Commentary

He's the right person

Brought to the Lakers to help Ron Artest, Chuck Person has influenced the whole team

Updated: June 15, 2010, 2:05 AM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Chuck PersonRocky Widner/Getty ImagesThough his dream is to be a head coach, Chuck Person embraces his role as a Lakers special assistant.
Chuck Person, the man known as "The Rifleman" in his playing days, doesn't warrant more than two bullet point-sized blurbs on Page 188 of the Los Angeles Lakers' media guide.

"9/20/00 Traded Glen Rice and Travis Knight to New York in exchange for Horace Grant, Greg Foster, Chuck Person and Emanual Davis from Seattle."

And in the line right below that:

"9/29/00 Waived Chuck Person."

On Sept. 29, 2000, Person officially ended his playing career in Los Angeles. Now, nearly a decade later, he's back with the Lakers with the chance to revive a coaching career that had stalled and was in desperate need of a jump start.

'Let's try it my way'

"I got traded to the Lakers," said Person on a recent off day during the playoffs, in the lobby of his extended-stay hotel near the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo. "I sat down and I talked to Phil [Jackson] and he was asking me what I felt about playing and I said I wanted to retire. He said to 'give it a couple weeks and see how you feel about it.' And I said, 'Nah, I don't think I want to play. The court's gotten too long for me, I don't enjoy it anymore.'

"He said, 'You will. Just give it a couple months, try to get yourself back in shape, get your mind frame right and tutor our young guys and we'll see how it goes.' I just declined right there and said I wanted to give it up. He said, 'Well, Chuck, I know you want to get into coaching. Good luck to you in your endeavors.'"

His endeavors took him to Cleveland, where he began his coaching career, helping head coach John Lucas with a young roster that included Lamond Murray, Ricky Davis and Wesley Person, Chuck's younger brother.

Next he returned to Indiana at the behest of Donnie Walsh, the man who made Person the first draft pick of his career as a general manager, plucking the gunner out of Auburn with the No. 4 selection in 1986.

Walsh had witnessed Person's work ethic first-hand as he became the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1987 and averaged 14.7 points per game in 13 pro seasons.

"He had kept a file card on every drill he ever learned, dating back to Jerry West's basketball camp in the seventh grade," Walsh said. "He kept it up to date all the way through his playing career and his coaching career. That shows me dedication for pursuing a goal."

[+] EnlargeRon Artest and Chuck Person
Icon SMIPerson has been by Artest's side through good times and bad. "Without Chuck," Artest said, "I wouldn't have been an All-Star."

In 2001-02, Person's first year back in the city where he spent the first six seasons of his career, the Pacers acquired a young player with tremendous talent but a troubling attitude.

That player was Ron Artest.

Indiana needed to find a way through Artest's prickly shell to enjoy the fruits that his game had to offer.

Person went to work.

"When I got there he was playing well defensively," Person said. "He was a great defensive player. But he was having some issues conforming to the rules, conforming to the things [head coach] Isiah [Thomas] wanted to do, and Donnie asked me to work with him with the blessing of Isiah and with Ronnie, I told Ron, 'You don't know me. All I'm asking you to do is trust me.'

"I said, 'Whatever I say from this point on goes. I don't need any feedback from you; I just need you to listen to what I tell you to do.'

"He agreed to do it. He didn't have any reason to trust me, but he let his guard down and allowed me into his inner circle, and from there we have grown every year."

Artest averaged 10.9 points in his first half-season in Indiana. That number jumped to 15.5 points in 2002-03 and 18.3 in 2003-04.

"Without Chuck, I wouldn't have been an All-Star," Artest said. "I was good, I was all right, I had really good defense, but then Chuck turned my offensive game and he made me a threat. That's when it started. I was always able to play basketball, don't get me wrong, but Chuck made me a threat."

Walsh said he never saw Artest work harder than when he was practicing with Person.

"He made Ronnie work unbelievably hard," Walsh said. "Everything he did, he did full-speed, full-court. So if you're shooting jump shots, he had to dribble the length of the floor, pull up at the hash mark, take a jump shot, get the rebound and then, full speed, go back the other way. And he did that, he was doing it for 45 minutes to an hour and he did it at full speed."

Said Person, who carries the loose title of "special assistant": "I was honest with him. Very direct, very open with him, but when we're working, we're working. When we step between the lines, it's all about business; it's all about you getting better. If you want to fool around and do your own thing, then I'll leave. Fool around on your own time, not on mine. My responsibility is to help you get better and there is a way that I like to see it done and there's a way that you like to see it done, but because you're not at the level you need to be at, let's try it my way."

'Chuck! Ron is in the stands!'

Artest's progression under Person's watchful eye continued to trend toward the positive until Nov. 19, 2004, when -- only seven games into his third full season with the team -- Artest went into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills and attacked a fan after a beer was thrown on him.

"We were well ahead, I had left my seats and Donnie and Larry [Bird] didn't go to the game, I was there to represent them," Person said. "I was leaving, going back to where we sit to wait for the game to end and all I hear is someone running back and say, 'Chuck! Ron is in the stands!'

