April 7, 2014
Chuck Person shares a laugh with his coach, Sonny Smith (Associated Press photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - In the fall of 1980, Earl Henderson had just arrived in the little south Alabama town of Brantley to coach the local high school's basketball team. On the first day of school, he saw the tall kid with the silky jump shot playing a pickup game with his friends.
"It sounds like something I'm making up," Henderson says, "but I came home and told my wife, `I don't know if this guy plays basketball or not, but if he does, he is going to be the best one I ever coached.'"
Henderson had seen 15-year-old Chuck Person. And Henderson's words to his wife would prove prophetic. After a legendary high school career, Person would score more points than any player in Auburn history and help head coach Sonny Smith start a run of five consecutive NCAA Tournaments. He would play and work in the NBA for almost three decades with legends of the sport - Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Larry Bird and others.
"I really learned a lot about people and about how to impact someone else's life other than your own," Person says. "When I worked with Phil Jackson and got to the Lakers and experienced what it's like to win on the highest level, I knew coaching was the right path for me. I knew I wanted to come back and make that impact felt at Auburn."
Monday, Henderson and Smith were there for the official announcement that Person has joined first-year Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl's staff. It's the end of a journey that took Person to the biggest stage in the sport, and took him 7,000 miles away to coach. Always, he knew wanted to go home to Auburn.
It all started on that late summer day in 1980.
Person was an angry young man when Henderson met him for the first time. Life had not been easy. Mary Person had raised seven children as a single mother. There was not much money, especially when back problems forced her to give up her job at the local clothing factory and the family went on welfare.
"I was doing things wrong," Person says. "Growing up in a single-parent home with a lot of kids, we didn't have things like other people had. That's no excuse, but I did some things that were wrong."
Henderson pulled him aside and told him he could change the direction of his life and his family's life if he worked and stayed away from the trouble that seemed to be following him.
"That one talk," Person says, "impacted my life from that day on."
By his senior season in high school, Person was a big-time recruit. For a long time, he thought he would go to Tennessee. But his mother loved football, and her favorite coach was Auburn's Pat Dye. Once Dye, at Smith's request, went to Brantley to visit, it was over. Person would play for Auburn.
And thus began another coach-player relationship that remains strong to this day.
"When I talk about Sonny, I get emotional," Person says. "That man has been everything to me since the day I got here. He stayed in the gym with me as much as the rules would allow. We just worked and worked and worked. At that time, he could play. He could score. He taught me things he knew, and I got better and better. We brought in better players and the team got better. He should be recognized as the best coach in Auburn history."
When Person was chosen in the first round of the 1986 NBA draft by the Indiana Pacers, he bought Smith a Rolex watch. Smith still wears it today.
"I was about as close to Chuck as I've ever been to a player," Smith says. "He was starved to learn. He never stopped being like that. It just seemed to grow and get stronger. When you see that type of thing, you think this guy is going to make it and you have to help him make it big."
At 6-foot-8, Person was an imposing presence on the inside. But it was on the outside that he thrived most, where he came to be called "The Rifleman." Extend your defense, and he just backed up and kept shooting and kept hitting.
With no 3-point shot in the college game, Person scored 2,311 career points, an average of 18.3 points per game. That remains the best in Auburn history. He averaged 22 points per game as a junior and 21.5 as a senior.
"He could score in, score out," Smith says. "He could do it all. He could totally dominate a game."
In 1986, Person led Auburn to its only Elite 8 appearance. He was the West Region MVP, but the Tigers lost a heartbreaker in the regional final to eventual national champion Louisville. The Pacers made Person the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft. Over 14 NBA seasons, for five different teams, he scored 13,858 points, an average of 14.7 points per game.
Once his playing days were over, Person coached for the Cleveland Cavaliers, worked in the Pacers' front office and coached for the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers. Last year, he was the coach for a professional team in Korea.
And now he's back home, where he always hoped he would be.
"I didn't know where my journey would take me, but I knew I had an opportunity through basketball and through Auburn with its great tradition to be something," Person says. "Once I got here, Coach Smith and Coach Dye gave me a great opportunity to grow as a person and to achieve what few people are allowed to achieve coming from a small town like Brantley."
Person tried to get Auburn's head coaching job when Tony Barbee was hired in 2010. He wanted it again when Pearl was hired last month. But he says he is honored to be part of Pearl's staff.
"When he got the job, he called me right away and asked me if I'd be interested in being on his staff," Person says. "It shows what kind of selfless guy he is to hire a guy like me, who really wanted to be the head coach at Auburn. I'm as excited as I've ever been."
Smith says there should be no concern that Person hasn't coached in college. All it takes to understand, he says, is to listen to the coaches for whom Person has played and worked in the NBA.
"I listened to the things coaches said about him," Smith says. "Every one of them was glowing - Popovich, Phil Jackson. Every one of them was strong about his ability to communicate, how hard he worked, his dedication to the game. It was unbelievable."
Person knows better than most that Auburn can win in basketball. He played on NCAA Tournament teams in his final three seasons, winning the SEC Tournament and going to the Sweet 16 in 1985 before coming so close in 1986.
"It can be that way again," Person says. "There are some exceptional kids in Alabama that are going to be tremendous ballplayers. When we were winning and we were good and Cliff Ellis' teams that were good, there were a lot of players from Alabama on those teams. We are going to recruit heavily in Alabama. This is a great time to be a part of Auburn basketball."
Though he was a good student, Person left Auburn without a degree. That became an issue in 2010, but it was not an issue in joining Pearl's staff. Person says, with the help of academic director Gary Waters, it will soon not be an issue at all.
"I think a lot of people probably didn't understand four or five years ago when I said I would have my degree from Auburn," Person says. "Obviously, the NBA is year-around thing. There really is not much time. I really wanted to graduate from Auburn. I didn't want to go online to do it.
"I am going to get my degree in a timely fashion. I have a plan with Dr. Waters, and we are going to get it done."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: