Like most white guys from suburban Boston, half-brothers Brian Johnson and Justin Tsouros had never hung out with an NBA player. So when they arrived at the condo in Waltham, Mass., one evening in the fall of 2007, they didn't quite know what to expect. The place was dark. The blinds were drawn. But they knocked, because, well, they were expected. A few silent moments passed before they heard rustling, looked up, and noticed a large eyeball staring at them through a window. Then the front door creaked open, revealing an empty foyer. Again, silence. Probably sensing the sheer incredulity of his guests, Kendrick Perkins, who'd been hiding in another room, came out smiling.
"I'm just fucking with you guys," Perk said in that deep Southeast Texas drawl. "Come in."
For the next four hours, they watched television, ate Funyuns, and talked about the Kevin Garnett trade and the upcoming season. Perk was still skeptical about the deal that sent his friend Al Jefferson to Minnesota for KG. Brian remembers Perk saying that the Celtics better win a title that year or else "they're gonna blame me." At the end of the night, Perk brought Brian and Justin into the kitchen and offered them some homemade spaghetti and meat sauce. For some reason, Perk didn't want them to eat in front of him. Instead, he shoveled single portions of pasta into plastic containers and instructed his new buddies to call him later, when they were finished with dinner. He wanted to know what they thought of his culinary skills. "But don't tell anyone," he said. "I don't want people to know that I do the cooking around here."
There were other gifts. Earlier, Justin — then a junior in high school — had eyed a life-sized cutout of Perk in his Boston Celtics uniform. Naturally, Perk told Justin to take it. Justin did, but not before his host had him prop up the cardboard doppelganger next to the real thing.
You ever wonder what it's like to befriend a good-but-not-great NBA player, to drift along in the wake of his semi-celebrity, to be, in a way, his very own Mars Blackmon? For Brian and Justin, at least, it was pleasantly, irresistibly, even delightfully banal. It was Funyuns and dinner in Tupperware and sleepovers, and it was playing Xbox as Ricky Davis with the real Ricky Davis just a few feet away. It was weird, in part because it was all so normal.
It was this:
"Damn," Perk said, eyeing the cutout. "I'm big. I must be scaring people sometimes."
The spaghetti, by the way, was delicious.
* * *
In the whole history of the NBA, I'd wager, few friendships have been as unlikely as the one that sprang up between Brian, Justin, and Perk. If you wanted to be fancy about it, I suppose you could say that it had something to do with the dawn of sports blogging and the simultaneous arrival in the NBA of Millennials like Perk, athletes who routinely broke the fourth wall that had traditionally separated them from fans. Mostly, though, I think Perk and Justin and Brian were three guys who were in on the same joke.
The first meeting actually happened a few years earlier, at an open practice for Celtics season ticket holders in September or October 2004. (Justin's father, a Boston attorney with close ties to the team, had purchased a package after the 2001-02 season.) Justin may have barely hit puberty by that point, but he was an uncommonly persistent fan boy. At a post-practice autograph session organized by the team, Justin complimented Perk's hook shot. The secret to it, Perk said, was that it was "au naturel."
"I'm just chillin'," Perk said when Justin, then a middle-schooler, asked how he was doing. "Just a squirrel trying to get his nut."
Justin was smitten — even if he had no idea what the expression meant — and so was Brian, who's 15 years Justin's senior. "When I heard he had a 9-6 standing reach, I said, ‘I love this guy,' before I even saw him," Brian says. Perk quickly became one of their favorite players, even though he barely saw the court his first two years as a pro. Justin changed his handle in the Celtic Nation forum to Perkisabeast after hearing an interview in which Perk expressed his desire "to be a beast" for Boston. By the end of the 2004-05 season, Justin and Brian were Perk's unofficial hype men.
At the time, Brian was working at a newspaper about 30 miles north of Boston. That's where I got to know him. I was a sportswriter. He was an NBA obsessive, but covered business. His time at the daily didn't end well. Management moved him, in addition to several other talented reporters who were part of a futile union organizing effort in late 2005, to the paper's satellite office in New Hampshire. When he quit in the spring of 2006, he figured his journalism career was over. He needed an outlet. That summer, while vacationing with family in Rhode Island, he found one. On a wave-less day at the beach, he and Justin conceived Perkisabeast.com. They began to build the site that afternoon.