"So I came back out and it literally was like the whole arena was coming down on the floor, that's how it felt.

"I grabbed Ron. He didn't respond. So I kind of shook him, 'Ron! Ron! Ron! Look at me in my eyes!' I got him and walked him off the court and we got pelted by all types of debris and everything. It was a bad scene, a bad time for the NBA, a bad time for the Pacers organization and a bad time for Ron."

Artest still has scars from the fallout.

[+] EnlargeRon Artest
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonNo matter what he accomplishes in his career, Nov. 19, 2004, will always be attached to Artest.

"When I got suspended, my brain shut down and I never really quite recovered," Artest said. "So whenever I get recovered, hopefully things will be off my mind, but I never quite recovered. But when I was with [Person], I was an MVP. I went from being just a defensive player to being the best defensive player and MVP. I probably would have gotten defensive player of the year and MVP that year because of Chuck."

Finding his comfort zone

The Pacers couldn't recover from the PR nightmare of the Palace incident, either.

Artest was traded to Sacramento early in the 2005-06 season. Person followed him there a year later after unsuccessfully throwing his hat into the ring for the head-coaching gig in Indiana. He guided Artest and served as the Kings' defensive coordinator as the top assistant under coach Reggie Theus.

"I got suspended and I went to Sacramento, I wasn't with Chuck no more," Artest said. "Chuck came to Sacramento, I averaged 20 points, 18 points because he knows my game. I feel comfortable when he's here, when I'm around him. I don't know anybody else that can help me. It's all about trusting your coaches.

"Now I'm working with some other coaches too, because I'm so superstitious. Without Chuck, I don't know where my game would be. I don't know if I'd be able to have so much fun. I'd just be a defensive player, knock down the occasional 3 and have nothing else. I wouldn't be a threat."

Artest lasted in cow country longer than Person did. Theus was fired about a month and a half into the 2008-09 season.

"I always have and still do have the utmost respect for Chuck," said Kings GM Geoff Petrie in a recent phone interview. "We just felt at the time that was the way to go."

Assistant coach Kenny Natt took over as the interim head coach. Person said he wouldn't feel comfortable staying with the team with Theus gone. He left, too.

Father figure

Artest's career took him to Houston and Person headed home to Brantley, Ala. The Rockets showed some interest in bringing him aboard but it didn't make sense financially because of the terms of his previous contract from his days as a top assistant in Sacramento.

"I went to Alabama," Person said. "It was some time well spent off. It was my 23rd straight year in basketball just from playing, coaching and the front office."

Even though the unlikely pair weren't in the gym together anymore, Person was still just a phone call away.

"We talk all the time and I think he has great team defensive concepts," Artest said. "He has great concepts. I always talk to him: 'Did I do this right? Did I do that right?' I'll call him. Even when I was in Houston last year I was like, 'How should I play? What should I do?'"

Person was spending time with his family. His wife and six kids were with him. His brother Wesley was now the head coach at Enterprise-Ozark Community College in Enterprise, Ala.

But the family wasn't complete. Artest and Person were obviously more than player-coach by this point.

"I have a sense of fatherly love for Ron," Person said. "Although the age gap says that I can't be a father to him [Artest is 30; Person turns 46 on June 27], I can still be that uncle age for Ron. I treat him like a nephew or like a son, because I've watched Ron grow for a long time. I've watched him mature into a man.

"Ron had his issues coming from Chicago to the Pacers, but he's grown into a man. He's now taken ownership of his life. Things like his inner circle; he now controls every part of his life. Eight years ago, that just wasn't there. To see that growth really makes me feel good that I've been able to be there and see it maturate."

Artest still comes to Person's hotel room and falls asleep watching game tape with his coach.

"He takes care of me," Artest said. "I'm 30 years old now, but when I was 23, he was there for me. He was there for me, he's almost like a Pops, he was there for me."

An opportunity; a challenge

In summer 2008, Person interviewed for the Bulls' head-coaching vacancy.

The first person he met with was John Paxson, Chicago's vice president of basketball operations. Paxson and Person had some history. In a game between the Bulls and Pacers in 1991, Person was ejected after hitting Paxson in the jaw with an elbow and receiving a flagrant foul.

"First thing he said to me: 'Do you remember …?'" Person said. "I said, 'Yeah, your dad wrote me a pretty nasty letter as well.' But it was warranted. I apologized profusely then, and then again, I apologized at the meeting as well."

His past didn't come back to haunt him. It actually broke the ice, the two former players basking in their glory days. Person was called back for a second interview, but Vinny Del Negro got the job.

Person returned to Alabama, now with two head-coaching rejections on his résumé.

Then the phone rang.

"I was there for eight months and then Ron signed with the Lakers, and obviously I had some good history with Ron -- some great history, matter of fact -- and I got a call from Mitch [Kupchak] and Phil [Jackson] asking if I'd be interested in just coming to training camp to observe and to help out," Person said. "When I got here, I had a short time to impress them or see what this would lead to."

It was a great opportunity, but a challenge.

"Under the circumstances, it was not an easy thing to do," Jackson said. "Obviously, I pick my own staff, and according to how we worked out things with Ron, this was something that he wanted to do."

