Chuck Person: The Indiana Years, 1986-1992

[From Way Downtown ran an article recently about Chuck Person strutting his stuff during his second season with the Indiana Pacers. I was struck by how Person and his big personality seemingly overwhelmed the Pacers from day one. NBA rookies, after all, are supposed to know their place. Just to refresh from the article, “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 story ended with Person hazing Pacer rookie Reggie Miller about toughness. I free-associated to Miller and his iconic eight points in nine seconds to lift the Pacers to an improbable 1995 playoff win over the New York Knicks. Then I wondered: What happened to Person? Why don’t we today remember Person trash-talking-it-out with Spike Lee in Madison Square Garden? Miller, though no shrinking violet, was also no verbal match for Person. To jog your memory, take this 1988 newspaper clip from Tom McCollister of the Atlanta Constitution (remember, thanks to Person, the Pacers hated the Hawks):

“What Indiana’s Chuck Person couldn’t do with his obvious basketball ability, he tried to do with his mouth. He talked to the clock operator, had a few brief conversations with officials Jim Capers and Hue Hollins, and got in a word with Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb here and there. And when talking didn’t help fire up his teammates, he even threw a half-hearted elbow at Randy Wittman, this after Person had put down his second three-pointer of the night.

Person drew a technical foul and a quizzical stare from Wittman. “I have no idea why he did that,” Wittman said. “It was strange, wasn’t it? Man, he’s different.’”

So, what happened to Person and his brand of different? Let’s start with a brief review of Person and “his” 1987-88 Indiana Pacers. The article comes from Jeff Hardie, then with the Washington Times and now a successful Washington attorney. The article, headlined “Chuck Person Brings Personality to Indiana,” ran in the April 1988 issue of Basketball Digest.]

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Chuck Person admits he’s not in the same class as Atlanta’s Dominique Wilkins. Person would never underestimate his own talent that way. The Indiana Pacers forward thinks he can whip anyone. He doesn’t see Wilkins as a superstar, just someone to disrespect. 

“Take it to me, big man,” Person says. 

Person has made a science of talking trash, which isn’t embarrassing for Indiana’s knowledgeable basketball fans. They’ll settle for any attention. Before Person arrived in 1986, the Pacers were as controversial and exciting as elevator music.

They were just as bad, too. 

“I led by example,” said Person, last season’s NBA rookie of the year. “I had that rah-rah, college imagery I brought here. Everyone else on the team started feeling 23, 24 years old again.”

If his rah-rah imagery meant insulting an opponent, so be it. He boiled Wilkins more than anyone, and the two finally started a brawl this preseason. “For what it’s worth, my talking works,” Person said. “It’s nothing personal. Sometimes, when I need to get going, I talk to myself. And sometimes, I talk to the guy guarding me. If they take it personally, so be it.”

Person is averaging more than 20 points again, and his teammates have responded with some backbone. One reason for this team’s resurrection is its attitude. Another is that it lost for so many years and stockpiled so many high draft choices, it couldn’t help but not be terrible.

The Pacers, coming off last season’s 41-41 record, have developed a solid seven of Person, forward Wayman Tisdale, center Steve Stipanovich, guards Vern Fleming and John Long, forward/center Herb Williams, and rookie Reggie Miller. 

Okay, they’re still the Indiana Pacers. Snicker. Snicker. Stipanovich is the guy who accidentally shot himself during college. The flashiest part of Tisdale’s game is his foot-long grin.

“It doesn’t bother me that we’re not well-known,” Williams said. “We’re just in a difficult media market. We’re not in Chicago, Washington, or Atlanta. But we’ll just have to go get 50 wins and talk about it next year.”

Miller is the team’s most-important addition and has been one of the NBA’s best rookies. The 6-foot-7 guard, who grew up in Southern California and attended UCLA, wasn’t concerned with Indiana’s lack of media appeal. Instead, he wondered about the cold weather. He recently purchased his first stocking cap.

