Chuck Person: Person-al Touch, 1988

[Chuck Person was back in the headlines a few years ago for all the wrong reasons. Person had been up to his eyeballs in debt, couldn’t stand the pressure, and made a huge mistake while an assistant coach at Auburn University, his alma mater. Person steered two Auburn players to a bribe-paying financial adviser, who unbeknownst to him was cooperating with the FBI. Person collected in total $91,500 in bribe money, reportedly funneling some of it to the players’ families, and the former Auburn great was arrested and fired from his job. Person pled guilty in 2019 and, lucky for him, the judge stated that “no purpose would be served by incarceration.” He was sentenced Person to community service. 

Tragic story. But Person’s 13-year pro career and indomitable personality remain vivid memories of the 1980s and 1990s NBA. And his career is definitely worth another look. This article, published in the May 1988 issue of the magazine Inside Sports, profiles Person, a.k.a., The Rifleman, during his double-barreled early years in Indiana. The article comes from journalist Hank Nuwer, who now specializes in writing about all aspects of hazing. Interestingly, this article begins and ends with some old-fashioned NBA hazing.]

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Chuck Person believes in the importance of first impressions. While another rookie might have gawked and smiled shyly the first time he played Dominique Wilkins, Larry Bird, and other such stars of the National Basketball Association, Person last season greeted the league’s elite players with nasty pops to their cheekbones and ribcages. His opponents learned fast that they’d much rather tangle with a bobcat.

“Last year, I determined that the first time I saw a guy, I was going to hit him,” says Person, a 6-foot-8 forward whose shaved skull paradoxically harbors the sweet smile of a cherub. “I’m going to get some respect one way or another. I’m going to throw a forearm—whether it’s right or wrong. I’m going to do it. In the first five minutes of the game, I usually have two fouls on me, because I go out and waste two, or at least one.

“When I go out on that floor, I’m a different human being. I’m there to win.”

Along with physical intimidation, Person attacks his opponents verbally. From opening tipoff to the final buzzer, the Indiana forward never stops flapping. He can be heard above the roar of the crowd, sometimes goading on an opponent and sometimes ridiculing him. “I [decided that] I was going to go out and talk on the floor,” he explains. “I was going to harass them and throw a lot of BS at them, and I did. I felt like it might cost me a technical here and there, and it did, but I thought badmouthing them was my way of getting my point across that I’m not going to be pushed or shoved around. I had respect for every player, but I was not in awe of anybody.”

What he says on the court contrasts sharply with the soft-spoken, polite speech he prefers when he’s out of uniform. Person is embarrassed when asked to repeat what he says to his opponents because his language on the court is so blue.

“I say, ‘I’m going to be in your face, and you can’t stop me; you can’t do nothing about it,” Person says. “After I shoot, I hit him, then tell him, ‘You can’t stop me.’ I go back down the court, and I hit him with a forearm and say, ‘Go ahead and throw the ball to him. Give it to him.’

“Or we go downcourt and someone will be posting me up, take Dominique [Wilkins]. If he’s posting, I say, ‘Go ahead and give it to him—he can’t score on me.’ Then we go back down the court, and I forearm him in the chin. I might just go out and get a technical for the hell of it, just to get people aroused—just to get a guy’s attention. Then they’ll say, ‘This guy’s crazy as hell.’”

But doesn’t Person’s game suffer when he motor-mouths down the court? Doesn’t his own concentration falter? Doesn’t he end up distracting himself as much as his opponent? “Nope,” he says. “That’s just the way I play. I have to be vocal. If I don’t touch somebody, I won’t be effective as a player.”

Largely because of Person, Indiana’s reputation has gone from being league pussycat to an NBA-version of the Oakland Raiders. Opponents need to break out the brass knuckles when they play the Pacers because they know a rumble is in the offing. The grimmest, most-hellacious squabbles occur when Indiana meets Atlanta. In the last two seasons, inspired by the bloody head-to-head matchup of Person vs. Wilkins, each Pacers-Hawks game has become a no-holds-barred Little Bighorn that ranks with the Celtics-Lakers brouhahas as the NBA’s fiercest rivalry.

“Atlanta has become a Rambo-like situation,” Person says. “We call it World War III, and I’m right in the middle of it. I have to light a fire underneath this team, because if I can toughen up each and every guy, we’ll play better as a unit. If you fight and you know a guy’s going to back you up, it makes you have more respect for that teammate. That’s what I’m going to instill in this team.”

Person’s teammates are quick to support the actions of their young leader. During a 1987 preseason game with the Hawks, when Person and Pacers center Steve Stipanovich began brawling with Wilkins, Tree Rollins & Co., the first of many Pacers to join the battle was sixth man, Wayman Tisdale. A day later, when informed by the league office that an automatic $500 fine had been levied against him for leaving the bench, Tisdale—Indiana’s master comedian who does a better impersonation of Chuck Person than Chuck Person—feigned outrage. “I’m not going to back your baldheaded ass anymore,” he squawked to Person.

