beleaguered fan base, and provided the first hint of the desperately-needed bravado that Person would inject into the franchise. He was nicknamed The Rifleman, appropriate on many levels. His mother had given him the middle name of Connor, after Chuck Connors, who played the lead role in the television series, The Rifleman. And he fired a lot of shots, many from long distance.

Person came off the bench the first four games of his rookie season as Kellogg attempted a comeback from his knee injury, but when Kellogg was forced into retirement, Person stepped in without blinking.

He finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals in his first start, a 130-97 victory over San Antonio. He scored in double figures in all but four games the rest of the season, and finished with averages of 18.8 points and 8.3 rebounds. He was one of the league's best 3-point threats at the time, hitting 36 percent of his attempts. He hit just 49 overall, but that seemed like a bombardment at the time. In the previous four seasons, no Pacers player had hit more than 17.

He was a legitimate post-up threat, too, and the franchise's first bona-fide clutch shooter since Roger Brown in the ABA. Person, for example, hit a game-winning 3-pointer with nine seconds left for an overtime win at Golden State on Feb. 10, 1987. He came back the following night to score 42 points in a 16-point victory at Phoenix. He hit 18-of-23 field goal attempts in that game, with just one of the 18 makes coming from beyond 12 feet, and converted all six 3-pointers.

The Pacers won 41 games that season, made the playoffs for just the second time in their 11-season NBA history, and won a playoff game for the first time. They lost their first-round matchup with Atlanta 3-1, but the season qualified as a breakthrough.
For all that he was voted the NBA's Rookie of the Year. He's still the only Pacer to receive that honor, and was the first player in franchise history to win a major individual award. He was an obvious choice, receiving 68 of the 78 votes, with Cleveland's Ron Harper getting the other 10.

"He sets the tempo for the future in the way we would like to play and that's with a certain amount of mental toughness and playing every game day-in and day-out," Walsh said at the press conference announcing the honor.

Person also stands as a cautionary tale, however. He admits today the acclaim from the award went to his head somewhat, weakening his work ethic in the off-season. He reported to training camp out of shape and struggled early the following season, when rookie Reggie Miller joined the team. Person's scoring averaged dropped to 17 points and the rest of his game declined a bit as well. The Pacers won just 38 games and missed the 1988 playoffs by one game, losing the final regular season at home by two points to the Knicks.

He still regrets that season.

"I don't think I came back prepared to be one of the top players in the league," he said. "I thought I had arrived and probably had one of the worst seasons I ever had in a Pacers uniform. I regret that my conditioning wasn't where it needed to be, and it showed on the court.

"I had that sophomore experience when you think you're better than you really are. I didn't perform as a team player."

Person's peak moment with the Pacers came in his fifth season. Miller had blossomed into a star, Detlef Schrempf had become the NBA's best sixth man, and Rik Smits was a threat at center, although underutilized and underappreciated by coach Bob Hill.

The Pacers went 41-41 that season, but took Boston to a fifth game in the first round of the playoffs. Person scored 39 points in a Game 2 upset in Boston, hitting 16-of-24 shots, including 7-of-10 3-pointers, to ignite dreams of an upset. The Pacers dropped Game 3 back in Indianapolis as Person scored just six points – "I made the mistake of trying to let the game come to me," he recalls – but he was back to his old self in Game 4.

The day before the game, a Friday morning, he stuck his head in Hill's office and said, "Good morning, Coach. It's a good day in Zimbabwe."

That let Hill know Person was ready. And he was. He scored 30 points, including 12 in a row while hitting five straight shots in the second half and engaging Celtics legend Larry Bird in trash talking, to lead a 116-113 victory.

1980s CENTRAL: Learn More About the Decade at Pacers.com/1980s »

"I wasn't going to go down without a fight," he said afterward. I was going to draw first, just like the Rifleman."

If there was a singular moment when the Pacers' fan base finally galvanized around one of the franchise's NBA teams, this was it. The fans stood continuously throughout most of the game, and all of the last five minutes, creating a din never before heard in the building. Person still remembers being in a timeout huddle and not being able to hear the buzzer sound to return to the court.