“I’m having fun here, apart from the cold weather,” he said. “I’ve got the hat, the gloves, the winter coat. All of this is new to me.”

Miller arrived under dubious circumstances because many Pacers fans wanted the club to draft Indiana University guard Steve Alford with the 11th choice. The Pacers figured a male version of Cheryl Miller, Reggie’s sister, might do better, even if he was skinny.

The draft-day crowd booed the selection, just as it booed Person’s name the previous year. Of course, Miller is averaging 12 points per game, shooting 53 percent, and is among the league leaders in three-point field goals. “He’s capable of doing all these things,” Coach Jack Ramsay said. “His three-point shots are coming in the flow of the game . . . We liked him all along. The only guard we rated ahead of him was [Georgetown’s] Reggie Williams, and I’m not sure that was appropriate now.”

Miller’s outside shooting, together with Person’s, has opened the inside for Tisdale and Fleming. Fleming, a nimble, lanky point guard, is averaging 15 points and eight assists per game. He has more room to drive the lane and more weapons surrounding him.

“He has been our most-consistent player,” Ramsay said. “He sees the floor better. His assist-to-turnover ratio is almost 4 to 1.”

A second season in Ramsay’s system will help any point guard. Ramsay, 62, is still a meticulous teacher, who molds players to fit his system. He has formed the nucleus, explained the roles, and given this team direction.

He is always on them. When asked if he sees steady improvement from Person, the coach said, “I don’t think Chuck is playing with the same defensive intensity. Maybe he just has different priorities. He’s more interested in offense than defense.”

Williams said that’s not so bad because, before Person, there was no offense in Indiana. No one wanted the big shot. But the Pacers are winning close games this season.

“We’re poised at the end now,” Person said. “Last year, I was the right guy at the end. Now everyone is doing it. I understand no one wanted the shot before I got here. 

“I’ll take the heat.”

[Having spent many an hour pondering and writing about Jack Ramsay, I was surprised that he didn’t immediately reign in and truss Person. He wasn’t one to abide Person’s nonstop yapping, acting out, AND generating his own shots too far outside the orchestrated flow of Ramsay’s offense.

A quick explanation. Ramsay took his calling as coach very seriously. Like a stage director, Ramsay started with two ideas, or in a basketball sense, his preferred style of play and a core strength (Billy Cunningham in Philly, Bob McAdoo in Buffalo, Bill Walton and later Clyde Drexler in Portland). He then kept working through the rehearsals (the NBA regular season) judging his other cast members and swapping them out for new ones whom, he believed, were better suited to appear in his production.

So, it’s interesting that after Person took Indy by storm and was named the NBA Rookie of the Year, Ramsay signed off on drafting Reggie Miller, another scorer who pretty much replicated Person’s offensive skillset—score inside and out, and with tremendous range. Yes, the 6-foot-7 Miller was listed as a guard, not a forward. But, like Person, Miller was more of a swingman. This is interesting because remember when Ramsay was in Portland. He took a pass on drafting Michael Jordan. He already had Clyde Drexler. Even if I’m wrong, Ramsay had one way or the other seeded a situation in which Miller and Person, though good friends, would be compared over the next several seasons to determine which one had greater value to the Pacers as a primary scoring option.  

This bad pairing of Ramsay, the brilliant, been-there-done-that veteran coach, and Person, the brash, do-it-yourself budding young star, came to a head during the 1988 season. Ramsay wrote about it years later in his book Dr. Jack’s Leadership Lessons Learned from a Lifetime in Basketball. Here’s excerpt.]

“I sensed that the level of team play was eroding and connected it in part with Person’s apparent first priority of scoring 20 points a game. I had addressed that issue with him on several occasions, but didn’t see improvement in his play. Then, at a practice session, I stopped a scrimmage after Person’s matchup, Ron Anderson, beat him several times going to the basket. I told Chuck emphatically that his play was unacceptable. He tried to pass it off lightly, and I cut him off. We had heated words, and I told him to leave the practice: ‘Chuck, just go home.’