But Person was having none of Tisdale’s act. “We get enough per diem to cover $500 fines,” he retorted. “You have to do something out of the ordinary to succeed. I’ll go out and get a technical just to prove the point. Some people tell me to tone it down, saying that I’m bad-natured. But if I did [tone it down], I’d be out of the league.”

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Person’s take-no-prisoners style of play has gained him respect because he is able to maintain his intensity for an entire game; last year, he led the Pacers with 36 minutes per game and is again leading the team this year. He is also leading the team in scoring and is second in rebounds and assists. It’s all a carry-over from his phenomenal rookie season last year, when his team-leading scoring (18.8 ppg) and rebounding (8.3 rpg) helped earn him the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. He became the lowest drafted player (selected fourth overall) to win since Larry Bird won it in 1980 (he was drafted sixth in 1978 as a junior in college).

More important in Indiana coach Jack Ramsay’s eyes, Person helped the club win 15 more games than it did the previous year; Indy finished with 41 wins last year and made the playoffs for the first time since 1980. Moreover, against the despised Hawks in a four-game playoff series won by Atlanta, Person averaged 27 ppg, including a 40-point output in the finale. Because of his performance in such situations, Person is regarded as one of the top clutch players in the NBA, praise usually reserved for seasoned veterans. When the game is on the line, Person wants the ball. And his teammates want him to have it. Shocking? Not really. Unusual? Yes.

Few things surprise Ramsay, the NBA’s second-winningest coach of all-time (he’ll likely surpass Red Auerbach in 1990), but even he didn’t expect Person to supplant such talented Pacers as Herb Williams and John Long as the team’s leader. “He became a leader by example,” says Ramsay, “by his display of determination. Leadership is more than vocal, but he can do that as well.

“He’s very confident in himself. He wants the last shot in a game, and he made last-second shots for us that were very important,” says Ramsay, perhaps remembering how Person screamed, “Gimme, gimme, gimme” at Williams  before taking a pass and sinking a 40-foot fadeaway jumper against Milwaukee to win the game, 104-103. “Always, at a timeout at the end of a game, he looks right at me, hoping that I’m going to say, ‘We’re going to get the ball to Chuck.’ That’s the way he likes it,” notes Ramsay.

Boston’s Bird has become a fan of Person’s, who has matched him bruise for bruise in the several encounters that they’ve had. “He’s rugged and tough—I like him,” says Bird. “I put him in the top 10 as far as coming to play every night. He comes to play. You better be ready when you play someone like that.”

“I have a great time playing Larry,” Person says. “He knows I’m going to come in there and give it 110 percent on both ends of the floor. He knows it’s not acakewalk when he plays against me, and when you get respect from a guy who has won three MVPs in a row, what more could you ask?”

Remarkably, Person’s intense play has won him few—if any—enemies, partially because he’s the league’s nicest guy outside the painted lines and partially because he has such respect for his enemies—even those from hated Atlanta.

“Playing Dominique is the ultimate matchup,” says Person. “Everyone looks forward to it—I look forward to it. ‘Nique has his own game, and I have mine. Every time we meet, there’s some kind of pushing and shoving going on.”

“You got to love him on the floor,” says Atlanta’s Spud Webb, who names Person as one of the NBA players he’d pay to watch play. “He gives 110 percent every play. Chuck has everything it takes, plus the confidence of a bull. When he’s on the floor, he believes he’s the best player to get the job done. He’s about the talkingest player in the league. He’s funny sometimes, but [usually] he tries to intimidate you and fire himself up.”

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After every game, Person leans against his locker, ice bags hanging from all extremities. Although he’s got good size at 225 pounds, he invariably wears black-and-blue marks like merit badges after encounters with the likes of Bird, former Auburn teammate Charles Barkley, and in particular Seattle’s Xavier McDaniel. “Xavier’s as tough a guy as you want to play,” says Person. “He’s hard-nosed like myself. I see a lot of me in him or him in me—whichever way you want to call it. When we play in the Arena [Indy’s Market Square Arena], it’s a standoff. We both go at it like Brahma bulls. The coaches let us play, and we just kill each other. We’re like two men possessed.”

But you won’t ever catch Person admitting he’s in pain on the court. He would rather tear up his four-year, $2.5 million contract than give an opponent the satisfaction of seeing him wince. What he does show the opposition is a fist-shaking rendition of an NFL sack dance after some particularly important victories. Person has also invented something new that he hopes will serve to pump up the team in times of need. Basically, the Indy star performs an act of self-flagellation in hopes of stirring up the team and Pacers fans. He pounds himself in the forehead with his fists.

