Sam Perkins sat down in a Houston restaurant one afternoon last week and ordered the chicken quesadilla—no guacamole, no sour cream. A few minutes later he was in the middle of discussing his adjustment to life as the Seattle SuperSonics' center when the waitress placed his order in front of him, lathered with sour cream. "I asked for it without this," Perkins said politely. "I can't eat sour cream."
The waitress offered to remove the offending topping, but Perkins said no, he would rather have a new order. She took the plate away and returned moments later with his food, on which Perkins found telltale traces of white. "She just wiped it off," he said, shaking his head. Instead of making a fuss by calling her back and demanding a new order, Perkins chose to deal with the matter another way. "This," he said calmly, "will affect her tip."
That's about as annoyed as Perkins, who's known as Easy or Big Smooth, ever gets—or at least as much as he ever shows. "The last time I saw Sam really upset?" says James Worthy of the Los Angeles Lakers, who has known Perkins since showing young recruit Sam around the North Carolina campus in 1980. "I'm still waiting for the first time."
Perkins's way is not to get irritated when things go wrong but simply to wait for the appropriate time to right them. It's an approach he has been trying to impart to the talented but delicately balanced Sonics ever since the Lakers traded him to Seattle on Feb. 22 for underachieving center Benoit Benjamin and the rights to unsigned rookie Doug Christie. The Sonics found themselves in need of just such a steadying influence on Sunday after they followed two emphatic wins over the Houston Rockets in Seattle with a pair of equally decisive losses in Houston last weekend. That left their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal playoff series tied 2-2 as the teams headed back to Seattle for Game 6 on Tuesday.
"The momentum didn't change, just the scenery," said Perkins after the Rockets' 103-92 victory in Game 4 on Sunday. "If we just stay relaxed, we'll be fine when it changes back to Seattle scenery."
Seattle acquired the long-armed, 6'9" Perkins from the Lakers as much for his attitude and experience—he won an NCAA championship with North Carolina in 1982, an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. team in '84 and reached the NBA Finals with the Lakers in '91—as for his rebounding and offensive versatility. With the mercurial Gary Payton at point guard, the often prepotent but sometimes moody Shawn Kemp at forward and volatile coach George Karl on the sidelines, the Sonics can look terrific, as they did in their two home court victories over the Rockets, or inept, as they did in their Game 3 loss in Houston. The 97-79 final score didn't reflect just how soundly Seattle was thrashed.
"The best thing you can say about Sam is just that he's a pro," says Rocket coach Rudy Tomjanovich. "He's consistent, he's unselfish, and he docs his job. He doesn't need a lot of attention."
Perkins has been called "the ultimate role player" by Derek Harper, who was Perkins's teammate for six seasons on the Dallas Mavericks. That's another way of saying Perkins doesn't complain when someone else takes most of the shots. When he joined the Sonics, Perkins, a .269 three-point shooter for his career, didn't attempt a three-point shot for the first four games. Finally Karl told him not to hesitate to launch the ball from beyond the circle. Since then Perkins's outside shooting has become a key part of the Seattle offense. In the deciding fifth game of the Sonics' opening-round series against the Utah Jazz, he hit three threes in the third period, which allowed Seattle to take control. "Inexperienced players don't have the courage to play like that," Karl says. "In the playoffs you win with your brain and your heart as much as with your talent, and Sam has plenty of all three. He is the reason we're still here."
It was to neutralize one of Perkins's talents, his long-range shooting, that Tomjanovich made the crucial adjustment that helped the Rockets climb back into the series. Because Perkins operates so effectively far from the basket, he can be a difficult matchup for opposing centers, as he proved by making five of six three-pointers in a 23-point performance against Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon in Seattle's 111-100 Game 2 victory on May 12. Tomjanovich made a switch for Game 3, putting 6'10" power forward Otis Thorpe on Perkins, which allowed Olajuwon to stay near the basket guarding Kemp.
"The switch on defense was a smart move by Rudy." said Olajuwon, who averaged 23 points and 11 rebounds in Games 3 and 4. "It felt more natural for me to take Kemp because he likes to post up, and I didn't want to have to worry about following Sam outside. Defending against Sam can be a big headache."