The Pacers' rookie sensation, Chuck Person, was sprawled across an easy chair in his Indianapolis apartment the other day, reflecting on his future in the NBA: "One of these days, I'm going to achieve greatness. I mean, I don't have any glaring weaknesses."
That statement rolls the eyes of his wife, Kim, who disputes him. "No weaknesses?" she says. "He can't cook, can't clean, can't wash or iron."
Although those are undeniably four major league shortcomings, none matters much on a basketball court, where indeed—almost unbelievably—Person, the 6'8" phenom from Auburn, appears to be weakness-free. Larry Bird counts him among the best to come into the league in years, and Celtic coach K.C. Jones views Person, only 30 games into his pro career, as dynamite with a smoldering fuse. "He has loads of confidence," says Jones, "and that's what you need if you want to be called great." Teammate Wayman Tisdale tries hard to come up with a shortcoming in Person, but, alas, he can't. And on a charter flight into Boston the other evening, even the resident perfectionist, coach Jack Ramsay, was at a loss for a flaw to latch on to, finally acknowledging that Person needs to take the ball to the hoop a bit better. And Horowitz should practice his scales.
Indeed, while the woods are full of rookies gone bust, it is hard to imagine a similar fate for Person, who handles himself, on and off the basketball court, with grace, style and dignity. "A smile and a handshake," says Person, "go a long way in life."
When Pacer G.M. Donnie Walsh picked Person last June as the fourth player in the NBA draft, Indianapolis fans went nuts—booing. Smarting over 10 seasons of frustration—especially the last five, during which Indiana had a 129-281 record, worst in the NBA—draftniks wanted a big man like William Bedford; hell, they even wanted a little man like Scott Skiles. They wanted any man except Chuck Person, whom few had even heard of. Chuck and Kim, who flew in from New York after the draft, watched the fans booing on the six o'clock news from their hotel room a few blocks from Market Square Arena at the Hyatt Regency and considered it, Person swears, "hilarious." Of course, a contract that ultimately ended up at $2.4 mil for four years will soothe a fellow's blistered ears. For more hilarity, they watched again at 11.
In response, Person said reasonably, "I would have booed, too. But don't make a snap judgment until you see me play. If you like basketball, you'll love Chuck Person." Fans still booed. Then they saw him play. And the cheering for his all-out effort and creativity on the court has been nonstop ever since. He's averaging a team-high 17.4 points, most of them with that glorious jumper from 18 feet or a whole lot farther—he hit a 40-foot fadeaway buzzer-beater last month to edge Milwaukee 104-103—but that's not the point. He truly tries hard all the time, which makes him real special in the NBA. He rebounds (averaging a team-leading 8.9 caroms per game), he runs the fast break and unerringly hits the right man, and—no joke—he plays defense. "Offense takes innate talent," says Person, "but defense just takes practice and guts."
Yet who wants to rebound, make assists, play defense? Well, Person does: "You have to love all parts of the game," he says. "Besides, it's an awful easy job for incredible money, isn't it?"
Person even loves Indianapolis, which ranks No. 3, behind Cleveland and Buffalo, on almost every pro athlete's list of least desirable places to play. "It's a great city," he says. "I wouldn't mind finishing my career here." This from a man who had been led by pre-draft scuttlebutt to believe he would be playing in New York City.
Oddly and unfairly, the booing he received on draft day is typical for Person. Traditionally he has gotten no respect. At Auburn he played mostly in the shadow of the two Tiger superstars who preceded him: Charles Barkley, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Kansas City Royals' Bo Jackson. In fact, when Person first tried to hustle Kim, who was also a student at Auburn, she didn't even know who he was.
As a high school star in Brantley, Ala., Person was generally considered the state's second-best player (behind Buck Johnson, now of the Houston Rockets); in his first year at Auburn, he made the SEC all-freshman team, but trailed Kentucky's Kenny Walker in the balloting; as a sophomore, he was runner-up to Barkley as SEC Player of the Year; as a junior, he was runner-up to Kenny Walker as the conference's best player; he made the Olympic team—as an alternate—and says slyly that what he learned from Bob Knight was "how to throw chairs"; he was runner-up at Auburn for the best scholar-athlete award; he was named second-team All-America by Basketball Weekly. "I've always been second-best," says Person.
And talk about lack of respect. In Boston he was introduced over the P.A. as Chuck Pearson. There was no Kevin McHile or Larry Bard; just Chuck Pearson. Respect, however, is coming on the court. Earlier this year when Bird was lighting it up against Person, the veteran superstar told Chuck as they were jogging down the floor, "Don't be discouraged. You're a great player. Julius did the same thing to me." Not long after that, Person forced the defending NBA scoring champion, Dominique Wilkins, into a horrendous 7-for-20 shooting performance. And he was named NBA Rookie of the Month for November.
This is all heady stuff for a guy who grew up on welfare in Brantley, redeeming soda bottles so he could buy a Snickers bar. To help his family get by, he swept floors in the high school, which taught him that "it's a tough world out there and I'd better excel in basketball." At Auburn he had appendix and hernia trouble, and his mother heard on the radio that he had died. He almost did die academically, but hung on and improved dramatically. And while Barkley was the flash who gave Tiger fans enormous entertainment value, Person's blue-collar work ethic and all-around game earned him the fans' great affection. Most of all, Person promised Auburn four years and gave Auburn four years, which Barkley didn't. Honor is what you call that.
And he may well be responsible for getting the Pacers into the playoffs for only the second time in 11 years. "People expect miracles," he says. "Maybe I can deliver." If so, that should propel Person to Rookie of the Year honors—or at least runner-up.