Kendrick Perkins knew his best friend's days were numbered.
He just didn't know when that sorrowful day would come.
The inevitable happened a day after Perkins celebrated his 29th birthday.
Raymond Peter Lewis, Sr. passed away on Nov. 11. He was Perkins' grandfather, the man who raised the Thunder's center since he was 5 years old and helped shape everything he stands for today. Lewis was 78 years old.
For the last few years, Lewis had battled dementia. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease and Parkinson's.
Perkins recently missed two games to be with his family following his grandfather's death, and he was excused from practice this past Tuesday to attend the funeral in Beaumont, Texas.
In an exclusive interview with The Oklahoman, Perkins discussed the life and legacy of his late grandfather and how he's juggled such demanding professional obligations while overcoming such a personal loss.
Q: What did your grandfather mean to you?
A: That was my best friend. He was the best man at my wedding, so that should tell you a lot. My mom died when I was 5. My grandparents took me when I was up for adoption. He was around 49 so he was a young grandfather. He took me in and just raised me. Me and him were best friends all through the years. Everywhere he went I went. He's the one that first taught me how to cut grass, to fish; we had chickens and ducks and stuff, how to do all that stuff. He's the one who taught me how to be who I am today. He put up my first basketball goal, but he also was the one who kept me in church. Words can't really express what he meant to me. It's like when I lost him, I lost a piece of my soul. But at the end of the day, I know he's in a better place.
Where do you think you would be without him?
I don't know. Well, I know I wouldn't have been with my family because I was up for adoption at the time. So they're the only people that stepped up to the plate. But I wouldn't be the guy that I am today as far as, not the on the court person but the off the court person. I think you've been around me pretty much to know my personality off the court. It's not the same guy that's on the court. Like, I don't have that anger that I play with on the court or whatever it is. I'm actually a good family, give-the-shirt-off-my-back type guy, and that's the way he raised me. So I wouldn't be that type of guy. I wouldn't know how I'd be.
What will you remember most about him?
Man, our fishing trips. That was the best times, me and him going fishing together.
Where would you two go?
Man, we were out in the Gulf of Mexico. Out there in Beaumont, right off the Gulf. He had a boat. I remember just going out there catching reds. We would prep up that night. At about 7 that night, we'd make sure all our reels and stuff were straight. Got our tackle box. Make sure the boat had gas. The boat was already on the trailer. We were all ready to ride out by about 5 in the morning every time, me and him.
What made those trips so special?
Just the time. It's just you two together. We just sitting up there seeing what kind of fish we'd catch, the biggest fish we'd come home with. The talks we had. I can remember when I was like 16 and I went fishing with him. He always used to drink Miller Lites. I kind of squeezed the question in, like, 'Pop, let me get one of them.' He was like, 'Gon' 'head, boy.' It was kind of like the first step probably to what he thought I was taking into manhood. He didn't know I was already graduated by then.
For those who didn't get the opportunity to meet him, what would you want them to know about him?
That out of all the people that knew him, you could go pick 300 people that knew him and I guarantee you that only about 10 people would have something bad to say about him. He was a guy that was at every funeral. In the church, he was the head usher. At one time, he was the guy that would go cut the older people's grass. He was, like, 74 years old before he really took sick, and he would go cut grass for an 80-year-old woman who didn't have nobody to cut her grass. The pastor said at his funeral that he was the true definition of a volunteer member of the church. Most people go to church and expect something, but he was really a volunteer and really stood by that.
So rather than going to get something, he was going to give something?
Absolutely. He never expected anything in return. He never expected nothing from me or nothing like that.
You once considered moving him to Oklahoma City to be closer to your family. Did you ever do that?
Yeah, I was trying to but he didn't want to. You know how sometimes old people get in their ways. I thought maybe I could take better care of him myself. But he wanted to be at home. He wanted to be back in Beaumont. So I couldn't make him suffer from that standpoint. He was already going through things. He first took sick when I first got traded here. He was a guy that went from being 6-3, 6-4, 220 pounds to, when I seen him about to weeks before he passed, he was like 85 pounds soaking wet.
So you've been dealing with this on and off for the past three years?
Yeah. Absolutely. But it wasn't that serious at first. It was serious, but it didn't get serious until the past six, seven months. That's when he really started going downhill. I think it was in, maybe, March or April the doctor pulled me to the side and said he didn't give him a year to live. So I kind of knew the time was coming, I just didn't know when. I'm kind of at peace of mind right now because you get tired of waking up every morning early, or waking up at 6 o'clock in the morning, or 3 o'clock in the morning looking at your phone to see if you got that phone call. So just knowing he's at peace puts me in a better place.
We often look at professional athletes and either don't know or don't care about what may be going on off the court and just want to see you guys perform on the court. But how did you cope with this and manage your professional obligations with all this going on personally?
I just had to stick with it. I just didn't want to see him suffering the way he was suffering. So I kind of psyched myself into saying I knew he was tired. Believe it or not, it was times when he was sick that I played through some games but it was times when I didn't want to play. But I just figured I can't just sit back and feel sorry for myself or just have my feelings on my shoulder. I know it's a tough time, but at the end of the day a lot of people go through a lot of things. I know the type of guy that he was. I never seen my grandpa cry in his life. So I know just the type of person he was, he wouldn't want me to just sit back and be acting like a little girl. So I had to deal with it. I got through it the best way I could.
When you missed the time from the team to be with your family, can you describe what those three or four days were like?
It was actually peaceful, man. I got time to myself just to emotionally relax. It's times where you'll carry things like that onto the court. Like, you'll be going through so much and then you go on the court and then you go on the court and if something don't go right or if something don't go your way, then all of a sudden you're ready to explode. So it just took me time to get back and relax and get back to being the team player and the team guy and not worrying about anything else outside of this. I just was able to clear my head. I went down to see him. The time that I was away from the team, he actually passed away. So I got time to just sit down, go down and get things straight. I still haven't got over it. Every night damn near I still cry myself to sleep. The thing that I feel put me in a better place the most is I was tired of suffering. That's why I could take it better than, I guess, a healthy guy that just passed away, like sudden death. It was more so like he was really suffering. So it was, like, now I'm at a happy place that he's not suffering. Don't get it twisted, I miss him like crazy. I wish I could have him for however many years, to 100. But now I just got to be there. My grandma was real strong about the situation, too, because I guess she was tired of seeing him suffer, too. We've just been dealing with it.
What would he say about you right now, about the man he saw you become?
He's proud of me. He couldn't talk. Over the last year and a half, he couldn't say nothing. His throat started closing up and he started getting weak. He couldn't say nothing. And he'd fade in and out on his dementia. My wife bought them one of them big bobble head dolls of me. And my grandma said every night he went to bed and kissed it. Every morning he went to it and kissed it on the forehead. So that could tell you. And he left everything that he had and owned to me in his will. So that could tell you a lot about us, too.