Marshall: Person Missed A Special Opportunity

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look back at the careers of Chuck Person and Sonny Smith.

In the summer of 1986, I was honored to be invited to speak at "Chuck Person Day," a celebration of the immense accomplishments of one of the little town of Brantley's own.

I told the crowd that night that, if my son grew up to be the same kind of man as Chuck Person, I would feel I had done my job as a parent. Chuck was and remains one of my all-time favorite Auburn athletes – not just because he was probably the best college basketball player ever to come through this state, but because of the way he lived his life as an athlete and a student.

Chuck was loyal to his coach, to his teammates and to his school. Even after he went to the NBA, for several years he ended every interview with "War Eagle."

I haven't changed my opinion of Chuck Person, but I hope if one of my children were ever faced with a decision like he faced last weekend, they would go a different direction.

Chuck Person, the greatest scorer in Auburn history, the man who led the 1986 team to the Elite Eight, was honored by his school. His No. 45 jersey was retired. Making it even more special, his brother, Wesley, received the same honor on the same night. His No. 11 and Chuck's No. 45 hung side by side over the Auburn court. So it will be forever.

Wesley and some 30 friends and family members were there. Wesley gave an emotional halftime talk, thanking those who helped him along the way and expressing his deeply held feelings for Auburn and its people.

Chuck was nowhere to be seen.

Because of slights, real or imagined, Chuck is apparently unhappy with Auburn basketball and Auburn in general. It wouldn't be fair to speculate here on just what Chuck is unhappy about, but there is no question that he is unhappy and that unhappiness goes back several years. He is voluntarily estranged from the school that was once so close to his heart.

He should have put all that aside for at least one night. He didn't do it.

It was sad that he would not show up for his own jersey retirement. It was even sadder that he would not show up to share a unique and special moment with his younger brother and his family.

He ignored pleas from many of those close to him to make the trip from Indianapolis, where he is an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers.

Sonny Smith, Chuck's Auburn coach, did an admirable job in his absence. But he shouldn't have had to do it. Chuck should have been there.

Chuck Person did remarkable things at Auburn. If there had been a 3-point line, he would have set records that could never be touched. He was the epitome of an inside-outside player. He was as good from long distance as I have ever seen and a powerful, often unstoppable, force in the paint. That showed in a 13-year NBA career.

When Auburn lost to Louisville in the West Region final in 1986, Person was the tournament MVP. He didn't care. He was crushed by one that got away, not thrilled by an individual award.

Person shoots a jumper against Louisville in the 1986 NCAA Tournament game.

Chuck has done so many things right, but he did this one wrong, very wrong. It's too bad, because that night and that opportunity to stand there with his brother as their jerseys were raised to the rafters are gone forever.

Speaking of Sonny Smith, isn't it time Auburn did something to honor him?

It was Smith who made Auburn a force on the national scene for the first time since the days of Joel Eaves. He took over a program that had never been to an NCAA Tournament and went to five straight when the Southeastern Conference was at an all-time high. He won the SEC Tournament in 1985 and went to the Sweet 16.

In 1986, the Tigers were on the verge of beating eventual national champion Louisville and going to the Final Four. They crushed St. John's, the No. 1 seed, and rallied from 14 down to beat UNLV. Smith is convinced--and I agree--that his team would have won the national championship had it gotten by Louisville.

Smith brought the likes of Person, Charles Barkley and Chris Morris--all first-round NBA draft choices--to Auburn. On top of that, Smith was and remains today an ambassador for Auburn. He deserves to be recognized.

Until next time...

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