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Of course, there are bottoms and there are bottoms. He's unlikely to revisit the kind from which he sprang, when he and one of his friends at Tilden High in Brooklyn were hustling quarters for bus fare and some Apple Malt Duck, which helped a do-nothing adolescence pass. Perkins's luck wasn't simply a matter of being "in the right place at the right time" this season, as Sonju says. His luck goes way back.
He grew up in a tough neighborhood, and came from a broken home. On the other hand, there were a lot of Perkins women: three sisters, a mother and, most dominantly, a grandmother. The grandmother, Martha Perkins, a stern Jehovah's Witness who would haul Sam along when she distributed religious literature, was a no-nonsense type. "But there was only so much she could do," Sam admits. To the extent that he even went to school, he languished. "I got 50s and 60s when everybody else would get 70s and 80s. I'd try at first, and then I'd say, What's the use? I won't get the grades to make the team. I'd stop going to school. I just didn't have much discipline."
All that seemed available to him was an aimless street life. Not that he was bad. "Worst thing I did?" Perkins says. "Maybe sneak on the back of the bus without paying." The best thing he did? Probably pay the fare when he got on the bus. He and his school chum spent days joyriding on the city bus system, stopping for some fast food at a local McDonald's or at a corner store for the Apple Malt Duck.
But talk about being in the right place at the right time. One day Perkins was spotted by a social worker named Herb Crossman, who ran a neighborhood basketball team in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Crossman asked some of his players if they knew this tall kid with the Afro, and did he play ball? They knew him. But they didn't think he played ball. Crossman prevailed upon a couple of players, and they were able to talk Perkins into joining the team.
Crossman remembers two things: Perkins learned fast, and he could manufacture some marvelous excuses, even for events that required none. Both activities seemed entirely reflexive. "I'd say, 'Why weren't you at practice Thursday night?' " Crossman remembers. "And instead of saying he was at the Kingdom Hall for services, he'd say he had a cold. He couldn't help himself." Other times, lying was better suited to the occasion. Well, why wasn't he in school? Well, he was there, but he was late, wasn't counted—he could go on and on.
But Crossman discovered that Perkins would do almost anything for him. Perkins was enormously responsive. "If I asked him to ride his bike to my place in East Flatbush, done," says Crossman. Soon Perkins was spending a lot of time with Crossman, who was married and 30. And Perkins had no excuse but to do his homework.
Later, Crossman's career took him to Albany, N.Y. But in checking up on Perkins, Crossman discovered that the youngster was backsliding. So he called the Perkins family and arranged to become Sam's legal guardian and hauled him up to Albany. "I never treated him like anything but a son," says Crossman. Sometimes as a wayward son, though. On a visit to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Perkins challenged him on a midnight curfew. Crossman grounded him for two months, a punishment which Perkins meekly accepted.
Perkins flourished under this discipline. "It was pretty hard at first," he says, "but you know, in that time, I missed one day of school.... I had to maintain a B or better. I thought I couldn't do it, but I figured I might as well make the best of it.... My grades improved dramatically."
Crossman says that Perkins "needed a male role model. He'd have gotten gobbled up." True enough, but that only explains some of Crossman's involvement. That explains why he coached Sam, looked after him in the neighborhood, made a few phone calls. But what about taking Sam into his house for two years, assuming the responsibility for a very chancy personality? "You don't understand. I saw this kid's smile when he was 14," says Crossman.
You could never say that Perkins did not grow up to be his own man. Yet his career is littered with father figures. Dean Smith at North Carolina, for example. "He had a way of looking after you, knowing what you were doing," Perkins says. "And then, he had a way of giving you room to grow, too." It's possible he assigned more than just coaching duties to the likes of Motta, MacLeod and Adubato. Writers in Dallas remember how eager Perkins was to please these coaches and what a team player he was for each of them. He was a rarity among the Mavs; he got along with all three very different men.