As remarkable as Jackson's career has been, the roots of his coaching tree have been rather limited. He was not one to let outsiders into his huddle.

But Person was a Jackson disciple at one time. Remember the bullet points?

Staying in his lane

As was the case with Paxson, Person and Jackson had some history to revisit.

"I have some strong feelings for Chuck because back in the day, he was here for a brief moment and we actually talked about his coaching and about his future in basketball," Jackson said. "I think he wanted to coach at the time, but I suggested he stay playing because there's better money in playing than there was coaching.

"So this is our second time around. I said, 'Come to our training camp and see how you like what we do and get yourself adjusted to our system' and everything he did was very, very positive. He seemed to work well with the players. He asked if he could work with certain persons on our team ... and I felt that he was very positive in his work with the players and with his suggestions to us as a staff."

Recalled Person: "[Jackson] said, 'We'll give it a week and see how it goes, and see how the players respond to you and see how you work with my staff.'"

Person was just supposed to be with the team through training camp on a trial basis. Training camp became preseason. Preseason became the first three-game homestand. The homestand became the first trip of the season.

Person was in a difficult position: He wanted to share his wealth of knowledge, but didn't want to come off as the new guy running his mouth and bragging about his credentials.

Like Artest called his "Pops" for counsel, Person sought advice from Walsh, whom he considers to be "like a father" to him.

"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.

Person stuck with the less-is-more approach.

"When he came in, basically to quote him he said, 'I'm staying in my lane,'" said Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw. "When anybody comes in new, you have to gain a level of trust. I think he earned that. He didn't try to overstep any of his boundaries. I think, if he had any suggestions or anything, he would respectfully ask could he chime in. …

"I think as the season went along, Phil got more comfortable with him, trusted him and invited him to have more of a part, more of a say in what we do. I think that the players have really, really taken to him. He has a good rapport with all the guys, so he's been a pleasant addition."

[+] EnlargeChuck Person
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesPerson had a long and productive NBA career, playing for five teams in 13 seasons. He averaged more than 15 points a game seven times.

Jackson, a master of subtleties himself, appreciated Person's approach.

"He hasn't been forceful in any amount and he's gone through kind of his initiation period with, I thought, great character, and he has a great sense about him as a person," Jackson said. "I like the way his views coincided with mine, a view that I have similarly in basketball about the appropriateness of how you deal with your position on a club and how you handle that role. I think Chuck might have some old-fashioned code about him, and it's something that I resonate well with."

'We all go to him'

Person slowly but surely started to work with other players on the roster, first filling in with some of the individual attention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used to provide to Andrew Bynum. Then in December, an unfortunate pass from Jordan Farmar to Kobe Bryant that fractured Bryant's right index finger ended up being the break Person needed.

Person's right index finger is as crooked as a wizard's cane. He suffered the same avulsion fracture that Bryant suffered in December in his playing days and still managed to shoot respectable marks of 46 percent from the field and 36 percent on 3-pointers for his career.

He mentioned it to Bryant and told him that by pushing off more with his middle finger, Bryant would be able to control the trajectory of the ball better, instead of having it veer off the tape on his index finger.

"We actually competed with how many points he scored with a broken finger and how many points I scored with a broken finger," Bryant said. "I won that one."

Person scored 40 with his injury. Bryant scored 42 in Chicago on 15-for-26 shooting in just his second game after the fracture occurred against Minnesota.

"He came here primarily to be an advisor for Ron, but it turned out that he's an advisor for everybody," Bryant said. "We all go to him.

"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."

Still shooting for the dream

Person had his third opportunity to interview for a head-coaching job, this time with Auburn University, on March 24.

"I'm institutionalized when it comes to the NBA," Person said. "This is the only level that I would want to coach at, with the exception of going back to my alma mater -- that would be the dream job of dream jobs."

Despite positive feedback from the university, he didn't get the job.

Three times Person has been up for head-coaching positions, and three times he was turned down.

"When you're at the doorstep, the door's cracked and you're ready to walk in," Person said. "You think you have it and then the door shuts. It's difficult to lose out on something that you're so close to, but you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep moving forward."

While Person's coaching career seemed to be resting on the scrap heap, the Lakers' luxury cruiser came looking for a part.

The team invited Person back for the rest of the season and a playoff run that has the Lakers just two wins away from another title.

"When I got here I didn't have any expectations on how long it would last, but I knew I would come here and just be myself," Person said. "One thing led to another and it just evolved and the more I came, the longer I stayed each time, and this last time, I've been here for good."

Person -- whom you can sometimes find walking to and from the Lakers' practice facility because he's just about the only L.A. resident who doesn't own a car -- is planning on making California home for a little longer. The team has asked him to return on a full-time basis next year.

There are head-coaching jobs available this summer, but Person won't press for them.

"I'm not out trying to lobby for a head-coaching job or anything like that, but if someone called me and an opportunity presents itself, I would love to," Person said. "I do think I'm ready. I've learned from some of the best coaches, I've played for some of the best coaches the game has to offer, and I think all I need is an opportunity."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcten

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