“We exchanged expletives and he left the court, but not the gym. He sat in the stands at the end of the court, and when practice ended, I went to him and we talked it out. I told him that we needed a better all-round effort from him if we were going to finish this season the way we both wanted. He said that he understood, apologized for his behavior, and offered to reiterate the apology in front of the team. I told him that it wasn’t necessary and thought the incident was over.

“It wasn’t. The rest of the squad regarded my action as backing down in a face-to-face confrontation. Team morale wasn’t the same after that, and I had no one to blame but myself. I should have taken a stronger stand . . .  

“Postseason, I talked with [GM Donnie] Walsh about making personnel changes. I liked Stipanovich, Fleming, and Miller, but was willing to deal anybody else. I wasn’t happy with the contributions of Williams and Tisdale and wasn’t sure if Person was ever going to be a solid team player.”

[There are, of course two sides to every story, and Ramsay wasn’t infallible. But his opinions carried considerable weight in the front office. There was one big problem. Walsh wouldn’t part with Person. And so, Ramsay returned to Indy discouraged. He quit a third of the way through the 1988-89 season, complaining that it wasn’t his kind of team.

The former NBA Rookie of the Year now faced a new coach (Dick Versace), a new system, a new set of expectations, and competition from the rising Miller for shots. Person, with no postseason success to his name, grew more controversial with each continued breach of oncourt etiquette. David Benner of the Indianapolis Star wrote in October 1989: “In three seasons, Person went from top [NBA] rookie, the supposed future, to top scapegoat, the supposed problem. From 41-41 and the playoffs to losing, bickering, coaching changes, and chaos. Step up Chuck Person. You reap the rewards when the team wins, you get the blame when the team loses and remain consistently outspoken every step of the way.”

Person hushed few of his critics over the next winter. Take this synopsis from Rick Barry’s Pro Basketball Scouting Report, 1990-91:

Last season, Person’s numbers .487 from the field, 19.7 points a game, .372 from behind the arc, reinforced his rep as one of the league’s big-time scorers and shooters (19.3 ppg for his career). But the stats only tell part of the story. Person, while maintaining his customary pace, made some significant sacrifices, offensively speaking, and Indiana was a better team for it.

A little history. After Dick Versace was hired a third of the way through the 1988-89 season, the Pacers cleaned house (ridding themselves of Wayman Tisdale, Herbie Williams, and John Long and acquiring Detlef Schrempf and LaSalle Thompson) and Person, more than ever, became the focal point of the offense. He had complete freedom, offensively speaking, and in the latter part of the 1988-89 season, he shot the ball 25 or more times in seven games. But Indiana didn’t win many games with that approach (they finished at 28-54). 

So, last season, a more equal-opportunity offense was installed. Rik Smits had to get more shots, Reggie Miller had to get his, and Person, to his credit, rolled with the punches. Compared to 1988-89, his shot attempts went from 18.2 a game to 16.1, he was often not the first option in the offense, nor did he have complete freedom, for example, to shoot the jumper off the break. As a result, Indiana was a solid team, 42-40, and made the playoffs.

Person’s forte is the outside shot. That .372 was his best year from triple country, and he’s also an expert mid-range shooter. But his game is basically limited to the perimeter; he just doesn’t create much off the dribble, either for his jumper or his drives to the hoop (he only got to the line 3.5 times a game). When he does drive, it’s almost always to his right. If he wants to score more, he should also think about improving his work on the offensive glass 1.6 per) and running the floor. But when the clock is running down, Person has few equals in the league for getting a shot—and a good one. However, he was a non-factor in the Pacers’ 3-0 playoff loss to the Pistons (.378 from the field and 13.3 ppg).

