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Reconstructing Kendrick Perkins

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Was Kendrick Perkins part of the biggest trade of the season because of what did NOT happen on the court?

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The information market has probably discussed Kendrick Perkins more in the past two weeks than they have in Perkins' entire career. Thunder fans have been at the epicenter of this explosion in prognostication and analysis, with most everyone falling into two camps. They either cheer for GM Sam Presti's genius, or they chew their fingernails hoping that Perkins does not wind up being another version of Gilbert Arenas, who also signed a huge contract extension whilst injured (raise your personal firearm in the air if you're surprised at how that situation played itself out).

Here is a fascinating column on how the overabundance of information in today's sports entertainment marketplace has created something of a modern day Sidd Finch:

Deconstructing the Kendrick Perkins Myth | Boston Globe

An interesting proposition is proffered by Mr. Gasper: the legacy of Kendrick Perkins was not made by how well he did play for the Celtics, but by how he did not play at all in last year's Game 7 of the Finals. Consider his quote:

In a weird way the greatest thing that ever happened to Perkins's career was missing Game 7 after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in Game 6. As painful as it was for him to watch his team lose from the bench, it cemented his legacy as a Celtic because it created the Game 7 myth.

What the writer is suggesting is truly remarkable - the idea that Perkins was part of potentially the biggest trade of the season (out of which he signed an equitable but princely contract), was the result not from an act of commission, but of omission.

The farther we get away from that pivotal fourth quarter in Game 7, the easier it becomes to conclude that it was the mere absence of Perkins that tipped the scales. It is natural to allow our thoughts to proceed this way; when we have an experience, positive or negative, we have to encapsulate it in some way that creates a concurrence of emotion and memory. We remember the event, we immediately feel the emotion. And when we feel that same emotion, it triggers the memory.

The Mythology of the NBA

In no particular order, here are some basketball memories that I have, and you probably remember them too. Do you recall what happened immediately before or after them? Do I even need to give full context? I probably don't even need to give a full description.

  • Nick Anderson misses four consecutive free throws.
  • Robert Horry hits a game winning 3-pointer off an errant tipped rebound.
  • Scottie Pippen refuses to check back in.
  • Sam Bowie.
  • Ralph Sampson tips in the out of bounds pass.
  • John Starks misses.
  • Steve Nash gets his nose wrecked.
  • Magic Johnson hits a baby skyhook.
  • Greg Oden.
  • Jordan...A specTACular move.
Now, do you remember much of anything about the games in which these events occurred? Do you remember who won those games? In a sense, the moments transcended the event and we now attach the moment to the identity of the player. Subsequently, all other things either rise or fall to the level of significance by which we remember the moment. A myth is born.

Two Specific Examples:
  1. Basketball:
    Many of us remember Michael Jordan's final Championship winning shot against the Jazz in 1998. His performance in that game is considered one of the all-time best in part because of how that iconic defining image hangs in our brains in a gentle contour just like MJ's lingering follow-through. What we don't always remember is that Jordan shot a pretty-terrible 15-35 in that game and probably committed an offensive foul to free himself up for the shot. We also forget that John Stockton missed a contested but makable 3-pointer at the buzzer which could have reversed the stories told for both teams. Instead, we remember two things - the steal, and the Shot. It became a shot, and an idea, that literally tells a thousand stories at once:

    Jordan's legend was signed, sealed, and delivered because two ideas met at the perfect moment. All of Jordan's career achievements rose to the level of this shot, while the shot rose to the level of all of Jordan's career achievements. Everything that happened after this moment was either a footnote or scraped entirely from our myth-building collective psyche of Air Jordan.

  2. History:
    When we think of historical myths, the natural tendency is to jump straight to the stories of the antiquities and epic poems. The Illiad, Odyssey, and Beuwulf jump to the forefront of our minds. However, myths can grow also from much more recent events out of our own national conscience.

