Easy Does It — Sam Perkins: Selfless, Sacrificial Sonic

By Glenn Nelson
Seattle Times Reporter

That night – April 12, 1990 – began so smoothly. Everything felt so fluid, so natural. Before he knew it, Sam Perkins had scored 22 points. For the Dallas Mavericks. Against the Golden State Warriors.

In the first quarter.

By halftime, Perkins had 30, and every one of those points had come in the flow of the offense. He hadn’t forced a shot.

As the game neared completion, and Perkins’ offensive output soared into the 40s, his rush began to fade. He was feeling piggish, greedy. And Sam Perkins – so clearly the grandson of Brooklyn’s Martha Perkins, as well as the product of North Carolina’s Dean Smith – had always been anything but greedy. So he began to pass the ball, pass up shots, pass up opportunities to engrave his mark on team history.

Perkins finished with 45 points, just four short of the club record. He hadn’t known he was so close, and none of his teammates told him. Whatever robbed him of a rare, individual achievement that night, it was more consensus than conspiratorial. Perkins had cast the deciding vote, after all.

“Everyone wants some attention,” says Perkins, now a Seattle SuperSonic. “But I never want the light to shine so bright that it becomes an ego thing. If you get the light shining on you all the time, other people start tripping off that.”

The only other time Perkins really called attention to himself was three years ago, when as an unrestricted free agent he signed a six-year contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. The money – $19.2 million – was mind-boggling then. But Perkins shrugged it off, figuring the market would rise and he would once again fade into the background.

Which, in case you hadn’t figured it out yet, is what Perkins does best.

James Worthy, his roommate at North Carolina and teammate in Los Angeles, calls Perkins “the ultimate team player.” Derek Harper, who played with Perkins in Dallas, calls him, “probably the best role player in the NBA.” Laker Coach Randy Pfund calls him “real subtle.” Herb Crossman, a social worker formerly out of Brooklyn, knew Perkins as “Easy,” and the Mavericks called him “The Silent Assassin.”

Nowadays, with the Sonics embarking on a highly anticipated postseason run, Perkins is considered by many the missing ingredient.

“This team, with the addition of Perkins, has a shot (at the NBA championship),” former Philadelphia 76er coach Doug Moe said of the Sonics, shortly after they acquired Perkins from the Lakers for Benoit Benjamin and Doug Christie Feb. 22. “I wouldn’t have given them a shot before.”

How does a team become transformed into a contender by trading for a player once nicknamed “Easy”?

Ah, the Perkins puzzle.

Sam, I am.

I am Sam.

Which is what?

In professional sports, you change a couple of letters in easy, and you get lazy. Unemotional appears to be uncaring. Lying back seems to be the same thing as holding back.

Don’t think for a moment these charges haven’t been leveled against Perkins.

“I really can’t control what people think,” he says. “I don’t really care. Once people get to know me, they see why I am what I am.”

Not that people always take the time. Perkins has a smile that lights up his entire face, but he also basks in solitude. Which makes it easy to misread him. And once that happens, well, to whom does a loner complain? Himself?

Earlier this season, Perkins missed a couple of Laker practices. The only male in his immediate family, he now says he was tending to a family member suffering from a life-threatening illness. Back then, when asked by a reporter about his absences, Perkins did not want to be specific. So he was evasive. And he mentioned something about depression.

The resulting newspaper piece, a minor one, mentioned Perkins’ reference to depression. In the wired world of the NBA, word spread quickly and, as often happens, got skewed. Suddenly Perkins was suffering from depression the way Minnesota’s Willie Burton and Orlando’s Brian Williams were – severe, clinical depression. Talk eventually died down, then was revived when Perkins was traded to Seattle. There were knowing whispers regarding the real reasons behind the deal.

“If I was Charles Barkley, things never would have gone that far,” Perkins says. “Superstars get a chance to explain themselves. Guys who are all on the same level never get on ESPN or Arsenio to tell their story.”

Perkins, 31, never knew his father, who died when he was 1. He and his three sisters were raised by his mother and grandmother in a brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. His grandmother, Martha Perkins, was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and Sam spent many a day at her side, distributing religious literature.

Much of his selfless nature can be traced to Jehovah’s Witness teaching, he believes. And, as luck would have it, those personality traits later were reinforced by a Tar Heel program that also preaches against boastfulness and ostentatious behavior.

Between those two signposts of life, Perkins drifted. He bypassed nearby Boys High, the basketball factory that produced ex-Sonic Lenny Wilkens, among many others, because his grandmother pronounced the place “wicked.” Perkins went to Tilden High in Flatbush, but didn’t even take up basketball seriously until he left there before his junior year.

Perkins didn’t play ball because he couldn’t produce the grades to earn eligibility. Not that he didn’t have the intelligence. He just, ahem, had a problem with showing up for class.

The aimlessness changed the day Herb Crossman, a job placement counselor, spotted Perkins walking down the street. Needing a big man for his youth basketball team, Crossman asked some of his players if Perkins hooped. One thought he did and persuaded Perkins to join the team.

Crossman took to Perkins almost immediately.

