Tracy is a military contractor, currently stationed on one of the United States’ four Kuwait bases while her husband and daughter await her return. Tracy’s transition from service in the Middle East to civilian life in South Carolina may prove just as daunting as her responsibilities overseas. Transition is something Sam Perkins, an 18-year NBA veteran, feels he can identify with.
“We talked about transitioning and what she’s gonna do after is almost similar to a basketball afterlife. That was a common thread with her,” Perkins says. The North Carolina product shared a lunch with Tracy and hundreds of other troops during a week-long USO Tour in May. “We just sat down and I talked about transitioning college players to the pros. And then once I played 18 years, I had to transition myself to see what was next and fortunately I have people that wanted me to do several different things for the NBA.”
Since his retirement in 2001, Perkins has represented the NBA with the same grace he showed as he scored 22 points against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals. From May 15-22, Perkins took part in a variety-style USO entertainment tour, headlined by the Chief of the National Guard Bureau for the first time in the USO’s 75-year history. Along with Scorpion star Robert Patrick, platinum-selling country star Jerrod Niemann, actor Matthew Lillard and UFC middleweight Tim Kennedy, Perkins visited with thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Kuwait, Djibouti and Jordan.
“He’s a sports legend,” says Rachel M. Tischler, vice president of USO Entertainment. “Sports are really important to the military because it’s a way to really stay connected back home. When you have a break in whatever job you’re doing, it gives you something to look forward to. Everyone relates to their favorite teams and they love to know what’s going on and there’s obviously nothing more magical than having a superstar of whatever sport you follow, in particular basketball, show up at whatever base you’re serving at, in person, to hang out with you and talk with you and eat lunch with you and tell you how important you are. That’s just the crux of what we do.”
“You find a common thread over lunch,” Perkins says over the phone from Kuwait. Despite towering over most soldiers, Perkins found ways to connect with the troops. “He has such a wonderful grace about him and an ease of talking and relating to people,” Tischler said. Perkins met a 20-year-old young man from Georgia who was forced to drop out of college and work maintenance on southern railroad tracks to help support his family. “He found himself in a quandary, so he wanted to do something better than what he was,” Perkins says. “He just wanted to finish school and make something of himself and his family and at the same time serve.” Perkins was humbled, overcome with emotion as he learned of each man and woman’s unique background.
The tour reached roughly 1,000 soldiers each day. Perkins posed for pictures with everyone as basketball dominated his discussions. The NBA has spread throughout the world, and the sport is alive and well on U.S. bases overseas. There's a USO center in every U.S. state that houses an NBA franchise. The league and USO have partnered to do hundreds of military appreciation events because of that proximity. “It’s a partnership that we’re looking to continue for another 75 years,” Tischler says.
On one Kuwait base, Perkins was led to a small, makeshift court the troops had built. A far cry from an NBA hardwood, the three point lines overlapped one another. “I was like, ‘This is the smallest court I’ve ever seen!’” Perkins says. Amidst the 140-degree swelter, Perks opted out on hoisting a few jump shots with the troops. “They play outside in that hot desert sun that kisses your skin,” Perkins says. He did learn of the base’s co-ed league, however, which features four teams. The games are organized by a 6’7” commissioner who played Division III basketball. “I never thought they would have a league on a base,” Perkins says.
Back stateside for this July 4 weekend, Perkins now harbors a deeper appreciation for the freedoms his country provides. “It’s a great gratification to personally meet someone to say thank you,” Perkins says. “They’re doing something worthwhile to make it happen, to make us safe.”