When casual fans think of the key figures on the World Champion 2010 Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, names such as Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are sure to be evoked. There is another, much older and wiser, figure, however, who has played an equally critical, yet commensurately unheralded, role in the Laker’s success. This man is none other than former Pacer great Chuck Person, who today makes his first appearance Conseco Fieldhouse since being named a full-time assistant to Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
Person, as Pacers fans have experienced first-hand, was one of the premier shooters of his generation, and so it is no wonder that when he was brought in last season as a special assistant, he did not disappoint. The beginning of his Laker tenure, however, is an interesting study in interpersonal relations.
Person knew that as a newcomer last season, he couldn’t simply walk in and tell players what they needed to work on. So at first he would simply observe during practice. Then, when he thought he could help, he would gently ask permission to voice his opinion.
Person carried himself this way at the advice of former Pacers President Donnie Walsh.
“I told him, ‘Chuck, I’ll tell you what you do. You go in there and don’t tell them anything as to what they should do because they just won the championship. You should just sit there and watch these guys for a while, because they’re really good. … You learn from them and then once you feel comfortable, you can add what you know,'” Walsh said.
In such a fashion, he made sure to not, in the words of fellow Laker assistant Brian Shaw, “overstep any of his boundaries.” Slowly but surely, Person was able to endear himself to the team, and as time passed, Jackson began to entrust more and more duties to him. This progression eventually culminated with the Lakers hiring him for the entire 2009-2010 season. Quite a turnaround for someone who was initially brought in to work just during training camp.
His biggest contribution to the team began in December 2009 after Bryant fractured his right index finger. Bryant had started to trust Person, and so when he offered pointers on how to adapt his shooting form due to the injury, he fully embraced Person’s advice.
Out of this came a one-on-one partnership with Bryant to improve his mechanics. The results were successful. By the end of the season, Kobe had increased his free-throw percentage to a career-high 88% — despite what should have been a devastating impediment to his shooting ability.
Bryant has relished their time working together.
“He has the same kind of attention to detail that I have. I enjoy being around that. I enjoy talking to him about it. I spend a considerable amount of time shooting with him and working on different things and just strategically how he sees the whole puzzle, not just pieces of the puzzle; he sees the whole thing as I do. It’s important for me to have another set of eyes that I can communicate with and kind of work on things with.
“He’s just a great Southern dude, man.”
All this being said, Person’s coaching skills are not restricted to just offense; he also aides players in improving their game on the defensive end of the court — even power forwards and centers. Last season, for instance, Person was one of the coaches who assisted pivot man Andrew Bynum develop as a player.
“Chuck has an analytical eye,” said Jackson. “He’s always seeking answers and looking for reasons, so that blends in well with the kind of process we like to go through. I can give him something we need to work on defensively and he’ll come in with some exercises and things we have to do, and he works really well with our post players even though Chuck was one of the great outside shooters in the game.”
Furthermore, Person’s coaching success is not only a function of his basketball knowledge, but his ability to communicate well with today’s NBA players. Unlike some coaches and players, Person is very upfront, not hesitating to tell players what they need to do to improve.
Because of this, Portland Trailblazers Head Coach Nate McMillan has long-known that Chuck would make a good coach.
“I thought he was a coach when he played and I had the opportunity to work with him then … I just feel that the things that he brought to the floor, his communication skills with players not only players but the stars, he will approach any guy and work with him. You saw times last year when he and Kobe were communicating during the playoffs. Chuck is just that type of guy that will pull a guy to the side, star or best player [included], and talk to them about what they need to do and won’t be afraid or intimidated by that player.”
Even more remarkable, however, is the fact that Person has managed to stay humble despite his coaching success. With regards to his feat of helping improve the game of one of the the best players in NBA history, he notes with an air of humility that, “Kobe was a great player before I came and he’s going to be a great player after I leave.” Likewise, he hesitates to even take credit for what he has taught the star, adding that “all the things I told Kobe are things Jerry West told me.”
Indeed, such is this former Pacer — brilliant on the court, but just as inspiring as a teacher and as a person.