It all started at home in Brantley, a dot on the map sitting on state highway 331 in south Alabama, 45 miles or so from the Florida border.
For hours and hours, a skinny kid flicked a deflated basketball through a tire rim nailed to a tree standing on a dirt court.
“You’d get this old flat ball in the dirt yard and you worked on putting the ball through the tire rim,” says Chuck Person. “You had to be really true with your shot for it to go in, because there was no backboard. There was just the tree and the rim was flimsy, so you had to be pure with your shot. You had to make shots without hitting the rim.”
Every player has a secret to his success, and Chuck’s sweet shooting stroke was his calling card. It’s a primary reason why the former Auburn forward remains the school’s all-time leading scorer and the fourth leading scorer in Southeastern Conference history, notching 2,311 points (18.3 per game) from 1983-’86.
He played the full four years of his college career – common back then but a rarity these days – and was a three-time first-team All-SEC selection. Not even much-heralded Charles Barkley, Person’s teammate his first two seasons, could match that.
And as notable as the gregarious Barkley’s 16-year pro career played out as an 11-time All-Star, league MVP, two-time Olympic gold medalist and being selected as one of the NBA’s greatest 50 players in history, Person’s 13-year NBA career was also memorable. He averaged 14.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, shot 45.8 percent from the field, 36.2 from three-point range and ranks 17th all-time in career three-point field goals made.
“Charles was a great player, but I think Chuck was very underrated,” says former Auburn coach Sonny Smith, who’s retired from coaching and now does TV and radio work. “Chuck came along at a time when we had Charles on our team and (Heisman Trophy winning running back) Bo Jackson was on our football team, so he didn’t get his share of the headlines. I don’t know if Chuck ever got enough credit. He sort of got overlooked to a certain degree on how great he really was.”
But he wasn’t overlooked in recruiting. Some of the best college programs wanted Chuck, but Sonny recalls Chuck’s high school coach, an Auburn grad, strictly supervising the recruiting process.
“Chuck’s high school coach was a very dominant figure in his life, and he wasn’t going to allow a ton of people to come in there,” Sonny says. “He only really let in Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and maybe one of the SEC schools in Mississippi. Tennessee was in the lead for Chuck for a long time.”
Chuck recalls that though he liked then-Vols’ Coach Don DeVoe, the entire Auburn coaching staff, not just Sonny, won him over.
“Tevester Anderson, Roger Banks, and Sonny did a great job,” Chuck says. “And another guy who convinced me was Pat Dye, the athletic director and football coach. He came down to recruit me a couple of times. When the guy who’s the athletic director and head football coach comes down to my house, that kind of closes the deal.”
Sonny remembers that Chuck was a huge football fan, so when Dye got involved in Chuck’s recruiting, things suddenly went Auburn’s way.
“Our whole staff recruited Chuck, no one person was assigned to him,” Sonny says. “But Pat Dye turned it. As you know, Alabama is a football state. Chuck and his family were so impressed when Pat Dye came for a home visit to talk to them.”
Another factor that convinced Chuck to sign with the Tigers was an opportunity to play immediately.
“I thought if I worked hard and did the things I needed to do to get better, there was an opportunity in the lineup,” Chuck says.
From day one on campus, Chuck was the best pure shooter, especially for someone 6-8, that Sonny had ever seen in the state of Alabama. And because Sonny saw the intensity and seriousness the way Chuck approached the game, he allowed him to do some things as a freshman that Sonny hadn’t permitted before.
“He allowed me to come into the coaches meeting to see what they were talking about for game-planning and practice planning,” Chuck remembers. “And also, they were openly talking about the certain things different players can and can’t do. It was very refreshing.”
Sonny says he had no qualms about Chuck having such access.
“Chuck sat him on coaches meetings, he sat in on film sessions, he wanted to know everything about the game,” Somny says. “I never had a player like him, ever. He was so into the game, it was incredible. When he didn’t ask a lot of questions, we told him things. And when he didn’t understand something, he’d always ask questions.
“I don’t know if other coaches at other schools would allow that, but we did. I had a special relationship with Chuck and still do.”
Sonny knew there was nothing he could teach Chuck about shooting, so he began developing Chuck’s entire offensive package, which raised his NBA stock even more.
“Chuck worked me to death, keeping me an hour to two hours after practice working on post offense,” Sonny says. “And that was after we’d had a 2 ½ to 3-hour practice. I’d tried to teach him everything that a pro player would need to play.
“He couldn’t post strong and physical. He couldn’t go to his left on the dribble and go to the goal. I knew teams would take his outside shot away if he didn’t come up with some penetrating move. He had been more of a straight-up shooter, and I got him where he could penetrate to the goal with balance. He became a driver as well as a shooter.”