Neither Brian nor Justin really had any idea what the new project would become. At first, it was a simple tribute. But they loved Perk. And Brian, for one, thought it would be funny to mythologize an unknown late-first-round pick, crafting for him a persona that was more Bill Brasky than Bill Russell. As it turns out, the real Beast was a hell of a lot more interesting than the made-up one. "We started this thing as jock sniffers," Brian tells me. "But the Perk we ended up knowing was much cooler than the one we created."
* * *
They wanted an interview with Perk, and, somehow, Justin managed to convince the Celtics' media relations staff that such a request from such a website wasn't totally ridiculous. In 2006, Brian and Justin were allowed to attend Celtics media day. Justin interviewed Perk with Brian's Palm Pilot, but the teenager was too damn short to get the thing even close to the 6-foot-10-inch man's face. Perk noticed and said, "You want me to do that?" And so the interview proceeded with the big guy holding the Palm Pilot as if it were a microphone.
The questions weren't typical, at least not for a soul-crushing pseudo-event like an NBA media day. Not that Perk seemed to mind.
Justin: What does Perk put on the stereo to impress the ladies?
Perk: Is my girl gonna hear this?
Justin: What do you put on to impress her?
Perk: Like you gotta kind of go the other way with them and put on like that old Beyonce, not this one that just came out, but the last one, that was jammin'. I like Beyonce so I'll put that on and you know all that stuff that she be singin' "I'll cater to you." Yeah that's my type of stuff.
Perk liked the idea of a digital shrine to his beastliness. It wasn't official, of course. "I don't know if he knew half the crap we did in there," Brian says, "but he didn't care." (It should be noted that Perk is a Beast had a habit of flaming other NBA blogs. Bethlehem Shoals of dearly departed FreeDarko once wrote that he "personally can't stand them." Brian says now that PIAB's thin skin was just part of its ethos.) Perk would later introduce Brian and Justin to his friends as the guys "from my website." Perk even gave Justin his cell phone number (it seemed to change every time Justin saw Perk). That season, Perk had Doc Rivers's assistant leave family passes for Justin, giving him access behind the curtain. After games, Justin would ask Perk a bunch of questions, then hand over the recorder to Brian, who transcribed the interviews and put them up on Perk is a Beast. Perk even suggested to Justin that they should hang out. At the end of Boston's putrid 2006-07 campaign, Perk gave Justin one of his size-19 Adidas high-tops.
* * *
That summer Justin phoned Perk — obsessively. At one point, Brian asked Justin how many times he'd called. "Ten," Justin responded. "This week." Garnett's arrival had them a little worried about future access to the team, and to Perk. Would it evaporate? Their fears subsided a bit when they got word that they were allowed at media day, again. They came prepared this time, churning out more on-camera interviews. Brian even made sure to bring along a limited edition Perk is a Beast onesie for Perk's newborn son, Kendrick Perkins II. (Perk later returned the favor by giving Brian, whose own son was born around the same time as Little Ken, an entire box of outgrown baby clothes.) Perk told Brian and Justin to come over later. That night they ate Funyuns and talked basketball for four hours.
Perk began to treat Justin as a sort of little brother. Every so often, he'd take Justin out to dinner after games. They'd go to Strega in Boston's North End. The first time, Justin was afraid to order too much — or too little. "Just get what I get," Perk told him. That turned out to be a two-pound lobster, fettuccine alfredo, and a whole chicken. Justin ate leftovers for days.
He looked up to Perk. They got their hair cut together. ("Give him the Pat Riley," Perk told the barber when his protégé sat down in the chair. The first thing Justin's mother said when she saw him afterward was, "Oh my god.") They talked about women. Once Perk invited Justin to sleep over. Justin had been away at college, and Perk just wanted to catch up. Still, Justin was shocked.
"Why not?" Perk said. "You're family."
* * *
All of a sudden, it seemed, Perk was more than a bit player. In 2007-08, his fifth season as a pro, he became Boston's enforcer. Still, Brian, a keen observer of all things Perk, knew that the big man didn't feel like his job was safe. This was, after all, someone who never had it easy.
When Perk was 5, his mother, Ercell Minix, was murdered at the beauty salon where she worked. He was a grown man before he met his father, Kenneth Perkins, who spent his son's childhood playing pro basketball overseas. Perk's grandparents raised him in Beaumont, Texas. Although he was a McDonald's All-American at Clifton J. Ozen High, he lasted until late in the first round of the 2003 NBA Draft. After the Memphis Grizzlies snagged him with the 27th overall pick, they traded him to the Celtics. Brian sensed that Perk hated the draft. It was just a reminder that he was replaceable.
