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Original Issue

Sam the Man

It's showtime for Mr. Low Profile, Sam Perkins

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."

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.

But this is a new and confusing era in the NBA. The stakes have gotten much higher, and people will be harder and harder to please just because Perkins is a Laker. A day before joining the rest of the team for camp in Hawaii, Perkins landed his first endorsement in Los Angeles, with Breyers ice cream. An omen perhaps?

There is a general anticipation as the Lakers regroup after a massive playoff failure in Phoenix last season. You can feel it. Can Sam Perkins take them further? Or does the bus stop here?