As a member of the Orlando Magic, Ryan Anderson played against then-Boston center Kendrick Perkins countless times in heated Eastern Conference matchups. Whether it was Perkins’ aggressive, physical play, or his perpetually menacing scowl on the court, Anderson quickly despised the Celtic.
“I remember telling a few people, ‘I really don’t like that guy,’ ” says Anderson, whose opinion has completely changed since becoming a New Orleans teammate in 2015-16.
Told recently of Anderson’s past dislike, Perkins’ reaction could best be described as a combination of pride – and a complete lack of surprise.
“I get that all the time. All the time,” Perkins said. “Guys say, ‘Perk, (once I got to know you), you’re actually just a cool dude.’ But you never really know a guy until you’re around him every day. Hearing that is actually fine with me, because that’s how it’s supposed to be – they shouldn’t like you when they’re on a different team. It’s cool.”
Pelicans three-time All-Star forward Anthony Davis felt similarly about Perkins when he had to play against him in New Orleans-Oklahoma City games.
“I didn’t really like the dude,” Davis said. “We played OKC in OKC and he tried to guard me. He was just talking and talking. (But) we’re real close now, super close.”
The about-face by Anderson and Davis helps illustrate the reputation Perkins has developed during his 13-year NBA career, as a player you probably hate playing against, but love having as a teammate.
The veteran mentor
New Orleans’ roster is comprised primarily of mid-career veterans, with few players at the very beginning or end of their careers. When Perkins was signed in July free agency, he provided an old-school voice with championship experience and multiple deep playoff runs under his belt (he started for the ‘08 champion Celtics and appeared in the NBA Finals with Oklahoma City and Cleveland).
As a result of injuries this season, particularly at the center position to Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, Perkins has logged more minutes than anyone probably anticipated, but he was valued for his potential impact on the team’s cast of younger players, including Davis. In his first season as Pelicans head coach, Alvin Gentry often raves about the 6-foot-10 center.
“We did a lot of research and talked to everyone, and everybody we talked to said, ‘He’s the best teammate I’ve ever had,’ ” Gentry said. “We’ve found that to be true. He’s like having another assistant coach, really. He’s an unbelievable student of the game, a hard worker and he’s got the respect of everybody around the league. He’s done a good job of trying to help AD as kind of a mentor, and the same thing with Omer, Alexis. He’s a tremendous guy. As long as I’m a coach and he wanted to be around, I would keep him around.
“He does exactly what we ask him to do. He’s going to play extremely hard and you’re going to get everything he possibly can give. That’s all you ever ask for as a coach. He’s going to be a smart player, he’s going to play all the angles, he’s going to really talk about what needs to be done.”
Perk on the NBA
Speaking of talking, as a player who’s been around long enough to have come to the league directly from high school in ‘03 – before a rule change prevented that from happening – Perkins has a lot to say about the NBA. During games, he’s perhaps at his most vocal, often patrolling the sideline like an extra assistant coach, gesturing to teammates about positioning and providing encouragement from the bench. The native of Beaumont, Texas, uses the ultra-successful 2015-16 Golden State Warriors as an example of why being supportive of teammates – regardless of if you play 40 minutes or zero minutes – is important.
“I always want to be a teammate who, if I’m on the bench or not playing, I’m always going to be rooting for my teammates,” Perkins said. “It works both ways. If I’m playing and there’s a guy who isn’t playing, I want him rooting for me. You always want to stay engaged, because you never know. You could not play in the first half, but then a guy goes down (and you’re needed to play). You keep yourself involved, so when your number is called, your mind is right. It’s hard to hoop when there are a lot of things going on in your head.
“All the true teams do that. You look at the good teams, like Golden State, every time they score a basket, all the guys are getting up off the bench. Winning teams do that. It’s contagious. Once you get on a guy’s team, you’re all in and support them.”
Perkins has also experienced the gradual transition of today’s NBA from a more physical game to one that’s free-flowing, with very little defensive contact permitted. He seems a bit wistful about the league’s makeup when he debuted as a rookie.
“The game has changed. It’s different. Back in the day, you used to be able to fight and not get kicked out of the game,” he said, referring to a decade or two even further back. “You could be more aggressive, more physical, hands-on when you’re playing defense. But the game changed, not to the point where it got soft, but it used to be more of a paint game. It used to be more physical. It’s not like that anymore. Now it’s more of a three-point shooting game, up and down, fast-paced. It’s hard to touch guys up or be mean. But you can still always have that business approach to the game.”
When it’s brought up to him that an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary depicts the late 1980s Detroit Pistons fighting the other team in what seems like every game, Perkins notes the role that physicality and scrappiness can sometimes play in igniting a team and giving it energy.
“You know what? Sometimes that gets guys going,” Perkins said of altercations. “In Boston, we used to fuel off of stuff like that. We used to go out and actually pick a beef with guys to get going. We’d instantly get into it with anybody, just to get ourselves going and get our gas up.”
Playing a role
In 19 appearances this season, including five starts, Perkins is averaging a modest 1.9 points and 3.0 rebounds. While he’s shooting a team-best 64.3 percent from the field, the 31-year-old’s impact on the Pelicans was never going to be about stats.
“He’s a vet and a real leader to a lot of guys here,” Davis said. “If he thinks we should be doing something, stuff that we don’t see, (he mentions it). Every game on the plane ride home, we watch film together and we talk about it. But he’s been real helpful for all of us here. That’s who he is.
“Everybody loves him. He gets on everybody, just like (Gentry). We all still love him and respect him. Thirteen years (into his NBA career), you don’t get there by luck. We respect his opinion. We’re happy to have him here.”
Perkins partly credits his longevity to a willingness to accept a role on every team he’s played for in the NBA. Doing the opposite is something that can short-circuit the careers of many players, regardless of how talented they may be.
“One thing about me is that I have accepted my role,” Perkins said. “I accept what I am and don’t try to be anything outside my body. I’m cool with who I am. I’m cool with what I bring to the table. I know what I can do and what I can’t do. That’s a big thing with a lot of young guys and guys in the league now – they’re not accountable or hold themselves accountable. They think they’re better than what they are. You only have a few select superstars who can do a lot of things. Other guys are limited. The thing is, it’s OK to be a role player – just be a star in your role. Some guys can’t accept that. I can. I may not be the most athletic guy, the most talented, but I’m going to bring it every night, give it my all and compete at a high level. It’s all about business.”
It’s that same all-business approach that sometimes gives strangers, new acquaintances or foes the wrong impression about Perkins. During his first four seasons in the league, primarily as a reserve enforcer/defender/rebounder off Boston’s bench, he only faced Minnesota twice a season, but still managed to get deep under the skin of then-Timberwolves perennial All-Star forward Kevin Garnett. Following a blockbuster trade between the teams, they found themselves in the same Celtics frontcourt in 2007-08, a partnership that culminated in an NBA title in Year 1. The pair of big men – who once shared a deep on-court dislike – are now like family members.
“Kevin Garnett, my first few years, we used to hate each other,” Perkins said. “But when he came to Boston, our relationship went through the roof. We became great friends, brothers for life.”
“I just think he’s a tremendous leader,” Gentry summarized. “He’s the one guy that after being around him daily, is the biggest surprise. He appears to be this grumpy old guy on the court, and everyone’s so scared to even say hello to him, but he’s been the opposite of that. He’s been a great mentor for all of our big guys, not just Anthony. His work ethic is unbelievable. Just to have him around has been a godsend.”