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Oral History: Kendrick Perkins, the NBA's Best Teammate

What can KD, KG, Russ, Doc and Thibs all agree on? That Kendrick Perkins, one of the NBA's most intimidating enforcers, is also one its most compassionate and legendary teammates.

Kevin Durant shuffles behind the glass podium, peering across two rows of his 2013-14 Oklahoma City Thunder teammates. He thanks Hasheem Thabeet for his comic relief. He praises Derek Fisher for his infectious professionalism. “Perk,” Durant continues, eying starting center Kendrick Perkins. “I hated you before you got here. But the moment you got here, man, you just changed my whole perception of you. Just one of the best teammates I’ve ever had, man. I thank you so much.” 

Durant’s voice begins to waver now. Emotion bubbles in his throat. “The late night calls. You texting me, telling me I’m the MVP.” Durant abruptly stops. He bows his head as the crowd erupts in applause. The NBA’s Most Valuable Player even has to remove his glasses to wipe the tears from his lashes. 

It was a small sequence in an unforgettably heartfelt, 20-plus minute acceptance speech from Durant, yet a highly regular sentiment owned by countless players across the NBA. Perkins, a lumbering defensive presence with pedestrian career averages of 5.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, is widely considered the greatest teammate in modern NBA history. “He’s the type of guy that’s willing to do whatever it takes to help your teammates,” Russell Westbrook told The Crossover. “The thing that we all love about Perk,” adds Wizards coach Scott Brooks, “is that he cares. He has a big heart and he’s only about winning.”

Perkins established a group text message with Durant and Westbrook upon arriving in Oklahoma City. “I didn’t know KD and Russ from a can of paint,” he says. “I just wanted to get it like how we had it in Boston.” They pinged the thread day and night, dishing football smack and NBA rumors. “We’re in it a lot,” Westbrook said back in April 2016, even after Perkins left the Thunder. “That’s the type of relationship we have [with him].” The group message has been silent following Durant’s departure to Oakland last summer. Perkins thinks it will resume activity in the future. “At least they’re talking to each other again,” he said. “I know they had talked right after they announced Russ won MVP. They texted. I think they broke the ice.” 

Perkins’s influence followed Durant to Golden State. LeBron James and the Cavaliers still hear his voice emanating in Cleveland’s training camp. He has deep connections with Doc Rivers and the Clippers, Tom Thibodeau and the Timberwolves, Scott Brooks and the Wizards, and Alvin Gentry, Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo in New Orleans. His leadership style will empower Westbrook to coexist with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. His former teammate Kyrie Irving will look to rule his former home in Boston. So how exactly did a shy child from Beaumont, Texas, establish an enduring legacy amongst the NBA’s elite?

(The following interviews have been lightly edited for clarity).

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'He Was a Quiet Kid'

The town of Beaumont sits 90 minutes east of Houston. Hal Pastner and his son, current Georgia Tech head coach, Josh, launched Perkins’s career in their legendary Houston Hoops AAU program, responsible for grooming the likes of Emeka Okafor, Rashard Lewis, Stephen Jackson, T.J. Ford and many others.

HAL PASTNER: We just took to Kendrick. He was a quiet kid, really quiet. Kendrick would stay at our house in the summers. He was afraid to go upstairs because it was dark. 

JOSH PASTNER: [Kendrick] always had long arms and was kinda gangly. It didn’t matter if you were up 20, down 20, he had that death stare toward you. He was like one of those secret service agents. 

HAL PASTNER: Right around around the same time we found Kendrick, Ndudi Ebi started with us, and over the summer they both shot up nearly a foot. They were about about 6’7” and lanky. I remember we played LeBron James in eighth grade and we beat ‘em, and LeBron came up to us after the game and said, “Man, we couldn’t stop the twin towers.” 

After starring at Lamar University, Kenneth Perkins left his wife and 18-month-old son, Kendrick, to play professionally in New Zealand. When Kendrick was 5 years old, his mother was shot dead while working at a beauty salon. Essentially orphaned, Perkins’s maternal grandparents claimed his custody. His basketball family also reared him.  

HAL PASTNER: Coach Boutte really started looking after him later on. 