“He was polite, willing to listen, never talked back, wasn’t rude, had motivation,” he recalls. “He did everything you asked him to do. He had goals and ideas, but not the hangups a lot of kids have. I know people say this a lot, but I really mean it – if you had a kid that age, you’d want him to be just like that.”

Perkins’ schoolwork improved under Crossman’s guidance, but began to dip when Crossman’s career took him to Latham, N.Y., a suburb of Albany. Discovering the drop-off, Crossman consulted the Perkins family, became Sam’s legal guardian, enrolled him at Shaker High School, an academic if not athletic powerhouse, and dictated he maintain a B-average to play basketball. Perkins made his grades.

Now, Perkins recognizes that all he’d needed was a father figure. Crossman was his first, and perhaps most important. James Worthy, in a way, was next. Perkins had met him at the National Sports Festival and thought the fact that Worthy, two years older, was a sophomore at North Carolina “was so cool.” Perkins followed Worthy to UNC, roomed with him, won an NCAA title with him and to this day considers him his biggest influence in basketball.

Dean Smith also filled a fatherly void, as have three coaches at Dallas, two in L.A. and now the one in Seattle, but the influence has been more on a basketball level.

“Sam listens to his coaches,” Crossman says. “He’s not prepared to listen to anybody else.”

Coach George Karl discovered that early in Perkins’ tenure with the Sonics. The 6-foot-8 lefty let four games pass without launching a three-pointer. Karl passed on that he’d like Perkins to take that shot, and mere minutes into the next game, Perkins took one and hit it.

That perimeter punch is one of the reasons the Sonics wanted Perkins. They’d been notoriously weak against bigger teams. A big man who could take defenders outside and away from young post-up scorers like Shawn Kemp and Derrick McKey could prove invaluable. Especially against teams such as Utah, which the Sonics are facing this week in the first round of the NBA playoffs, and Houston, a possible second-round opponent.

More important, Seattle likes Perkins’ professionalism. Wherever he goes, winning seems to be his shadow. He played on the 1982 NCAA title team with Worthy and Michael Jordan, the 1983 Pan Am Games champion, the 1984 Olympic gold-medal team, a conference finalist in Dallas and an NBA finalist in Los Angeles.

“He’s just so smart,” Karl says. “I think in pro basketball, in the playoffs, you win as much with your brain and your heart as your talent. And he’s a winner. His confidence and his strength comes from winning. Players who are driven by winning have an inner strength. It’s a foundation that coaches always want to have around their teams.”

It’s one that Lakers Coach Pfund hated to lose. The Lakers were 26-23 and giving up 103.1 points a game on 47.1-percent shooting with Perkins in the lineup this season. They were 13-20, yielded 109.1 points and allowed teams to shoot 52 percent after Perkins was traded to Seattle.

“Sam might have been our best defensive player, and we lost him,” Pfund said. “That had a lot to do with how we changed defensively.”

The transformation didn’t seem that dramatic. Teams just started getting into the lane easier. Fewer opposing rebounders seemed to get blocked out. Perkins didn’t block shots back into the stands. He just got the job done.

He’s a complementary player, maybe the best around. Worthy calls Perkins a “sacrificer.”

“He sacrifices ego and publicity to help his team win. You look at his stats at the end of a game and say, `Wow, what happened?’ ”

See, this is the problem. It’s hard work to appreciate Sam Perkins. You have to know the game. You have to watch him carefully, and often.

Perkins simply won’t stand out. But from his North Carolina days to now, he has been as consistent as a heartbeat, getting 15 points, eight rebounds and one or two blocks a night. Like the stitching on a finely tailored piece of clothing, he is nearly invisible, but holds the whole thing together. The Sonics are a team with talent so evenly spread that the demands for shots and minutes are abundant. Perkins played on a Dallas team that was like that, but to the extremes of selfishness.

“He plays his role,” says Harper, the point guard on that team. “He doesn’t get in the way. He does his job. He’ll take a lesser role to win. He was always the guy who sacrificed the most for our team to continue to be good.”

In a somewhat negative sense, Perkins has been compared to McKey. McKey, however, will allow an undercurrent of selflessness to carry him to the point of passivity. Perkins has the same smooth playing style and heavy-lidded eyes that sometimes make him appear asleep. But the difference is that Perkins will recognize whatever task is required to win, then will himself to do it.

To wit, the play for which Perkins is best known is the game-winning three-pointer he hit for the Lakers in Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals against Chicago. Earlier that season, his first in L.A., then-Coach Mike Dunleavy had asked Perkins and Vlade Divac to work on their threes. Perkins was surprised, but compliant. So when Magic Johnson kicked the ball out to him with 13 seconds left and the Lakers trailing 91-90 at Chicago Stadium, Perkins didn’t hesitate in hoisting the shot. L.A. needed only a two-point bucket to go ahead, but Perkins was wide-open, so it was the right thing to do.

“I would have felt worse if I hadn’t taken that shot,” Perkins says, “than if I had missed it.”

Grasp that distinction. Get why he passed up shots for Dallas during a regular-season game against Golden State, and not that particular one for the Lakers in the NBA Finals against the Bulls. Understand this, and you have the essence of Sam Perkins.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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