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Kendrick Perkins and the Making of an NBA Talking Head

In the player empowerment era, we need someone who can explain the players who run the league—who can tell us not just what they’ll do but how they feel. Say hello to Big Perk.

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Nine days before the start of NBA free agency, Kendrick Perkins had a take. “I think the Nets are the front-runner to land KD,” he said on ESPN’s The Jump. How’d he know? “Sources tell me,” he said.

Perkins is good pals with Kevin Durant. The idea that he might have the goods landed his prediction in Yahoo and the New York Post. When Durant did, in fact, sign with Brooklyn, Perkins underwent a transformation. He wasn’t just another ex-player. He was a talking head.

“I’m transitioning into a whole ’nother career,” Perkins told me this week. We were in a Houston hotel room he’d rented to escape from his house. Perkins and his wife, Vanity, have four children, including 2-year-old twins, and Perkins arrived with the merry, haunted look of a strung-out dad. He wore a Ralph Lauren T-shirt, sweatpants, and sneakers. When he rested his 6-foot-10 frame on the edge of a double bed, it looked like he was sitting on a park bench.

Perkins has been an NBA analyst for only three months. But since the postseason started, he has been on TV all the time. He went on FS1 to call Kyrie Irving a “bad leader” and on ESPN to call Kristaps Porzingis a “diva to the max.” Perkins was in such high demand that he appeared on competing networks in the same time slot. “Who does @ESPN First Take and @FS1 Undisputed in the same morning, and 45 minutes apart?” he tweeted. “Big Perk does.”

As an analyst, Big Perk is part Charles Barkley, part Stephen A. Smith, and part Woj. Since he always knew how to set a hard screen, the first two roles might have been predictable. But who would’ve guessed Perkins would break Rajon Rondo signing with the Lakers, or provide a real-time chronicle of Durant’s thinking after he ruptured his Achilles? “I changed my name during free agency to Poj,” Perkins said.

As Perkins explained, he didn’t want to be an NBA talking head. He wanted to be a head coach. He wound up on TV only after a series of career disappointments left him no choice.

Last fall, Perkins looked around for a team he could latch on to for his 15th NBA season. By March, there were no takers, so he asked the Celtics to sign him to a one-day contract so he could retire. “Danny [Ainge] was just giving us a hard time,” Perkins said. He gave up and retired on The Woj Pod. The interview turned out to be so engaging that ESPN called to book him on Get Up!

“He had this big personality as a player,” said Cassidy Hubbarth, who hosted Perkins on the ESPN digital show Hoop Streams. “I was like, ‘Look, you have something to say and you don’t seem scared to say it. Just own it.’” By June, Perkins was churning out daily hits on ESPN, FS1, and local sports radio stations.

Perkins still thought he was publicly auditioning to be a coach. But the universe seemed to nudging him toward a career in TV. “Man, I started getting these signs,” he said. He pulled out his phone and showed me a message he found in a P.F. Chang’s fortune cookie: “A change of careers could be good for you.”

There were more obvious signs too. Barkley sought out Perkins at the Finals to compliment him. Another pal, Russell Westbrook, suggested Perkins put coaching on the back burner. “I’m like, damn, this TV thing might be for me,” Perkins said.

Perkins had done something amazing. By fulfilling the wild desires of the public during free agency, he’d hacked the NBA punditocracy. Now, his TV upside is close to Barkley’s. “Whoever thought a country motherfucker like me would have that?” he said, with genuine wonder in his voice. “Whoever thought somebody would want to listen to old country Kendrick Perkins talk about basketball?”

When we fill out the NBA media scorecard for free agency, we usually focus on the performances of Woj at the top end and Chris Broussard at the bottom. But the player empowerment era demands a new kind of insider. We need someone who can explain the thoughts and annoyances and whims of the players who run the league—someone who can tell us not just what the players will do but how they feel.

By happy accident, Perkins was made for the role. He remains a favorite ex-teammate of Durant, Westbrook, and Anthony Davis. All three wound up signing with or being traded to new teams this year during free agency.

“I take a whole different approach than what other guys do,” Perkins said of his TV work. Before he does a segment about a player, he calls the player. So when FS1’s Speak for Yourself needed a few minutes on Magic Johnson quitting the Lakers, Perkins said, “I reached out to Bron. ‘Hey, what are you true feelings to this?’ So when I go on the air, I’m speaking facts. I’m not speaking just off the top of my head.

“And they respect that. Because I’m not just going up here making up things or trying to getting limelight or hot takes. This is actually how these guys feel.”

It’s insiderdom via friendship, something out of reach even to most NBA newsbreakers. It proved most useful when it came to Durant. After injuring his Achilles on June 10, Durant went silent with the media. “He didn’t say a word to nobody,” Perkins said. Perkins was a hyperinformed ambassador to the land of KD. When he declared, “Before the injury, I thought KD was one foot out the door [of Golden State] already,” it carried the force of truth.

Perkins said Durant never told him he was signing with Brooklyn. As Perkins explained: “Me and KD is close friends. … But I never asked him anything about what decision he was making. … I just had to put all the pieces together.”

Perkins combed through the same public evidence as the rest of us. But he had one advantage. During the season, KD quizzed Perkins about various subjects: What’s it like to play for Doc Rivers? As Perkins remembered: “One thing KD did say was, ‘Man, Brooklyn a pretty good organization.’ He told me this weeks before. It stuck with me.”