When that happened, Chuck moved to the top of the opponents’ scouting report, especially after Barkley jumped to the NBA after his junior season in ’84. Person needed the full offensive package to take Barkley’s role as the top scoring threat.
“When Coach Smith taught me post-up offense, I became a multi-faceted player,” Chuck says. “It wasn’t just about outside shooting. I could post, pass, dribble. Coach taught all of us how to be a guard and a big man, so his players that went to the pros could handle themselves on all areas of the court.”
Still, there’s no doubt that Chuck was a shooter through and through. And because he played his entire college career without a three-point line – the three-pointer was installed in the college game the following season (’86-’87) after Chuck graduated, he might even now be the SEC’s second all-time leading scorer behind LSU’s Pete Maravich had the threes been in effect.
“The three-point shot would have changed the landscape of our league, because we had other good outside shooters like Frankie Ford and Gerald White,” Chuck says. “The three-point line was short, at the top of the key. It was an easy shot.”
Even without the three-pointer, Chuck could burn down gyms when he was in his shooting rhythm. Though he was remarkably consistent night and night out, averaging 22 points as a junior and 21.5 as a senior with a school-record 68 consecutive double-figure scoring games and 63 20-point scoring games, Chuck had games where he was simply unstoppable.
Auburn was 7-1 during Chuck’s career in games which he scored 30 or more points, with six of those performances were on the road or neutral sites. That says something about how Chuck rose the occasion in the toughest of venues, like his last regular season game as a senior at Vanderbilt.
Memorial Gymnasium, the Commodores’ historical playing arena that opened in 1952, is probably the SEC’s toughest road stop along with Kentucky’s Rupp Arena. The benches are on the ends of the court instead of the sides, making commuincation difficult. Seats on both sides of the court are sunken, with the court rising above.
It’s sort of like being on stage, and on March 1, 1986, Chuck put on a show that drew a curtain call. He scored 40 points in a 79-65 victory over the Commodores, a shooting performance so sizzling that he and Sonny have never forgotten the reaction of the Vanderbilt fans.
“The most amazing thing about that game is I got on a hot streak, and the Vanderbilt fans starting cheering for me,” Chuck recalls. “Whenever I’d pass up a shot, they’d boo. Whenever I took one and hit it, they’d give me a standing ovation.”
For as many times as Sonny had coached in Vandy, he’d never seen anything like it.
“We’e beating Vanderbilt pretty bad and we never beat Vanderbilt bad up there,” Sonny says. “But we’re killing them, because Chuck is making everything he’s shooting. But every time he doesn’t shoot, they boo, because they’re seeing a shooting show that they hadn’t seen too often.”
Memorial Gymnasium always seemed to be a focal point for the Tigers. It’s where they lost near the end of Chuck’s sophomore year to Kentucky, 51-49, in the ’84 SEC tourney finals. UK’s Kenny “Sky” Walker hit a game-winning jumper as time expired, an ending so dramatic that Auburn’s portly Barkley, then known as the “Round Mound of Rebound,” collapsed to the floor and began sobbing uncontrollably.
“I told the team in the last time out not to let anybody catch the ball going to the goal, and I didn’t mind Kenny Walker catching the ball going away from the goal, because he wasn’t a good outside shooter,” Sonny says. “He gets the ball, shoots going away from the goal and that ball climbs up and over the rim and goes in.
“That loss just killed Barkley. He came to Auburn when we were bad and he thought he could make us special, which he and Chuck did. But Barkley was so determined to win a championship before he left. I’d never seen him cry like that.”
Even after all these years, it still might be the best SEC tourney ever, with seven of the tourney’s 10 games being decided by three points or fewer, or in overtime. The semifinals and finals were decided by a combined six points.
“Kentucky was No. 1 in the conference that year and had a starting lineup with three future NBA players (Walker, Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin) and we were the No. 2 team in the league with pro talent of our own,” Chuck says. “It came down to the team that had the last shot and they had the last shot.”
Auburn was 79-47 in Chuck’s four seasons, including 64-34 in his last three years when the Tigers earned the first three NCAA tourney berths in school history and won the ’85 SEC tournament as a junior.
In Chuck’s senior season in the ’86 NCAA tournament, the eighth-seeded Tigers beat No. 9 Arizona in the first round, No. 1 seed St. John’s in the second round and No. 4 UNLV in the Sweet 16.
But with a trip to the Final Four on the line, Auburn lost to No. 2 seed Louisville, 84-76, in the West Region finals. Louisville went on to win the national championship with freshman center “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison, and to this day Auburn has not made it back to a regional final.
