The big guy who the Oklahoma City Thunder expects to patrol the paint with a scowl and guard the goal with a forearm if necessary hasn't always had such a hard edge.
Meet Kendrick Perkins, altar boy.
From the time he was a seventh grader in Beaumont, Texas, until he graduated high school, he was the head altar boy at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church. Even as he was becoming a sought-after recruit who would jump right from the preps to the pro, Perkins was helping with services every week.
“I happened to be the world's tallest altar boy at the time,” he deadpanned, playfully raising an eyebrow.
But, seriously ...
“I couldn't fit the robes that they had ... so I had to get one custom made.”
Perkins is a gritty player, a rugged defender and a fierce rebounder. That much you already know, Thunder fans.
What you may not realize about the recently acquired center is that he's more than a furrowed brow and a steely glare. After a week during which the Thunder made Perkins its center of the foreseeable future with a four-year contract extension, it's time to get to know the man behind the scowl.
To understand who Perkins is, you have to know how he became the world's tallest altar boy.
And to know that, you have to go back to the beginning.
* * *
Kendrick Perkins was born Nov. 10, 1984, in Nederland, Texas, a small town just outside Beaumont. His father was a recently graduated basketball star at nearby Lamar University, his mother a local girl who had been a rhythm stepper in high school and had always made friends quickly.
He never really got to know either of them.
Perkins' dad was gone first.
Kenneth Perkins had a college basketball career that would eventually earn him a spot in Lamar's athletic hall of honor, but he discovered his best pro opportunities were overseas. He had an infant son. He had a reason to stay.
He left anyway.
Then a few years later, Perkins' mom was gone, too.
Ercell Minix was working at a local beauty salon when she was shot in the neck by Sylvilla Humphrey. The women were neighbors and had been close friends, but they had argued off and on for a couple weeks before the shooting.
Minix was kept on life support for six days before she died.
Humphrey was sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder.
Perkins was 5 years old and parentless.
His grandparents became his guardians, moving him into their house, raising him in their neighborhood and changing his life forever.
* * *
Raymond and Mary Lewis raised their children, then their grandson in the historically black neighborhood of Pear Orchard on Beaumont's south side. He worked for Gulf States Asphalt Co. making $400 a month. She cleaned houses making about $60 a week.
“Grew up in a very poor household,” Perkins said. “We ended up making it work.”
Eggs came from the chickens that they kept in the backyard, and then sometimes, the chickens became dinner.
There were sacrifices, though.
“It's 105 degrees outside,” Perkins said. “You've got an air conditioning unit that's in the window, but you can't turn it on because the electricity bill at the end of the month is going to be expensive.”
His grandpa used to give him money for lunch — one or two rolls of pennies.
“To another child, that's embarrassing,” Perkins said, “but that's what you had so you had to make it work.”
That became Perkins' philosophy. There was a dirt court with a goal on the side of his grandparents' house. It was spartan. It had a rim that would get sideways and a backboard that would go down. He made it work.
He fashioned a homemade bench press out of two chairs, a bar and a couple beat-up weights. He made it work.
Now a chiseled 6-foot-10, 275-pound hulk, Perkins sat inside the Thunder locker room the other night telling the tales of his youth.
“The thing about it is,” he said, then paused for a long moment.
The skin between his eyebrows crinkled.
“I grew up and my whole goal ... was not only to make it to the NBA but I just had it on my mind to get my grandparents out of this situation. If you see the house I grew up in, I was like, ‘I've just got to make it better for my family.'
“That was my whole motivation — to get them out.”
* * *
Stand in the front yard of the lemon-yellow clapboard house on Glenwood Avenue, and you can see Ozen High School where Perkins would become a star. Stand in front of the main gym there, and you can see Our Mother of Mercy.
That became Perkins' world.
The church was the axis.
“With my grandparents,” he said, “I had to be very involved in the church.”
Simply going to church wasn't what they had in mind either.
“My grandfather was one of the head ushers at the church,” Perkins said, “so I started out being an usher.”
Then, he tried the choir.
“That didn't work out.”
Then, he played drums.
“That didn't work out.”
Then in seventh grade, he tried his hand at altar service and found a fit.
Over the next six years as Perkins became a superstar at Ozen and the basketball world was telling him how talented and great and special he was, he would go to Our Mother of Mercy and serve the church. Light candles. Carry incense. Hold books. Whatever the priest needed during Mass, he would do.
“I know one thing,” he said, “it teaches you to be grateful, it teaches you to be humble at all times, it teaches you to treat everybody with respect.”
Perfect, Perkins admits, he is not.
He's no Holy Roller or Bible thumper either, but he knows what he believes.
“I'm one person who strongly believes that the same people you see on your way up are the same people you see on your way down,” he said, “so at the end of the day ... being respectful is huge to me.”
It's why he built a house in Beaumont for his grandparents. Why he gave a sizable donation to Our Mother of Mercy. Why he started a youth basketball camp back home and paid for everything out of his pocket.
But maybe there's no more touching example of his heart than this: “I've got a million homeboys, but my best man in my wedding was my grandfather.”
Perkins paused and nodded.
“When you really think about the saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,' I think everybody kind of pulled together and leaned in a little bit and helped.”
* * *
Kendrick Perkins is like no other player who's ever worn a Thunder uniform. He's an enforcer. An intimidator who will send a message with a hard foul. A tormentor who isn't afraid to get in an opponent's face.
Yet all we've heard for the past week or so is how much he's like the rest of these guys.
Listen to people around the team and you'll hear talk about how Perkins fits the fabric of the franchise.
“His game face is just what it is — his game face,” Perkins' high school coach and mentor Andre Boutte said. “That's his job face. When you're out there doing your job — and he has a blue-collar type of job that he has to do — it's not a position for smiling.”
Just because the big fellow looks differently and plays differently than the rest of these guys doesn't mean he's hard-wired differently. Players who are solid and grounded, who are more likely to make you proud than embarrassed have become a hallmark of this franchise.
Listen to people who've crossed paths with Perkins over the years — teammates, fans, reporters, coaches — and you won't hear anything bad about him. No knucklehead moves. No jerky attitudes. No unsavory episodes.
Then again, what'd you expect from Mr. Scowl?
This guy's an altar boy.
THUNDER VS. SUNS
When: 6 p.m.
Where: Oklahoma Arena
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD Ch. 722)
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
* Former Houston point guard Aaron Brooks is now a member of the Suns after a trade deadline deal that sent him to Phoenix in exchange for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick.
* The Thunder split the first two meetings with the Suns this season, with each team winning on the other's court.
* Tonight's game is the final game of a six-game road trip for Phoenix. The Suns are 4-1 in their previous five games.