Sichting Built a Wide-Ranging Career Out of a Single Moment
by Mark Montieth
Jerry Sichting has done just about anything a man can do in professional basketball over the past 36 years, from playing to broadcasting to coaching. The entire career, however, hangs by the single, unlikely thread of an informal tryout one summer's day at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Sichting will be on hand when the Pacers recognize their players from the 1980s at halftime of Saturday's game with New York at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but might not be available for the halftime on-court ceremony. He's an assistant coach for the Knicks and duty will be calling in their locker room. That seems appropriate for someone who has been more places and done more things than just about anyone to emerge from Indiana's basketball tradition.
Consider that his grandmother went to high school with Johnny Wooden in Martinsville, and that Wooden was still a legendary presence in the community while he was growing up there. He was coached at Martinsville by Sam Alford, whose young son Steve ran around in a cowboy outfit and annoyed the players before and after practice. He played at Purdue, earning all-Big Ten recognition and leading the conference in free throw percentage, and later played with the likes of George McGinnis for the Pacers and Larry Bird for the Boston Celtics.
He's run camps, worked as a broadcaster, and helped coach high school, college and NBA teams. He was an assistant to former Indiana University star Randy Wittman in Minnesota and Washington, to former IU star Keith Smart at Golden State, and to current IU coach Tom Crean at Marquette. He's also been an assistant to Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix and, now, in New York.
All because of a couple of twists of fate in 1980.
Sichting, who graduated from Purdue in 1979, was a fourth-round pick of the Golden State Warriors that year. He was a late cut after playing in all six exhibition games, and then gave a Continental Basketball Association team in Bangor, Maine a try. He left camp after two days, though, once the chaotic and unprofessional conditions convinced him he'd wind up hating basketball if he stayed.
Returning to Indianapolis, he worked for a local sports goods firm, The Athletic Department, in team sales, and played in AAU leagues on the side. His future seemed as uncertain as a halfcourt heave until the Pacers offered a lifeline.
After Jack McKinney was hired as coach to replace Slick Leonard in June of 1980, the franchise conducted an open tryout for a few invited players and other candidates interested in taking a shot at making an NBA team. The primary purpose was to give McKinney, who had been injured in a bicycle accident a few years earlier, a chance to get back on the court and coach again, as well as generate some off-season publicity.
It was meant to be a two-day tryout. Sichting called and asked for a tryout, but was so exhausted after the first day he had decided not to return the next day. McKinney, however, had seen enough and canceled the second day's session. He announced he would keep Sichting and a few others for a Summer League team.
If you want to call it a team. The Pacers sent five players to California for the league, but no coach. Former NBA player Walt Hazzard was hired to direct the squad, which included some players who didn't belong to the Pacers. From there, Sichting earned an invitation to training camp, and from there he earned a roster spot.
Still, he was playing on thin ice. He played sparingly early in the season and feared getting cut after veteran guard Don Buse was acquired in a trade on Nov. 25. Someone was going to have to be released to make room for him, and Sichting knew it would either be him or Kenny Natt. With the players waiting nervously in the locker room to have a team photo taken a few days after the trade, assistant coach George Irvine walked in and asked Natt to report to the coaches' office.
"It was one of those moments when you think, Boy, this is a tough business here," Sichting recalled.
Buse became a mentor for Sichting, who grew his playing career from the ground up. He averaged 2 points as a rookie, then 4.2, then 9.3. He started all 80 games he played his fourth season, averaging 11.5 points on 53 percent shooting, then came off the bench most of his fifth season after Vern Fleming was drafted.
By then he had established himself well enough as a solid role player that Boston offered a free agent contract. The Pacers could have matched it and wanted to do so, but Sichting – realizing the building effort that awaited a team that had just won 22 games– asked to be set free.
"I knew it was still going to be two or three years before the team jelled," he said. "They had a nucleus, but I knew it wasn't going to happen when I was there."
The Pacers wound up signing him and trading him to the Celtics for two second-round draft picks. He then played three seasons with Bird in Boston, and came off the bench all 82 regular season games for the team that won the 1986 championship.
He can't help but wonder how his life would have turned out if not for that summer tryout in 1980.
"I'm sure it would be totally different," he said. "I have no idea where I would be or what I would be doing. I don't know. Looking back, it seems like destiny. Everybody knows one decision here or there in their life that completely changes things.
"Everything fell in for me after that."