Perkins wasn’t just a Durant whisperer. He summoned all the raw feelings left from Durant’s time in Golden State to prosecute a moral case against the Warriors. This was another unfulfilled desire of NBA fans: the idea that the awful end of Durant’s season ought to be somebody’s fault.

Perkins was sitting in Scotiabank Arena when Durant grabbed his leg and fell to the ground. “I felt like he shouldn’t have played in that series,” Perkins said. “I told him that: ‘You had nothing to prove. You’ve got back-to-back championships, back-to-back Finals MVPs.’”

When Warriors owner Joe Lacob promised to retire Durant’s number, Perkins called it a “sign of guilt” and “a cover-up” for the dysfunctional Warriors’ medical staff. Durant didn’t agree with that take. Perkins’s phone buzzed, he said, and “we had our share of words.” Perkins explained to Durant that he was doing his job as an analyst.

“I’m not a guy that’s going to go up there and be speaking big words or something like that,” Perkins said. “But I’m going to get my point across. And you going to understand what the fuck I’m saying.”

One way to measure the hold Perkins had over NBA fans is to see how quickly every proclamation earns its own blog post. Occasionally, Perk aggregation takes on the odd quality of a bank shot. One Bleacher Report headline read: “Kendrick Perkins: Kevin Durant Wasn’t Surprised by Andre Iguadola’s Injury Claim.”

When Durant signed with Brooklyn, The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears took the unusual step of interviewing Perkins about the decision. In Houston, Perkins showed me his phone; he had text messages waiting from Spears. Perkins is more than an insider and analyst. He has become a primary source.

With a drawl from Beaumont, Texas, and a beard from the Old Testament, Perkins cuts an unusual figure on sports opinion shows. This is a good thing. Like Tony Romo, he’s so new that no producer has had a chance to flatten him out.

Last month, on The Jump, Perkins compared the sorry state of the Knicks to “how George Bush left our world.” (He meant the end of W.’s presidency, not H.W.’s recent death.) On Undisputed, Perkins said Kawhi Leonard’s interviewing Magic Johnson and Jeanie Buss separately was like authorities interrogating bank robbers in separate rooms, looking for inconsistencies in their stories. That’s a pretty good way to describe the Lakers.

Perkins has no problem unspooling metaphors. It’s the hackwork of NBA punditry he finds harrowing. This year, for the first time, Perkins was asked to rank his ex-teammates. He said Kevin Durant was better than LeBron James—a take any writer would be happy to offer up in 2019. But Perkins was struck by the idea that James might have heard him say it.

“It’s like, ‘Damn … I wonder how Bron really feeling about me right now,’” he said.

NBA TV and even NBA Countdown have proved there are dozens of replacement-level NBA pundits in the universe. But Perkins has natural qualities that have allowed him to cut through.

ESPN’s NBA coverage—and NBA media more generally—demands a pundit celebrate basketball while they are analyzing the news. For Perk’s well-earned reputation as a lane enforcer and shit-talker, his most notable quality is how much he enjoys talking hoops. As Hubbarth told me: “How many exclamation points does he need in his tweets? He needs all the exclamation points.”

An analyst like Perkins also must be willing to slag his ex-colleagues.

Perkins can’t understand why an NBA player who gets praised 80 percent of the time on TV would worry about the other 20 percent. “These motherfuckers is worth damn near $500-600 million,” he said. “Who gives a shit? Take it on the chin and keep it moving, bro.”

His ex-teammate Kevin Garnett, Perkins said, “always used to tell me, ‘Don’t run home to watch all the good shit people got to say about you. Make sure you run home, too, when you have a bad night and hear the bad shit and take it like a man.’”

Perkins has served up his share of character-builders. He called Steph Curry’s stat line in Game 3 of the Finals “the most meaningless 47 points I’ve ever seen.”

When I asked which old teammate had the biggest reaction to his TV work, Perkins quickly named Durant.

“His reactions are classic,” Perkins said. “When I get to my phone and I see he may have called or texted, I’m sitting up here saying, ‘Oh, Lord. I hope I ain’t say nothing bad.’ Jesus Christ. But I love him to death, man.”

I asked Perkins what being on TV had taught him about the way the media works. “The media gets a hard time from players for no reason,” he said. When a player doesn’t like a reporter’s story, it has become reflexive to call the reporter a liar. Perkins came to understand how serious a charge this is. “Their credibility in the media is everything,” he said.

Unlike a lot of ex-players, Perkins has an inclusive view of NBA punditry. “You don’t have to be a Hall of Famer, you don’t have to be a guy that averaged 20 points to know the game of basketball,” he said. “Fuck, you don’t even have to play basketball to know the game.”

In early July, Perkins was analyzing his pals’ free agency. Now, he’s contemplating his own. Both ESPN and Fox are interested in signing Perkins to a contract, according to his agent, Richard Gray.

It’s an enviable spot to be in for a guy who has been a talking head for all of three months. Touchingly, Perkins was less worried about his career than how he sounded to the folks at home. “I go back and listen to myself talk,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘Damn, I’m countrier than a motherfucker. Country as hell.’ Who really wants to hear this shit? But people really are listening.”

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