Sonny remembers the Louisville loss in the sense that Chuck was so well-coached that he didn’t believe in forcing shots. And because Chuck was defended so well in the post, he wouldn’t shoot.
“We throw the ball to Chuck in the post and he’d throw it right back out, because he didn’t think he had a good shot,” Sonny says. “He took the least amount of shots he’d taken in awhile, but he was so unselfish. He didn’t even look at himself as a go-to-guy with us, though he should have.”
Sonny says he wasn’t surprised by Chuck’s successful pro career.
“The only thing I worried about was his ability to score off the dribble,” Sonny says. “Once Chuck learned that, I knew he would be special. I believe people began to respect him a bit more in college when he got the nickname `The Rifleman’ and he got that because he and his mother used to love to watch the TV show named that (starring Chuck Connors). Once he got that nickname, people paid a lot more attention to him.”
In the pros, once Chuck established himself with the Pacers after being drafted No. 4 overall in the first round of the ’86 draft, defenses definitely paid attention to him. Some of Chuck’s best battles came against fellow Eastern Conference member Boston. It was always a show when Chuck and the Celtics’ Larry Bird, two talkative confident shooters, went at it.
Before one December game, Bird told Chuck he had a present for him. Late in the game, Bird drained a three-pointer in front of the Pacers’ bench where Chuck was sitting. As soon as Bird’s shot found nothing but net, he turned to Chuck and said “Merry Christmas.”
“Chuck always came to play, whether it was regular season or playoffs,” the retired Hall of Famer Bird said several years ago. “There are a lot of players in the league who don’t give you any resistance. But when you played Chuck, you had to play hard or his team would be you.”
Chuck says it was Bird who spurred him to bring his best effort every night.
“As a rookie in my very first preseason game, we played the Celtics in Terre Haute (Ind.),” Chuck recalls. “When I got on the court with him, Larry said, `Young fella, when you come out to play, play hard ever night or you’ll get embarassed, especially by me.’ My first regular season game against him, he probably had a triple double with about 40 points. So I told myself I had to come out and play as hard as I could.”
Chuck’s one regret in the pros was that he was too busy to watch his younger brother Wesley follow in his footsteps at Auburn from ’91-’94. Though Wesley was slightly shorter and more slender as a 6-6, 200-pound swingman, his shooting stroke was as pure as Chuck’s.
Wesley ended up the third leading scorer in Auburn history with 2,066 points, averaging 19.1 points in 108 games. Benefitting from the three-point line, Wesley is Auburn’s all-time three-point shooting record holder and is still the sixth most accurate three-point shooter in SEC history, hitting 44.1 percent (262-of-594) for his career.
And like Chuck, Wesley was a first-round draft choice (No. 23 overall by Phoenix in ’94) and enjoyed an 11-year NBA career. He averaged 11.2 points before retiring after the ’04-’05 season.
Chuck was not surprised by Wesley’s success, both at Auburn and in the NBA.
“Wesley was a willing learner and an able listener, so he was able to transfer from what he learned,” Chuck says. “He became a great shooter. He was also a good athlete who could run and jump. He was very thin when he went to the NBA, but his body filled out. He maxed out his talent and became a very special player for a long time.”
Chuck fondly remembers him and Wesley’s informal shooting contests as kids often turned into marathons.
“The H-O-R-S-E games we had were pretty intense and lasted a long time,” Chuck says. “We played this game we called `On The Board’ in which you both shoot and if you make a shot and he misses, you get so many points. The first one to 10 points would win. There were times we’d both make 50 or 60 shots in-a-row without missing.”
Today, Wesley, 39, is back home in Brantley, dabbling in private business. Chuck, 46 has been an assistant coach in the NBA ever since retiring after the ’99-2000 season, and is currently on the staff of the NBA champ Los Angeles Lakers.
Chuck doesn’t give shooting advice unless he’s asked, because he knows the shooting stroke of an NBA player is very fragile since “for the most part, guys have their routines and understand their shots,” he says.
But in those stolen moments, whether it’s at a Lakers’ practice or shootaround before a game, whether he’s shooting alone or matching shots with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Chuck becomes a teenager again. He’s the all elbows and knees teenager perfecting his shot on a dirt court, flicking a flat ball through a tire rim tacked to a tree, dreaming big dreams.
“Shooting is the one thing you can always do on your own,” Chuck says. “You don’t need anyone else. You shoot the ball, track it down and shoot it again. Do it over and over and over.
“It’s the one thing I still know that when it’s done properly, the results are miraculously great time after time. Even if the misses feel good, even if the ball comes off the rim the right way after a miss, that’s how a judge a shot is being taken correctly. That’s how you judge if a guy is a pure shooter.”
Take it from the purest of the pure.