“The whole world should be doing this this year,” giggles Tisdale, smashing himself in the forehead several times. “You take your fist and double it up like this. It’s going to be the big fad around town. It looks like a gorilla dance, but I don’t know where he got it.”

“That’s my way of getting myself pumped up,” says Person. “That’s my way of getting myself checked out to get ready. I get myself into the game mentally that way.”

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A tolerance for pain has always been with Person, and even today his coach at Auburn, Sonny Smith, speaks with wonder when discussing Person’s college career. “He played his freshman year with two hernias, or he would have been a big scorer,” says Smith. “We would play Saturday and Monday games his freshman year in the league. On Saturday, he’d score in double figures; on Monday, he’d be so sore that he couldn’t move, and he’d score three, four, or five points.

“We thought it was one hernia, but when we had him operated on, it was two. You didn’t have to wait until the season was over [to be treated], but he did. There was no way you could put him under the knife with a game going on.”

A couple months after he had his hernia surgery, Person paid little attention to a nagging pain in his side. According to Vern Strickland, a former teammate of Person’s at Auburn, Person was playing video games at an arcade on Auburn’s main strip when he announced that he had a bellyache. “Chuck came over and said, ‘Man, I’m sick,’” recalls Strickland. “’I’m going to go in.’ I said, ‘I’ll be over there later.’ I stayed downtown, and about an hour later, I came in.” Strickland found his teammate lying on the dormitory floor. He scampered off to find a trainer. The “bellyache” turned out to be appendicitis in its most-advanced stage. In fact, had Strickland failed to return home when he did, Person swears there is no doubt that he would’ve died where he had fallen.

“They rushed him to the hospital,” says Strickland. “When they cut him open, his appendix burst right there.”

On the court, Person became one of Auburn’s greatest stars, setting whatever records Barkley (who left Auburn in 1984) failed to nail down, most notably the Tigers’ career and single-season scoring marks with 2,311 and 747 points, respectively. Nonetheless, Person failed to gain national recognition because basketball at Auburn has always been football’s second cousin. During his years with the Tigers, it was a football player—Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson—who garnered both local and national headlines. 

What’s more, largely due to a disastrous 10-point shooting performance by Person, Auburn lost to unheralded Richmond 72-71 in the first round of the 1984 NCAA Tournament East Regional, and lost the opportunity for much-needed national exposure. “We were supposed to play Bobby Knight and the Hoosiers in the next game,” recalls Person. “It was the first time I ever looked one game past the team we were playing—and the last time, too.”

Following that game, Strickland suffered a career-disabling injury and Barkley decided to turn professional, depriving Person and Smith of a shot at the NCAA Final Four in 1985. “Strickland and Barkley, the two people that I lost, cost us a chance at the national championship,” laments Smith. “We had talent enough to do that—that was a real regret. Winning a national championship would have upped both their values. Charles hadn’t really started coming around as a player until the middle of his junior year, and then he became dedicated to the sport. Chuck was dedicated to the sport from day one.”

****

Person led the Tigers to the semifinals of the NCAA Southeast Regional in 1985 in the final of the West Regional in 1986. But without Final Four status, he was unfamiliar to Indiana Pacers fans on the day of the NBA draft in 1986. Thus, when general manager Donnie Walsh decided to pass on 7-foot center William Bedford to select Person, he was greeted with boos that rocked Market Square Arena. “William Bedford is a bona fide risk at this stage of his game, despite his great size,” pleaded Walsh. “Come on, give [the team and Person] a chance.” But the boos only increased.

The boos stung Person, but he masked his hurt well. Wearing the same white tuxedo to the draft that he’d been married in a few days earlier, he donned a white Pacers hat and alluded to a comment made by fellow draftee Len Bias, who had said he wanted to play anywhere but Indiana. “Unlike Len Bias, I’m happy to be here in Indiana,” said Person. “I’m glad Indiana drafted me; I’m excited about being a Pacer.”

Even before the 1986 exhibition season ended, Person had won over the Indiana fans. “I had to prove to the fans in Indianapolis that I belong here,” says Person. “If I would have been an Indiana fan, I probably would have booed [my selection], too. They are used to Big Ten basketball, and in the South, basketball didn’t get much exposure. Once I got on the floor, I felt all the boos were taken care of. I cherish my Rookie of the Year award more than I should because I was playing on a mission. People didn’t think I belong to the league.”

Person’s negative reception worked to his advantage. Both his Indiana teammates and coach rallied around him. Ramsay personally prepped the rookie on what to expect on his first tour around the league. And the team’s acknowledged star, Herb Williams, unselfishly took Person under his wing. “He told me about every guy I played, especially Bird,” says Person. “He’d say, ‘Stay down and don’t go for his pump fakes, ‘cause if you do, he’ll get 38 or 40 points.’ Sure enough, the first time I played Bird in Boston Garden, I was dancing around, and he got 38; he really destroyed me. But after that, I knew how to play him.

