Though the Pacers didn’t break through into the NBA elite until reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 1994, they very nearly made their big move three years earlier. Coming off a 41-41 regular season, they entered the playoffs as the No. 7 seed against the No. 2 seeded, Atlantic Division champion Boston Celtics. Though they were aging, the Celtics still had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish up front and a rising star named Reggie Lewis in the backcourt. The Pacers were led by Chuck Person, Reggie Miller and Detlef Schrempf. The teams produced one of the most thrilling first-round series in NBA Playoff history, with Boston surviving to win Game 5, and Person and Bird were center stage. Those two principles, reunited in the Pacers’ front office – Bird as President of Basketball Operations, Person as Assistant to the President/Player Relations – reflected on that memorable series as the Pacers prepared to face the Celtics in the first round of the 2004 Playoffs. The story is told in their words.
Chuck Person and Larry Bird enjoyed a fierce rivalry through the late 1980s and early '90s.
Chuck Person: ”We were young and inexperienced. Boston had the great leaders in Larry, Robert and Kevin. But we were young, fast and brash. With Micheal Williams running the point and Detlef and myself and Reggie, we had a lot of guys who could push and really score the ball. Defensively, we weren’t very good so we played a style that we thought we could win with.”
Larry Bird: “They scored a lot of points. They were a run-and-gun type of team. They got the ball out and pushed it up the court. When they got into their set offense, they ran a high pick and put either Reggie or Chuck in the corner. Micheal Williams would come off a pick and when you came to give help, they hit the corner and scored. They almost beat us with that one play, but it was a tough play to defend.”
Bird and Person enjoyed a fierce rivalry throughout their careers. Person was a brash, outspoken, trash-talker who wanted to get in Bird’s face. Bird was a quiet assassin who generally let his actions speak for him – although he could talk trash with the best of them. On one legendary late December night, Bird told Person before a game that he had a present for him. In the fourth quarter, after hitting a clutch 3-pointer, Bird turned to Person, who was seated on the Pacers’ bench, and said, “Merry Christmas.” Such was the nature of their rivalry.
Chuck Person: “I don’t know if Larry remembers, but my first game in the pros was against him in Terre Haute and he said, ‘Young fella, when you come out to play, play hard every night or you’ll get embarrassed – especially by me.’ That gave me extra incentive to play hard against Larry. My first regular-season game against Larry he had something like 40 points, 20 rebounds and 15 assists, so I told myself I had to come out and play as hard as I possibly could every night.”
Larry Bird: “The thing about Chuck, no matter if it was the regular season or the playoffs, he came to play. I think he played harder against me than anybody else, but it was good. In this league, a lot of times the players don’t give you any resistance. But when you played against Chuck, you knew you had to play and you had to play hard – and if you didn’t play well, they’d probably beat you.”
Boston won a tight Game 1 at home, 127-120, with Bird struggling to a 6 of 20 shooting night but nonetheless producing a 21-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist triple-double. Person scored 23 points with eight rebounds and seven assists. Then came the stunner, with the Pacers winning Game 2 in Boston Garden 130-118 as Person racked up 39 points, including a team playoff record of seven 3-pointers. With a chance to take control of the series at home, however, the Pacers dropped Game 3 in Market Square Arena, 112-105, as Person attempted just eight shots and scored six points. Facing elimination, the Pacers got big games from both Person (30 points) and Miller (27) to rally in the fourth quarter to win Game 4, 116-113. That set the stage for the deciding Game 5, on May 5, 1991 in Boston Garden.
Chuck Person: “I felt, obviously, going into a short series, anything could happen if we could go into their building and get a win – and maybe two. The most important thing was to go get one and we did. But we came back and laid an egg in Game 3 – particularly myself by having only six points and taking a limited amount of shots. But we had the big Game 4 and went back (to Boston) for Game 5. I thought we played well but, obviously, the dramatics with Larry going down and coming back and the Garden crowd never sitting down after that had a major impact in the outcome of the game. Larry pretty much dominated that series.”
Boston led by 10 after the first quarter, but the Pacers tied it at 58-all by halftime. Late in the second quarter, Bird crashed to the floor in pursuit of a loose ball and his head bounced hard off the fabled parquet. He stayed down for what seemed like an eternity to Boston fans before heading straight to the locker room. When he did not return with his teammates for the start of the third quarter, the drama began mounting about when – or if – he would re-enter the game.
Chuck Person: “As soon as he went down, we went into a timeout shortly after that and (Coach Bob Hill) said, ‘When the guy comes back, and the fans are going to get into it and Larry’s going to try to take over the game.’ He came back and missed his first couple of shots but then he got on a roll, got the fans and his teammates into it. They made a run but we kept our composure, came back and made a run at them.”
Larry Bird: “Going into the series, I was having a problem with my back and didn’t know if I was going to be able to play in all the games. In the last game, right before halftime, I took a spill and hit my head and went back to the locker room and really debated whether I should go on. The doctor told me I probably had a concussion and they didn’t think I should go out there with both the back and the damage I did to my brain – I rattled it a little bit.”
