Sam Perkins

March 20, 2009


While I’m waiting to continue enjoying my two favorite sports days of the year, allow me to present a card from the recently annexed Aunt Celia wing of my collection (named for the Christmas-gift donor of the entirety of the wing). My favorite part of the card is Mark Jackson’s face in the background, just off Perkins’ right shoulder. That is the face of a guy who has had success everywhere he’s gone, but now he’s finding out what it’s like to be on the Clippers. He’s like, “Oh, man, you sad motherfuckers can’t even box out Sam Perkins?”

I feel for Mark Jackson. By that time, 1994, Perkins had been around for quite awhile. And even in his prime he was more of a solid all-around big man with a nice outside touch than some kind of young Moses Malone animal on the offensive glass.

But that’s another subject. What I wanted to get into was that my connection with college basketball began in earnest in 1982, the year Sam Perkins was a member of probably the most talented college basketball team since I’ve been watching. Before that, I’d had some awareness of college hoops, but my interest lagged far behind my interest in the pro game, which itself got started quite a while after I’d began my religious affiliation with baseball. But in 1982 I followed the tournament and watched with amazement the incredible final game—incredible all the way to the sour-note conclusion authored by poor “Wrong Town” Freddy Brown—between North Carolina and Georgetown. Georgetown had “Pat” Ewing and Sleepy Floyd and UNC had Perkins, James Worthy, and freshman “Mike” Jordan.

I started wondering this morning if I ever saw in subsequent years an NCAA champ that could equal the talent level of the Carolina trio, which featured in Perkins a future longtime pro, a future Hall of Famer and clutch-play legend in Worthy, and the future greatest player of all time in Jordan.

So I tried to list all the NCAA champs since I’d been paying attention, and here’s when I realized that the more I get into the tournament as the years have gone on, embracing my enjoyment of it, the less able I am to recall what the hell happened. From 1982 to 1995 I could not only rattle off the champions in my mind but also envision where I was when I watched certain key games. From that point on it gets a little hazy. Wildcats of some manner start winning, but their exact nature is indistinct to me. A lot of teams in blue. A lot of personal brackets ripped to shreds.

So I wonder: Is there a connection between enjoyment and amnesia?

Along those lines, today and yesterday, as I mentioned above, are my two favorite sports days of the year, which is odd, because basketball ranks a distant second behind baseball on my list of favorite sports, and I’m generally a much bigger fan of pro hoops than the economically and perhaps even morally dubious version on display today: for most of the year, something seems a little off to me about the fact that college basketball, like college football, means big bucks for everyone involved except for the people most responsible for imbuing the product with value. A friend of mine calls big-time college sports the “plantation system.” On most days I’m able to go along with that thinking.

But not during the opening round of the Big Dance, baby! Not with games spread out toward every horizon as far as the eye can see.

Don’t get me wrong, nothing that happens yesterday and today, or on any of the previous versions of these days, can hope to approach my most intense and rewarding memories as a sports fan, which, besides the Larry Bird years of my adolescence, are all from the realm of baseball. Those latter moments are like the handful of novels that changed my life, whereas the happenings on my favorite sports day of the year are like an endless supply of chocolate cupcakes.

But maybe cupcakes is not the right metaphor. Along with exultation and glee, there’s usually some pain and disappointment and recrimination and anger. But none of it, good or bad, will cut very deep, and maybe that’s the key to why I love these days so much. They don’t much matter.

And I won’t remember any of it. The games, the infinity of games, will rush over me like a wave and then will disappear, leaving behind, maybe, a vague sense that some guy hit an incredible winning shot at the buzzer, but if I am briefly able to retain the guy’s name I won’t be for long. For example, there was that white guy from a mid-major who hit an incredible shot on a tricky inbounds play a few years ago. They show the highlight a lot in “best of” shows. He was the coach’s son. I think either he or the coach was named Homer. More than that, I cannot tell you.

But bring on that big amnesiac wave of Sport. I am sitting here, gripping my still-intact bracket, ready to watch it all and forget.


  1. Oh yeah, Homer and Bryce Drew. I only remember their names because I had to guard Bryce in high school. I would have guessed Bryce’s shot was in about 1995, but Wikipedia says it was in 1998.

  2. Right, Bryce Drew! He must have been a tough assignment in high school.

    The best player I ever guarded was probably 1980s NYU star Terry Tarpey in a pickup game at the NYU gym. He was a Division III player on a weak DIII team, and he was a completely other level of player from me: bigger, quicker, faster, stronger. He made me feel like I wasn’t even there. I still liked him though, because he drank at the same bar as I did sometimes, the Dugout on 3rd Ave, home of the 75 cent drafts.

  3. I was the tallest guy on the team who wasn’t a fatass offensive lineman, so I usually covered (or at least was assigned to cover) the best guy on the other team. My school played against Shawn Kemp’s team a couple of years before I got there, and against Kevin Garnett’s team a couple of years after I left. I would have fouled out in the first minute against either of them.