“I always want to be just perfect,” Person says. “I’m one of those persons, I think, who is destined to achieve greatness.

“The hardest question I would ever ask myself is: ‘Do you feel like you can ever be a failure?’ And I would answer no, because I have so much self-confidence in my ability that I won’t let myself lose. I feel like I’m best at what I do. Most players can score, but I can shoot and score and rebound and play defense and handle the ball in the middle.

“I want to put this game at another level, to advance it even more than it is now. I feel with the types of skills I have, I’m going to. I have no doubt—I’m going to. I want to play 12, 13, 14 years in this league, and I want to be the best player in the league. I want to be MVP. I can’t lie and say that I don’t.”

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Of utmost importance, his wife Kimberly gives Chuck the solid family life he lacked as an obese youngster growing up in tiny Brantley, Ala., “one of those towns that you have to be going there to get there,” as Person puts it.

The couple is lovey-dovey, and Person says he fell in love with the former Auburn coed at first sight, pursuing her with the same intensity he gives to his sport. “In our profession, you have a lot of women walking up to you,” says Person. “You have to make a decision. I have a good wife, and I wouldn’t mess that up for anything in the world. I want to be with her the rest of my life, and I want a happy relationship. I don’t want any stress between us.”

The fifth of seven children, Person did not grow up under those conditions. He was raised without a father, and his mother, Mary, needed welfare money to support the family. “I don’t feel bad toward my father,” says Person, who has been reconciled with the elder Person in recent years. “I respect him, and he respects me. I’ve learned to overlook things. I think you have to like people in life, and he respects me.”

Nonetheless, Person—who says he’s never used drugs and prefers Coca-Cola to alcohol—shivers when he thinks what his life would have been like had he not learned to shoot a basketball through bicycle rims that served as makeshift basketball rims. “Maybe I’d be on the streets selling drugs,” he says, to which Kimberly snaps, “I can’t believe that.” He starred at tiny Brantley High School, growing to 6-foot-5 as a senior, and accepted a scholarship offer from Smith at Auburn.

Smith helped Person become a complete ballplayer. At Brantley High, Person had always been able to hit from the outside, but Smith worked on his game inside the paint, teaching him both inside and post moves. He also sent him to work out with the football team, pressing free weights with such intensity that he gained nearly 50 pounds in four years. Smith also taught Person a shooting trick that the Pacer has never forgotten.

“The key to shooting a ball is catching it the right way,” says Person. “Most people just catch the ball and shoot it, but Sonny Smith taught me to catch the ball, if you can, by the seams. And if you can’t catch it by the seams, catch it, and turn it so that you can shoot the ball with the seams. You have a better grip on the ball, and it feels better when it leaves your hand. If I don’t have the ball on the seams, mostly I’ll miss. I can turn the ball in a split second, and you probably can’t tell I do it before I shoot it. Coach Smith and I used to spend hours just throwing the ball back and forth.”

And Person, as he matured and gained size, demonstrated that he had learned his lessons well, surpassing even the multi-talented Barkley by the time he graduated. “He was a sponge,” says Smith. “He absorbed everything you taught him and came back for more. He wanted to know what he was supposed to do. He approached the game from a coach’s standpoint instead of a player’s standpoint. I knew he was going to make it big. His competitive nature indicated that; his desire to learn the game was above and beyond anyone I’d ever had.”

****

Pandemonium reigns in the Pacers locker room. Pacers’ rookie Reggie Miller, a UCLA grad, shrieks in agony while trainer David Craig Ames aims what looks like a small blowtorch at the rookie guard’s bare toes. The trainer is about to relieve pressure in Miller’s toe by drilling a small hole in his toenail.

“I got fire on both my feet,” hollers Miller. “Stop it, Dave.”

“If you quit jerking around, I can get it done,” retorts the trainer. 

All at once, Person, who is on one of the trainer’s tables, is on his feet, his towel dropping as he grabs Miller from behind.

“Hold him down, Chuck,” cries a voice from the pack of naked players surrounding Miller. 

“Be a man, UCLA. Be a man,” shouts Person, shaking with laughter.

“Burn a happy face on his toe,” says Tisdale helpfully. 

“Yeah, put on a happy face,” echoes Person. “Play with pain, rookie.”

Miller scowls, but relaxes all at once. Person’s challenge has apparently had an effect. The rookie sighs and pushes his foot toward the trainer, while Person retrieves his fallen towel.

“Learn to play with pain, man,” repeats Person. “Learn to play with pain.”

Miller says nothing; he’s no fool. He sucks it up while Craig finishes. Miller, too, apparently believes in first impressions, and he wants to leave a good one with his new team’s leader.

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