The Barry Scouting Report concluded:

“Person indeed was having an All-Star year until December 23, when he suffered a scratched right cornea, which, according to one observer, “threw his whole year off.” And that’s the issue with Person: Who is going to show up? The early season all-star or the insignificant playoff contributor? While Person is a quality player, the Pacers are looking to build around Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and Detlef Schrempf, and it’s not clear he can handle not being the focal point of the team.

Reggie Miller, the kid Ramsay wanted, had begun to outcompete Person as the Pacers’ go-to player. He also came with less craziness. In a game against the Bulls, Person drop-kicked the basketball into the crowd not once, but twice. The NBA gossiped about it all, and the Barry Scouting Report, 1991-92 picks up narrative:

“In my eyes,” Person said, “I was the best player in the world for one day”.  . . Of indelible impressions left by 1991 playoffs, none was more memorable than Person’s performance in Game 2 of the first-round matchup between the Pacers and Celtics . . . Check his line: 16-for-24 from the field, including seven three-pointers (a playoff record), 0-for-0 from the stripe, and 39 points.

Person again: “It didn’t matter who was on me. I’m on a mission to show I’m one of the high-caliber players in the league . . .”

As one wise, around-the-NBA fellow put it: “Person is a guy you’d love to trade or you hate to trade” . . . After that 39-point explosion, the next night he scored six . . . Such dramatic swings aren’t typical, but they highlight the key question about this five-year veteran: Which Person is going to show up? . . The Person who shoots you in, or the Person who takes you out with bad shooting, inconsistent defense, and an attitude that is at odds with championship basketball?

Another publication, Dick Vitale’s Pro/College Basketball Annual, 1991-92, fills in a few more blanks:

As recently as two years ago, the Pacers were 28-54, but their [rebuilding] plan appeared solid. Detlef Schrempf and LaSalle Thompson had been acquired in trades, Reggie Miller and Rik Smits through the draft.

Respectability came at a price. Jack Ramsay, once a master coach, lost his fire for the job and quit. Dick Versace had a flicker of success, then lost control of the team. The Pacers need to win back their public. They were largely ignored in Indianapolis last season, but did kindle excitement by nearly ousting Boston in the first round of the playoffs . . .

The Pacers relish those nights when Chuck Person is out of control—like his taunting, finger-pointing, 39-point effort that gave the Pacers a playoff victory at Boston last season. That brought him renewed respect, and Person seems intense on retaining it, considering that he worked during the offseason to improve his ballhandling and defense.

The Pacers love Person’s marksmanship—he is The Rifleman—but were growing weary of the rest of his game. He averaged 18.4 points and shot a career-best 50.4 percent last season, but his reluctance to drive to the hoop resulted in one of the worst minutes/free throw attempts ratios in the league for a scoring forward. His 229 free throws were fewer than half what Charles Barkley attempted. Person prefers post-up and isolation plays. His move always is over his right shoulder. If he spins left, he will pull up. If Person wants added respect, he might try working the boards. His rebound total has declined in each of his five years, from a rookie high of 8.3 to 5.2 last season.

[Person’s rebounding didn’t pick up during the 1991-92 season, but his offense remained solid. He averaged 18.5 ppg., connecting on 48 percent of his shots from the field (38 percent from three-point land). But teammate Reggie Miller had logged slightly better offensive numbers than Person over the last three seasons and performed without all the histrionics. Indiana faced a decision, seeded five seasons ago by Ramsay: Miller or Person? 

Pacers’ GM Walsh, who now considered Person “like a son,” finally put business before family and friendship. In September 1992, Walsh traded Person to the Timberwolves, and all the controversy surrounding Person swirled to Minneapolis. “People are allowed to their own opinions of the 27-year-old Chuck Person,” Person told a local reporter. “What I know is that I play hard every night, and I play with a lot of emotion. A lot of people call it bad attitude, a lot of people call it arrogant. I call it wanting to win.”] 

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