  4. Josh – that’s funny you mention the amnesia portion of March Madness. I am 49 and I remember the games from 1980s vividly, but the last ten years are a blur of unrecognizable games and champions. Like you said, I watch with great pleasure but I couldn’t name the last 10 winners of the tournament if you spotted me six.

  5. pieman1121:

    Glad to hear I’m not alone. The same dynamic is present in my fading graspe on the recent history of other sports, too, except for baseball.

    p.s., what the heck is going on in the Pitt-E Tenn St game? I think I might have made a mistake picking Pitt to take it all in my pool.

  6. You raise an interesting an important issue that’s at the center of sports-fan-hood in this post, Josh. As human beings we’re compelled to put everything in to a narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. So naturally, when we’re young and just starting to follow organized sports, we like to think it’s all part of some dramatic progression, some history that has meaning. So not just the players, but also the games, the seasons, the championships of our younger days acquire exaggerated status – become godlike, if you will. Then, as we get older, season follows season, critical game follows incredible play follows indomitable champion, until what we thought was The End becomes the middle, then later it may even get blurred in with the beginning. That’s when we realize that the narrative really doesn’t have an end. It’s just one damn season after another. I guess accepting this is part of growing up (though there’s always the option of refusing to grow up). The games stop being Epochal, and become like lots of forgettable cupcakes.

    I remember when I was about eleven I got a book about the first ten Super Bowls, called Ten Super Sundays. It was one of those cheapo Scholastic Book Services paperbacks, the kind you ordered from a leaflet they passed around in school. You’d pick out all the books that sounded cool, then get your Mom to write a check in the misguided belief that you were actually getting interested in reading when really you were just accumulating glitzy trash to trade with your friends. Anyway, I very soon had that book almost memorized, and each moment of SBs I-X became imprinted on my memory as incredibly important. And the Steelers’ triumph over the Cowboys in 1976 was, in a sense, The End of History. But of course, there was a Super Bowl XI, then XII, then … and now they’re well into the XL’s with no end in sight (though I do hope they drop the numbers once they get to L, or at least switch to Hindu-Arabic).

    The same applies (for me at least, and sounds like to you too Josh) to baseball, or pro or college basketball – the mid-late ’70s were Important and Historic, and the players were Central Protagonists, in a way that later years and players just couldn’t be, because to make them so would mean rewriting the narrative from the beginning. I’m guessing you as a pro writer would appreciate this.

  7. I think there’s something to be said for what basilisc wrote above, but especially when we’re talking about college basketball I think there’s another thing at play.

    The mid 70s to the early 90s was just a golden age for college basketball. Not only were the players and teams great, for the most part they spent four years in college and we got to see them on the national stage again and again.

    We got to enjoy Jordan and Ewing in the NCAAs after that epic game. If that happened today, both would have gone to the pros. We had much more identification with the players, more than the rooting for laundry it seems like we have today.

    And when the college stars went on to further glory in the pros, it made remembering their NCAA games even more memorable. Every time Jordan came thru in the clutch was a reminder of the big jump shot versus Georgetown. Every time Worthy came flying by on the showtime Lakers was a chance to remember his big steal and streaking down the court versus the Hoyas.

    What did Michael Dickerson or Miles Simon or even Mike Bibby ever do in the pros to remind us of their championship?

    The NCAA games today are very competitive but they’re not memorable because we don’t have the star power. Maybe if Kevin Durant was around for his junior season we’d have more to remember.

  8. bjoura – True, and I think there’s something to what Gregg Easterbrook often says about the NBA shift to drafting underclassmen: that it ruined both the college game and the pro game – the former by robbing it of stars, the latter by forcing many teams to invest time, strategy and roster space in spoiled stars-in-waiting whose emotional maturity and basketball fundamentals lagged far behind their raw talent.

    It also occurs to me that my sense of narrative may have something to do with growing up in Phila. in the ’70s – watching the Phillies, Sixers & Eagles all overcome decades of struggle and futility to become almost-good, then champions (or runners-up in the Eagles’ case) in the early 80s. So they all had a pretty good narrative that climaxed just as my interest in following them (at least in the hero-worshipping way of youth) had started to wind down.

  9. basilisc:
    Great stuff. Thanks for sharing that.

    I agree with you about how the college teams of the past were more interesting because we got more of a chance to get to know them, and because they were just of a higher quality than they are now. For example, think of the guy in the background of Perkins’ card, Mark Jackson. The dude was on a college team with Chris Mullin, Bill Wennington, Walter Berry, and Willie Glass, and they didn’t even win a title. I can’t begrudge the players not wanting to stick around for four years now, though.

  10. I agree with both basilisc and bjoura. I couldn’t put it as articulately. I just know that this years tourney would be much better if we had Oden, Conley, Durant, Beasley, Rose, Mayo, etc to watch. I think that college and the pro game are both worse off than they were a decade ago. There is nothing to be done about it, and that’s a shame.

    All is not lost, though. CSU gave us a mighty tasty cupcake last night.

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