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."
Leaving Los Angeles for Seattle was a big headache for Perkins, at least at first. Even though the Lakers were floundering, he was comfortable in Los Angeles and close to his teammates there, especially Worthy, whom he calls his greatest influence in basketball. "The trade rumors had been going around for about a month before it happened," he says. "I was trying to prepare myself for it, but I was hoping it wouldn't happen. When it finally came down, it felt like the saddest day of my life."
Complicating matters was another rumor, this one untrue, that Perkins was suffering from the same sort of clinical depression for which Miami Heat forward Willie Burton and Orlando Magic center Brian Williams recently received treatment. Early during the regular season Perkins, a bachelor, had received permission from the Lakers to miss some practice time to attend to a family problem, the details of which he still declines to discuss. When he returned to the team, Perkins spoke to a reporter covering the Lakers about his absence and referred to the "depression" that family problems can cause. "I never meant I was suffering from the kind of depression that needs to be treated," Perkins says. "But that's how everybody seemed to take it."
The talk eventually died down, but when Perkins was traded, the whispers were that depression was the real reason the Lakers had dealt him. "If I were Charles Barkley or Michael Jordan, things never would have gone that far," Perkins says. "Superstars get a chance to explain themselves on ESPN or The Arsenic flail Show. Players like me don't."
To dispel the rumors Perkins would have had to command attention, which is not his style. He's soft-spoken and somewhat shy, which made his adjustment to Seattle all the more difficult. It didn't help that the Sonic players don't exactly bake brownies to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood. "Guys kind of go their separate ways on this team," says veteran forward Eddie Johnson. "It's not that we don't like each other, it's just that we have our own interests away from the court."
Things began to warm up for Perkins a couple of weeks later, after Payton discovered that Perkins was still living in a Seattle hotel and invited him to his home for dinner. They have since become close enough that Payton, a notorious trash talker, thinks some of his own brash style has rubbed off on the laconic Perkins. "Did you see him in the Utah series?" Payton asks proudly. "He was pointing at people and talking a little trash. You never saw that from Sam before."
In truth, Perkins has influenced the Sonics more than the other way around. When reserve guard Nate McMillan struggled against Utah during the early games of the series, it was Perkins who took him aside and encouraged him to keep shooting. McMillan scored 16 points in Game 5 against the Jazz, a career playoff high. "We have other veterans on this team, but Sam, with the way he plays the game, is the kind of player even veterans listen to," McMillan says.
And Perkins is making himself speak up. He still regrets not trying to become more of a leader in Dallas, when Mark Aguirre's run-ins with management and Roy Tarpley's drug problems began to unravel what had been a successful team. "I look back on that time with a lot of regret," Perkins says. "Now if I think I have something to add, I will. We tend to have lapses at times, where our minds start to wander, and we have a tendency to mope when we get behind. Those are things that maybe I can help us correct with a little constructive criticism."
Despite his initial hesitance and the extended period of adjustment, Perkins and the Sonics would finally seem to be a perfect fit. The Sonics can be overly emotional, while the heavy-lidded Perkins is stoic to the point of appearing emotionless. More important, these Sonics and Perkins share a history of falling short in the playoffs. Perkins's teams have missed the playoffs only once in his career, but the closest he has come to adding an NBA title to his NCAA championship and Olympic gold was the 1991 Laker loss in the Finals. Seattle hasn't survived the second round of the playoffs since '87.
There is the distinct possibility that Perkins and the Sonics can combine their strengths to help each other get over the hump and reach the championship on the other side. Will it happen this year? "I honestly don't know," Perkins says. "All I know is we'll all find out together."