The Pacers took an 82-79 lead in the third period but when Bird came jogging through the tunnel, the Garden crowd erupted.
Chuck Person: (When Bird came through the tunnel) “I thought, ‘Well, here’s the second coming.’ He definitely played ungodly the rest of the way. For a guy who could’ve broken his neck or fractured a jaw or something, he really came out and performed at a level he’s accustomed to playing at.”
Larry Bird: “I kept hearing the crowd oohing and aahing, and I kept asking what the score was. I had this massive headache on the right side of my head but finally I decided, ‘This could be your last game ever, so you’d better get out there and give it all you can.’ ‘’
Though the Pacers had been prepared by Hill for what was coming, they didn’t handle it well. Boston outscored the visitors 33-14 to take a 112-96 lead before Indiana re-gathered itself for one last push. They cut the lead to 120-118 in the final seconds, setting up the game’s most memorable shot. Person initially posted up but Vern Fleming couldn’t get an angle for the entry pass, so Person popped to the 3-point line to take the ball. With Derek Smith and Bird both in his face, Person shot a 26-foot turnaround trey with 10 seconds left. Fleming was in perfect position in front of the rim to grab the rebound, but Parish jumped in and pushed the point guard under the rim, allowing Brian Shaw to get the ball. He was fouled and made both shots. Though Person tossed in a desperation 3-pointer from 35 feet out to cut it to 122-121, Shaw was fouled after the inbounds pass and made both free throws to finish the scoring. Bird, who had averaged 18.0 points on 36.9 percent shooting in the first four games, scored 32 and went 12-of-19 in the finale.
Chuck Person: “The play was for me. Reggie was supposed to curl, pop out and give it to me. I couldn’t quite get into position like I wanted and Reggie couldn’t get it. Vern had the ball, so I came out to get it. I knew if I popped out behind the 3-point line, I was going to take it. After I received the ball, I saw an opening. It probably was not such a good shot, but I took it. On tape, it looked like Vern was open and I probably should’ve gotten it to him. But I wanted to take the shot because I didn’t think we could go into overtime and beat these guys with the momentum they had and the energy we had wasted trying to catch up. (The shot) didn’t feel good but I knew I was shooting the ball well the entire series, especially in Boston, so I thought it had a chance to go in. But it didn’t.”
Larry Bird: “I thought they’d go for the tie. I thought they’d go down low to the big man and kick it out, try to get something off the drive. At that time we were older and what they did best against us was take us off the dribble and make plays. But what happened was they were having trouble getting the ball to Chuck in the post so he came out and got it. When he took the shot I was a little surprised. He had the 3-pointer, but he was more or less going away from the basket when he shot it. I always thought they would go inside-out, but they didn’t do that.”
Chuck Person: “At any one given time in a game or during a person’s life, I think you have one chance at greatness. For this franchise, I thought that time was then. We could’ve put something together and had a great run for a long time with the team we had intact. If we could’ve added a couple of pieces and kept Detlef, I think things could’ve really been great for this franchise for a long time, but it didn’t work out that way. But we’re fortunate this franchise has Donnie Walsh, and the franchise has been pretty good since that time.”
Immediately after the game, Bird made clear how impressed he had been by the Pacers. “If they don’t win 50 games next year,” he said, “something’s wrong.” The immediate future didn’t work out as expected for either team. After a disappointing 1991-92 season that produced 40 wins and a first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics, Person was traded to Minnesota. The Pacers had to wait until the 1994-95 season to reach 50 wins. The Celtics didn’t make it past the second round in either ’91 or ’92 and Bird retired in ’92, McHale in ’93 and Parish left Boston in ’94. That turned out to be the beginning of the end of Boston’s reign of dominance, and marked the rise of the Pacers to elite status. They reached the Conference Finals five times in seven years beginning in 1994, culminating in a trip to the NBA Finals in 2000.
Chuck Person: “I think it was the youth of our team, how everybody wanted to have it all at once. We had Rik Smits, who was coming into his own, and myself and Reggie (Miller) and Detlef Schrempf. Those four guys alone, we all had a lot of talent, we all had the opportunity to become great players but, obviously, we didn’t have enough minutes and enough balls to go around so some changes had to be made. I was the one that got traded.”
Larry Bird: “There’s no question about it, they gave us all we wanted. We thought we were playing pretty good. We played Game 4 in Indianapolis and went right down to the wire. The quickness they had to take us off the dribble, I know Kevin McHale and Robert were saying, ‘Maybe it’s time to quit because these young guys are starting to take over the league.’ The only thing that beat the Pacers that was probably the years we had been in playoff situations. We knew where to get the ball at the right time. But from that point on, we always felt like the Pacers were an up-and-coming team and they’d probably win 50 games every year.”