    If you grew up in the US, then as you progressed through grade school you were likely familiar of the story of Paul Revere. He was the man who made the famous midnight ride from Boston to Lexington while shouting, "The British are coming!" along the way to alert the colonists of the movement of the British military. His ride is seen as part of the spark that ignited the American Revolutionary War.


    However, due both to lack of historical record as well as a
    famous Longfellow poem, the facts of Revere are almost completely wrong. Revere rode to Concord, not Lexington. He definitely did not shout, "The British are coming!" because a) the message had to be conveyed in secret, and b) the colonists considered themselves British subjects. Lastly, the effort to communicate the invasion was the byproduct of a number of peoples' collaboration, not merely a brilliant secret code between Revere and the sexton of the Old North Church. And yet, because of patriotic pride, the image of Revere's heroic act persists. It has become a symbolic moment of the history of the United States, even if the image is mostly a construct, and students, teachers, and historians alike have been content to leave it as such.

Myths are sometimes harder to refute than facts. Many of us have seen the supercharged movie "300," which depicts the Spartans Battle at Thermopylae. While entertaining, we probably would scoff at the suggestion that the action portrayed was either realistic or historically significant. And yet, as war historian Victor Davis Hanson suggests:

Many of the film's corniest lines — such as the Spartan dare, "Come and take them," when ordered by the Persians to hand over their weapons, or the Spartans' flippant reply, "Then we will fight in the shade," when warned that Persian arrows will blot out the sun — actually come from ancient accounts by Herodotus and Plutarch.

The warriors of "300" look like comic-book heroes because they are based on Frank Miller's drawings that emphasized bare torsos, futuristic swords and staged fight scenes...The Greeks themselves often embraced such impressionistic adaptation. Ancient vase painters sometimes did not portray soldiers accurately in their bulky armor. Instead, they used "heroic nudity" to show the contours of the human body.

To the Greeks, the mythology behind the battle in a way is as important as the facts of the battle itself. In a sense, the myth has transcended the event to the point of walking along side of historical canon.

The Myth of Mount Perkins

Sports legend has an entire myth surrounding the myth - that of the barbershop sports talk. Remember this?

What is so pitch-perfect about this little scene from "Coming to America" is that the myth evolves even as the men are talking about it. They all know it, we the viewers know it, and yet we let it slide because it reinforces what we want to believe about our memories. I also know the scene isn't a great stretch, because I've sat in barber shops like that one and overheard the exact same kinds of conversations.

And what of my memories of last year's Finals? Two immediately come to mind:

  1. I remember the Celtics getting beat mercilessly on the defensive boards, as time and time again the Lakers were able to get second and third chances to score, negating the fact that the Celtics had played suffocating defense.
  2. I remember Ron Artest thanking his psychiatrist after the game was over.

Of those memories, the first involves Perkins only tangentially, and the second one doesn't involve him at all. And yet, if you asked me after the series was over, or today, or five years from now, I would say that the reason the Celtics lost was because Perkins got hurt. In fact, there is another guy who also believes this idea:

"They still have not beaten our starting five. Our starting five against the Lakers starting five has a ring. Tell him don't forget that. We will be back strong and Perk will be there next year if there's a game seven." - Doc Rivers

My compression of memory is exactly what Mr. Gasper is talking about. His argument has merit in the sense that it is always too easy (and therefore, natural) to pinpoint a loss on one guy (blame the kicker!). Is it true? It is true to me, because I wanted the Celtics to win.

So here is where I find myself. After I had initially read Mr. Gasper's piece, I did not want to believe his theory to be true; after all, I watched the games. And yet even now as I know that believing in the simplicity of the scenario is likely false, I want to believe it anyway because it helps me make sense of how an inferior team (in my mind) won a series. I also want to believe now that the player the Thunder have gained was such an integral component of that team that his addition to OKC will be THE difference between years of playoff frustration and raising the Larry O'Brien trophy. I am ready to reconstruct the omission of Perkins so he is the giant on which the OKC faithful sit, ready to celebrate.

I have to ask myself though, in the depths of what makes us NBA fans, how do we reconstruct something that did not actually happen?

The only answer: We play the games.