He bullies even bigger men. He fouls with blatant purpose. He complains to the refs. By now, even casual fans know that any Celtics game will likely result in a show of Kendrick Perkins’ fierce, pugnacious virtues.
But as he appeared Wednesday afternoon at the Staples Center — a 6-10, 280-pound man trying to balance himself on crutches — Boston’s enforcer seemed drained of his fighting spirit. What you got — or rather, what he gave — was an antidote to all the counterfeit sentiments and inane questions I’ve heard for the past two months in these “media availability” sessions. It was a palpable sense of grief.
“I probably won’t ever get this opportunity again,” said Perkins. “To even get back to the Finals.”
The media is usually dismissed and disdained as a mob of haters. In fact, it’s tough for people like me to empathize with guys who are so much richer, younger, bigger and more talented. Still, I’ll be damned if I couldn’t feel for Kendrick Perkins. And I think I speak for the dozens of reporters huddled around his interview podium, too.
Just the night before, Perkins had torn the medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments of his right knee. “I heard something pop,” he said, recalling that moment before crumpling to the floor. “I couldn’t get up on my own.”
Forget the pain, he said. “Physically, I’m doing better than I am mentally.”
He will not play in tonight’s seventh game of the NBA Finals. And yes, there is a very good chance he’ll never get to the championship round again. If it wasn’t a politically correct thing to say, it was the truth.
Barring a miraculous victory, they’ll start breaking up the band in Boston. Doc Rivers isn’t sure if he’s coming back. Tom Thibodeau, the Rivers’ assistant responsible for the Celtics vaunted defense, will take the head job in Chicago. Ray Allen will be an unrestricted free agent. Paul Pierce will be in his 13th NBA season. Kevin Garnett, already the oldest 34-year-old ever to play pro ball, will be in his 16th.
Given the nature of Perkins’ injury, he was under no obligation to attend the media session or the practice that followed. But one of the better questions I’ve heard lately came from the guy who asked why he had even shown up.
“Last practice of the season,” said. Perkins. “Last game of the season. You just want to be with your teammates and your coaches. Be around the guys — especially after tough loss like last night. You just want to be around. Get that family feeling.
“We feel a lot better when we get around each other. So I just felt like I need to be around.”
It’s often said that Rivers’ team needs more than a single championship to be recognized as worthy within Celtic-dom. They’ll get that chance tonight, though on the road without Perkins, it’s a slim one at best. Figure that each member of the Big Four — Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Rajon Rondo — will have to score in double figures. Garnett — who talks an awful lot about Bill Russell — will also need 15 boards by his name in the box score.
Still, that’s not how this team should be judged. Rather, the accomplishment of these Celtics has to do with what Perkins called that family feeling. No, he didn’t have to show up. Another guy might be sulking in his room. And another team might not care if he did. But for all the money and the fame and the ego required to play at this level, what these teammates feel for each other is authentic.
“This is the closest group I’ve ever been around,” said Rivers. “You can see that.”
It’s worth noting that while Perkins spoke, Rivers’ youngest son was out on the court playing with two of Rasheed Wallace’s kids, one of whom is wearing tee-shirt that says “Boston is a Brotherhood,” courtesy of Garnett.
“I stress that,” said the coach. “I push it. If a guy has a family issue, that’s the one excuse not to go to practice. It’s very important for our guys. At the end of the day, if that sense of family is extended to your family, it all becomes one. You know what I’m saying?”
I do. The team becomes like a family, the players like brothers. Guys feel invested in each other.
“That makes a huge difference,” said Garnett. “You know who you can trust.”
A couple of years ago, during their first run at a championship, Rivers spoke often of Ubuntu, a humanistic African concept of connectedness and community. One wondered if Rivers weren’t merely trying to imitate Phil Jackson.
The Lakers coach is a self-professed Zen Christian, with a full and varied range of spiritual and philosophical influences. If all goes as planned tonight, Jackson will have 11 championship rings to Rivers’ one. He’ll be known for winning six with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, three with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and two with Bryant and Pau Gasol. They were teams made great by the greatest players. But none of them would be confused with a family.