ANDRE BOUTTE, OZEN HIGH SCHOOL HEAD COACH: He needed that father figure at the time. We went fishing every now and then together at Sabine Lake, just talked day-to-day like you would with a son. Any time a kid is that age and went through some of the things he did, the most important thing is try to put a smile on their face.

From 1999 to 2003, Perkins led Ozen High to four district championships and one state title. Behind his 27.5 points, 16.4 rebounds and 7.8 blocked shots per game as a senior, Ozen compiled a 33-1 record, only losing in the state 4A championship game.

MIKE KUNSTADT, TEXAS HOOPS MAGAZINE: He just used his body so well to get around the basket. And once he was there, he just overpowered you. He didn’t have explosiveness as far as blocking shots, but long arms and good timing and was a great rim protector. 

BOUTTE: [Then-Celtics GM] Chris Wallace came to a game. [Spurs GM] R.C. Buford was at one of our games. He signed with Memphis early. He was gonna go play for [John] Calipari, because I wanted him to play for an NBA–type coach that would work him real hard. It wasn’t until he actually declared [for the NBA draft] that you had a little contact to see where he was gonna be slotted. We were pretty confident he would go first round.

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Early Year Enforcer

The Celtics acquired Kendrick Perkins, the No. 27 pick in the 2003 NBA draft, from the Grizzlies in a draft-night trade, fully prepared for the colossal 18-year-old to essentially redshirt his rookie season. 

BOUTTE: It was like the world being lifted off of his shoulders. But any time you have a high school kid, you’re concerned about whether or not they’re gonna be able to take the day-to-day rigors of NBA life.

DANNY AINGE, CELTICS GM: When he came in for his draft workout, he was well over 300 pounds, over 22% body fat, a 22-inch vertical only. He was overweight. He needed a lot of work on his body. 

JAMIE YOUNG, CELTICS ASSISTANT COACH: The first thing Perk really started doing was working his body into shape.

PERKINS: It was hard. I didn’t get a chance to play much. They basically sat me out a whole year just to work on my body. It was a different experience for sure, but it was something I needed to do to get my career going.

AINGE: He sort of went from being a fat kid to being cut. My office looks right down into the weight room, and I remember Kendrick—I could see him, he didn’t see me—I could see him looking at himself in the mirror with his shirt off. It was funny, it was cute, but it was symbolic of just how hard he had worked and how gratifying it was for him to see the results.

MIKE JAMES, CELTICS GUARD (2003-04): He was quiet because he was listening. He was learning, soaking everything in. He was paying his dues, paying his respects, being a rookie.

PAUL PIERCE, CELTICS FORWARD (1998-2013): He was my little young rookie. A lot of times, veterans rub off on them. 

WALTER MCCARTY, CELTICS FORWARD (1997-05): Him and Brandon Hunter, me being one of the veterans, I was switching out TVs in my house, I had about four or five of the old TVs and I had the rookies come over: Take the new one’s up, bring the old ones down, and had ‘em working for me out there at the house. It was pretty funny to see these young kids running in an out, big strong young guys and just putting them to work.

A young Perkins worked his hardest during practice the following season. When the Celtics drafted the 6’10" Al Jefferson at No. 15 in the 2004 NBA draft, Boston not only added a promising frontcourt talent, but a sparring partner for Big Perk.

MCCARTY: They used to go at it. Perk went at it with everybody. 

DOC RIVERS, CELTICS HEAD COACH (2004-13): They played tons of 1-on-1. There were many times where you actually contemplated stopping it because you’re like, “One of these guys is gonna get hurt.” That’s how physical it was.

CLIFFORD RAY, CELTICS ASSISTANT COACH (2005-10): They really had some good battles. I thought Al made Perk better, because he was such a prolific scorer. We used to call him Buckets. He used to say, ‘Yea, coach. I just get buckets!’ Al Jefferson has tremendous ability. He had a God given gift. Perk was the opposite. He was a true center. When I look at Perk, he was always our best defender. If someone was going to come down the middle, he would be there. He knew when to go for the shot block and when to take the charge.