"I never experienced a crowd like that before in my life," he said after that game. "Tonight, when we got down they stayed right behind us. Keep going, keep going. That was fueling my fire. I said I'm not going to let this team down, or the franchise, or the fans. I was going to do whatever I had to do to help this team win … even if it meant playing a little defense."

The Pacers lost Game 5 back in Boston, 124-121. Person scored 32 points, but it's remembered for being one of the final highlights for Bird, who retired a year later. Bird hit his head on the court after chasing a loose ball and had to leave the game, but made a dramatic return to lead the Celtics' victory and finish with 32 points.

"That's one of those moments in time you wish you had back," Person says. "What if we won Game 5? Where would the franchise be now? If we win that series we could go on to beat Cleveland in the next round, then we're in the Eastern Conference finals. I do think back on that. It's the only what-if in my life.

"We were young and didn't know what we were doing. We were brash and explosive offensively.

We just couldn't guard anybody and couldn't rebound. And that was our shortcoming."
Indeed. Person's joke after Game 4 about "even if it meant playing a little defense" was telling. The Pacers averaged 111.7 points in that 1990-91 season, but gave up 112.1. It wasn't a long-term winning formula.

They finished 40-42 in the 1991-92 season and were swept in the first round of the playoffs by Boston. With his team stuck in neutral, Walsh dealt Person to Minnesota for Sam Mitchell and Pooh Richardson after the season. That moved Schrempf into the starting small forward position Person had occupied, and allowed Miller to become the focal point of the offense – of the team, really. With Dale Davis and Smits emerging, the pieces were in place for a series of runs to the Eastern Conference finals after Larry Brown was brought in as coach and Schrempf was traded to Seattle for Derrick McKey to improve the defense.

"Did I want to leave Indiana? Of course not," Person says. "But Detlef had become a really good player and wanted to start and was starting to play small forward and Dale Davis was coming into his own and was the power forward of the future and the organization felt it had to make a change.

GALLERY: Person's Career at a Glance »

"I don't say it was a bad decision. We had other guys who could do things I could do. They made a choice. It didn't work out as well as they thought it would. But something had to be done. I never felt any less for Donnie. In fact I loved him even more because he told me he was thinking about doing it and asked what I thought of it. I said, if it's good for the Pacers he should do it. I wouldn't trade that man for anybody. He was always honest with me. He gave me the keys to the franchise for six years. Sometimes I didn't drive very straight, but I did the best I could."

Person finished his career in Minnesota, San Antonio, Charlotte and Seattle, playing 13 seasons in all not counting the one he sat out with an injury. He's since coached in Cleveland, with the Pacers – as Rick Carlisle's defensive coordinator, believe it or not – and with Sacramento and the Lakers. He very nearly became Chicago's head coach, finishing a close second to Vinny Del Negro, and interviewed for the head coaching jobs with Sacramento, Golden State and the Lakers.

He's 52 now, and the dream is to become a college head coach.
"At the end of the day my goal is to be a head coach," he said. "I think the NBA has passed me by. I've had the opportunity to go back (as an assistant) but I like being in college."

He's interviewed for the lead position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and is patiently trying to prove his worth and sincerity by grinding out the assistant chores at his alma mater, even in the wee hours the morning of a game.

"We all have to have that first job to get that experience," he said. "I'm hoping one day it will happen for me. If it doesn't I'll be good, but I'd like to have a chance to do it.

"College coaching entails a lot of things -- academics, many, many speaking engagements; coaching is about 20 percent of it. Those 33 games go by very quickly You're always on the phone. You're always calling recruits. We have 50 recruits on board, and there's about six people to talk to for each one. That's a lot of people. But I love it. It's a matter of time before someone sees I put in my time."

Person isn't looking back. But he does keep in touch with a few people from his time with the Pacers, including Walsh. And he does have one request.

"Tell Larry Bird I want one more game of H-O-R-S-E," he said.


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