But then his career finally took off, and Brian and Justin were sitting shotgun. Perk is a Beast saw a jump in traffic as the championship season progressed. By then, Brian had sold an ad to Gold Rarities — High Quality PCGS & NGC Certified Coins at Competitive Prices! — the only sponsor the site has ever had.
After the Celtics clinched the title with a blowout win over the Lakers (a game in which Perk had held Pau Gasol to 11 points) the two brothers waited for a chance to see their guy. "You kept wondering when you would get big-timed," Brian says. It never happened. An hour and half after the buzzer sounded, Perk brought Brian and Justin backstage to join in on the celebration.
"That was the most incredible moment," Brian says. "There were no owners [around], just the players, the coaches and the trophy. Everybody was taking pictures with their families and the trophy. As a sports fan, you live to be a part of that."
All Brian wanted to do was say congratulations. Perk wasn't having it. "Y'all come back and get a picture taken." Brian and Justin posed in a big group shot and got to touch the Larry O'Brien trophy. "It was," Brian says, "the complete sports fantasy."
* * *
Perk married his girlfriend, Vanity Alpough, on July 25, 2009, near Houston. Brian and Justin, who was bound for Providence College that fall, were guests. They flew out a few days before the ceremony and showed up at Perk's house in The Woodlands, a posh planned community. Their luggage had been lost, and Brian wore an oversized white T-shirt he'd bought at a drug store. Justin was in a Star Wars shirt he'd worn on the plane.
They figured they'd be able to hang out, relax, and then crash at the hotel. They were wrong. As soon as Brian and Justin arrived, they were told to get ready for the bachelor party. "These white dudes are my boys from Boston," Perk explained to his assembled friends, among them Rajon Rondo. "They run Perk is a Beast," Perk said. "They're from out of town. They don't know how we do it." Justin and Brian soon found out how it was done. "We're [at a club] in downtown Houston, with a cavalcade of the hardest-looking dudes you've ever seen," Brian said. "Right behind Perk is Justin, in a Stormtrooper T-shirt and shorts."
Still, Perk and his friends made them feel comfortable. "I didn't spend a dollar," Brian said. By the time they got back to Perk's house the next morning, he'd been up 28 hours straight. He'd gotten his wallet stolen. He'd driven his rented Kia into a drainage ditch. It was as bizarre as it was exhilarating. Brian would later admit that he felt like an alien that weekend. His wife and young son were at home, and here he was at the wedding of an NBA player almost 10 years his junior. After the reception, Brian and Justin pulled up to Perk's driveway to find Stephen Jackson in his red Rolls Royce Phantom, blasting a song by late Houston rapper DJ Screw. Perk was in the middle of it all, singing every word.
The next day, when things had slowed considerably, Brian and Justin drove back to Perk's to hang out. While Perk, Rondo and Jackson sat playing cards, Brian took on his brother in a game of NBA 2K on Xbox. Justin picked the Clippers, who had one of his favorite players, fellow wedding guest Ricky Davis. Davis happened to be in the room. Video Game Ricky proceeded to drop 50 points on Brian. Every time Video Game Ricky scored, Actual Ricky did a little dance.
* * *
In February, Perk was deemed replaceable. The Celtics dealt him to the Thunder, a trade that may cost Boston a shot at another title. Brian was numb. "Thanks for the Perk love," Brian wrote from the Perk is a Beast Twitter account. "We're crushed. It's like the kid in almost famous when the band denies the story."
Maybe the relationship wasn't so strange, in the end. I put the question to ex-Celtics assistant coach Clifford Ray, Perk's mentor, a few months ago. Why did Perk trust those guys so completely? "They weren't after anything," Ray said.
That's not to say that Justin and Brian didn't get anything out of the friendship. "In a weird way," Brian says now, "Perk was my muse." Through Perk is a Beast, he'd appeared on Comcast's Celtics Now as a panelist. He'd gotten back into journalism, co-founding Mass Device, a Boston-based online publication. He also began hosting a weekly podcast with Ray.
On the dance floor at Perk's wedding, Brian thanked his muse. By that point the reception was wrapping up. Perk had shed his giant white tuxedo coat and was wearing a wife beater.
"You saved me," Brian remembers blurting out.
Perk looked confused.
"You saved my career."
And then, the Beast laughed.
Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.