RIVERS: Perk and Al were just trying to find themselves. Al was the offensive guy. I think that actually helped Perk a lot. It helped him define a role early in his career.

YOUNG: His role was more of an enforcer.

The Celtics were still rebuilding around Pierce during the 2006-07 season, but began to play with the edge of a playoff contender. When Boston visited the Minnesota Timberwolves on Feb. 11 that winter, Perkins displayed his burgeoning reputation as a defensive anchor. 

TOM THIBODEAU, CELTICS ASSISTANT COACH (2007-10): Perk really starred in his role and his role really was to do a lot of the dirty work.

JAMES: He was always throwing his lip up and frowning. He was angry.

GERALD GREEN, CELTICS GUARD (2005-07): He was the enforcer, so sometimes he might have to make a hard foul.

YOUNG: I remember playing Minnesota and I remember Perk talking a lot of trash to [Kevin Garnett].

JAMES: Kendrick’s not gonna back down from no one. He’s not a punk. 

RIVERS: The thing I liked about Perk was he didn’t care that you were KG or Kobe or Michael or whoever it was. He was convinced that you couldn’t score on him. He always made the comment, “You may be great, but not tonight.” I used to love it. I thought it really irritated star players.

KEVIN GARNETT, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES FORWARD (1995-2007): We had obviously clashed and had numerous occasions where we banged a little bit. When you’re older and the big dog, you got little pups and stuff wanting to come at you night in and night out. It always got me going. It always motivated me. 

PIERCE: They almost got into a fight.

YOUNG: I don’t remember exactly what happened postgame, but there was a little—there wasn't any physical altercation—but there was some verbal altercation between the two.

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Big Three Era

Perkins’s barking still rang in Garnett’s ears when Minnesota and Boston discussed a blockbuster trade on draft night that June. The Celtics remained firm: Boston would only exchange Jefferson and a horde of other assets if Garnett agreed to a contract extension. Talks regained steam in July, with Boston having already acquired sharpshooting, All-Star guard Ray Allen from the Seattle SuperSonics. This time, before ultimately signing, Garnett phoned Pierce.

PIERCE: Kevin was like, “What’s up with Perk? Is he gonna want to fight me when I come to the team?” 

GARNETT, CELTICS FORWARD (2007-13): I asked Paul, not really concerned but I just wanted to come into it, handle whatever we needed to handle. 

PIERCE: I was like, “Man, you don’t even know how much he look up to you.” Kevin couldn’t believe it. 

GARNETT: We sat and we talked. The first day I got there, we were like best friends. Once we got on the same page, man, we were off and running. I’m not gonna take anybody that doesn’t want to work. I don’t like people who complained. I don’t like people who don’t have a work ethic. I don’t do quitters. I wanted to see how he worked on his own. Perk was just similar to me. We were grinders, kind of physical specimens.

PIERCE: It was like seeing a big brother look out for his little brother—take him out to the backyard, let’s go play catch—it looked like that. 

RAY ALLEN, CELTICS (2007-12): When we got there, KG, it really gave him somebody that he can see and kind of look up to. When he got to see KG work, he had somebody that was always going to communicate with him, somebody that was always gonna have his back. He started emulating what KG was. 

PIERCE: Kevin inspired a lot of the kids in the league that came out of high school.

AINGE: I think they had a mutual admiration for each other, because both of those guys were 100% team guys and both of those guys were hard-working, tough-minded. That’s why they hit it off so quick. It’s tough to win KG over. I don’t think it took Perk very long at all before he had KG’s respect.

RIVERS: I do remember the first practice. The trash talking. It was really the second unit vs. the first unit. It was distracting. It was literally 30 minutes into the first practice that we ever had and Eddie House and James Posey and that group decided that they weren’t going to take any crap from the first unit. 

JAMES POSEY, CELTICS FORWARD (2007-08): It was intense, being that was the first start of our journey, having a chance and thinking we could win it all. 

RIVERS: I had to blow the whistle two or three times and just tell ‘em, “Either you can play, or you can talk. The first group is able to do both. But the guys that can’t, shut up!” 

ALLEN: We were a bunch of A-type personality guys.