Tar heel in Manila
by rick olivares
You can take the man out of Chapel Hill but you can’t take Chapel Hill out of the man.
Sam Perkins, 17-year NBA veteran, Olympic Gold Medalist, NCAA Champion, is in Manila to kick off the 100-day countdown to the first ever NBA pre-season games in Manila.
During the press conference that introduced him to the media, Perkins was asked if he rooted for any team in the recently concluded finals and without batting an eyelash, he said he pulled for the San Antonio Spurs because they played as a team and because they also had University of North Carolina alum, Danny Green.
Prior to flying over to Manila, Perkins visited his alma mater. “I just came from Chapel Hill,” he grinned as he admitted to being pleased about the discussion of college ball. “There’s a big connection with all North Carolina alumni. Even if I didn’t play with him (Green) as long as you played for UNC you root for everyone. It’s a tradition for all the teams – baseball, football, lacrosse, basketball, and whatnot. Even in the NBA it’s the same. It’s a Carolina thing.”
The man they call ‘Big Smooth’ is actually from Brooklyn. “New York, baby” he says with a huge grin when talk shifts to his roots. “We call it ‘the Mecca of basketball’, he proudly says of the Big Apple. A place like Indiana has its tradition and strong following but there is nothing like New York City basketball.”
I cite Rick Telander’s famous paean to street basketball, ‘Heaven is a Playground’ and Bobbito Garcia and Kevin Couliau’s independent documentary ‘Doin’ it in the park’ about New York City’s basketball scene and Perkins’ sleepy eyes light up. “That is what I am talking about,” he says now more animatedly as if I had said the magic word. “You know the vibe.”
But that street ball where individual plays can turn an ordinary street urchin into a concrete demigod gave way to the brand of team game that the legendary Dean Smith espoused in hoops.
I ask Perkins if there is anything that his college coach espoused that sticks with him to this day. “Coach,” he begins as his mind begins to access pleasant memories of a bygone past, “always taught us to give back. Not just to your family but to your school, your community, and your roots. And to this day I still do that. And there’s another one – and that’s to talk about others and not yourself. I don’t know why I still do that but that’s very Dean Smith.”
The proof is all in his answers. Perkins played for four teams – the Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Seattle Supersonics, and the Indiana Pacers. He mentioned teammates and friends – Magic Johnson, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Rik Smits, the Davis boys (Antonio and Davis). But he also makes special mention of James Worthy and Michael Jordan.
The three were teammates on a North Carolina team that won the 1982 NCAA championship over Georgetown. Worthy was his teammates in the Lakers and Jordan was someone he went up twice against in the NBA Finals of 1991 and 1996 with the latter coming away as the victor on both occasions.
Jordan too was his teammate on the 1984 US Men’s Basketball Olympic Team that won the gold medal. “A great and highly memorable experience,” he enthuses.
Perkins then recites a list of names from Brooklyn’s hallowed streets. “The history is rich,” he says with reverence. “There’s Lenny Wilkens, Billy Cunningham, Vinnie Johnson, Jamaal Tinsley, Bernard and Albert King, the Hawk (Connie Hawkins), World B. Free, Bassy Telfair, Taj Gibson, Carmelo (Anthony), Steph (Marbury), Mark Jackson, Dwayne Washington, and the list goes on.”
Michael Jordan was born in Brooklyn, I throw in.
Big Smooth grins, “MJ was born is Brooklyn but he moved out to North Carolina about nine months after he was born. He is more of a country boy we can tell that by playing with him. He was coming from Wilmington. But there are your connections.”
And he takes it back to North Carolina. “Back in the day, you finished college and got your degree (Perkins is a communications major). That is why many of us came out polished because you learned the game the right way and Coach Smith taught us that. Now, the game is faster plus like in the recent NBA Draft, you have many players who the fans generally don’t know about because they didn’t stay too long in college and they don’t learn to play a team ball game. That is why the Spurs are a throwback. And I respect that.”
In his third day in Manila, Perkins will get to sample Philippine college basketball – the UAAP. “I hear it’s got a great atmosphere here for basketball in the Philippines. I look forward to the game.”
His work with the Texas Legends in the D-League in Dallas, the Special Olympics, and his consulting for the NBA sometimes makes it impossible to watch all of UNC’s games. “But whenever I can, I watch or go back. Roots is what it is. Roots.”