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There are some folks in the NBA who may wonder how Sam Perkins ever got from a kind of blue-collar anonymity in Dallas to Rodeo Drive wealth in Los Angeles. Then again, there are some folks in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn who marvel that Perkins got anywhere at all. Here was a kid—would you say he was drifting? Would you say he lacked direction?—who enjoyed his truancy on the B-46 bus, traveling from Kings Plaza in Brooklyn to the Williamsburg Bridge and back again, all day long. There were kids in the neighborhood who were going nowhere; but nobody was going nowhere quite as literally as Sam Perkins was.
Now look where he is. Would you say he is happy? Would you say he is rich? He plays for a franchise that contends yearly for the NBA championship, something that cannot be said of the Dallas Mavericks. He will earn $19.2 million while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers over the next six years, something that cannot be said of Magic Johnson. Would you say he is lucky? Had Atlanta's Jon Koncak (a career 6.2 scorer) not established Lottolike conditions in the NBA last year with his $13.1 million, six-year contract, that part about Perkins's pay might seem to be a more astonishing development than it is. But let's at least allow that the folks back in Bedford-Stuyvesant are scratching their heads today.
Well, O.K., the NBA remains a bit agog too. Until the Lakers thought to sign him as a deluxe reserve to beef up their front line, Perkins had been unable to generate the kind of excitement that usually attends today's superstar. For all his workmanlike qualities, he had one endorsement—with an automobile agency—after six seasons in Dallas. The coaches loved him. He gave his team 15 points and eight rebounds a night and, defensively, did a lot of the team's dirty work. He played every position but point guard. He was, as you would expect of somebody Bobby Knight once called "one of the finest human beings I've ever been around," the ultimate team player. Every one of Perkins's coaches gushed that he did all the important little things. On the other hand, as a Dallas columnist once pointed out, he hadn't done many of the big things.
Dallas general manager Norm Sonju acknowledges that this is a new and confusing era in the NBA and admits that he was willing to wreck his team's salary structure to keep Perkins, an unrestricted free agent, to the tune of $18 million over six years. But Sonju doesn't sound like he's certain why he would have done it. "He's a fine person, a good player and is well liked," Sonju says as though he's talking about a Boy Scout instead of a power forward. "We really wanted him here." Sonju adds, "The very best situation is that your best player makes the most money, your second-best player makes the second-most. We'd have a lot less problems." And Sam? "Not to deprecate his skills, and I really wanted to keep him, but we felt he was the fourth-best player on our team."
That would seem to deprecate his skills. But everybody does it. The history of Perkins is that his teams (except for Dallas) win championships—the 1982 NCAAs while at North Carolina, the 1983 Pan Am Games, Olympic gold in 1984—and that he disappears into selfless team play. This keeps the Dean Smiths and Bobby Knights happy. And at Dallas it kept such diverse coaching personalities as Dick Motta, John MacLeod and Richie Adubato happy, too. But nobody mistook Perkins for a Michael Jordan. "What's interesting," says Sonju, "is that the coach [Adubato] went to Sam an awful lot last year, helped make him a better offensive player. Gave him an opportunity to showcase himself. But the numbers are basically the same. He scored, what, 15.9? He averaged 15.4 his second year, when Mark Aguirre was here, and Mark was a scorer. And then again, when Roy [Tarpley] was down, it was a golden opportunity for him. But he's not the kind of player who becomes a 25-point scorer. He's a complementary player, and to others may seem overrated."
Did we say this is a new and confusing era in the NBA? It took Laker general manager Jerry West barely a day to agree to a $3.2 million-a-year contract with Perkins. "One thing," says A. Lee Fentress, Perkins's lawyer, " Jerry West negotiates like he plays golf. Fast." One other thing: West is rarely wrong.
"There are a lot of guys making more than him," says West of Perkins, "a damn lot. You see what these rookies are getting? And maybe they can't play a lick. Chris Jackson signed for $2 million, and he's six-one! This shows you what the premium is on proven players that don't cost you another player or a draft pick."
The principal attraction of the 29-year-old Perkins to the Lakers is his versatility. He can come off the bench to support A.C. Green at power forward or replace Mychal Thompson or Vlade Divac at center, even though at 6'9" Perkins gives inches away. He can shoot from the perimeter, and he often is the best defensive player on the floor. "You just don't find big people that versatile," says West.
Perkins remains unabashed by his salary. When Sonju told him, as gracefully as a fax would allow, that the Mavericks couldn't justify a $20 million contract to beat the Lakers' offer, because "this number would cause major inner-team problems," Perkins was baffled.
In Los Angeles the Lakers generally don't worry about equilibrium. The history of owner Jerry Buss is that he tends to level any salary tilt as soon as possible. In fact, the players are so comfortable with Buss's intentions, if not their present contracts, that somebody like Magic can blithely toss back $100,000-plus of his salary so the team can dip below the salary cap and sign someone as valuable as swingman Terry Teagle. Do you think Buss will fail to restore that money when Magic's next contract is negotiated in 1994? Or that he'll fail to take care of James Worthy, who once was Perkins's roommate at North Carolina? "In a year or two," says Perkins, "my little $3 million [a year] will be nothing, and I'll settle back to the bottom again."