Perdue reflects on his basketball career

Feb. 29, 2012

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When Will Perdue was looking to his future as a highly recruited high school basketball center, the NBA was his goal. Vanderbilt basketball coach C. M. Newton needed a center to eventually replace Brett Burrow who would graduate in a few years. Newton set his goal on signing Perdue.

"I had been to summer camps before my senior year and they had given me this resume of what to look for when deciding on college," Perdue said recently from his Louisville home. "One was a good solid education with a post-college career. They also mentioned that in a Georgia camp of Blue Chip high school players. They said only one percent of everybody in that room would make it to the NBA and there were probably 150 kids in that camp. I knew that meant only a few would make it to the NBA.

"So I thought I needed to consider going to a place with a good solid education that would help me get a job when college is over. Coach Newton really connected with my parents, whom they liked over the other coaches. At that time basketball was the biggest sport there. They filled up Memorial Gym, which was loud and crazy. I choose the education at Vanderbilt and Coach Newton."

Perdue was from Merritt Island, Fla. (Merritt Island High School), where he was All- Southern and a high school All-American. He chose Vanderbilt over Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida and Purdue. Perdue set several scoring and rebounding records at his high school averaging 25 points and 18 rebounds as a senior.

"When I went to my first practices, I realized that I had a lot of work to do," said Perdue. "You get to college and everybody is the best player off their high school basketball team. Now I am playing against guys like Jeff Turner who went into the NBA and at the time Brett Burrow was there with college experience. I was just a little high school punk that walked on campus highly recruited and nothing was going to be handed to me that's for sure. I had to earn my way."

In Perdue's freshman season (1983-84) the Commodores were 14-15 (8-10 SEC), but he played sparingly. Perdue played in 17 games averaging 6.5 minutes per game with 2.7 points per game and four blocked shots with a 2.2 average for rebounds. College basketball was a huge adjustment for the first year player.

"I struggled to adapt physically because when I walked on campus I was only 6-foot-10, 195 pounds," said Perdue. "As I got bigger, stronger, quicker and faster I was able to adapt. It was tough. On one hand this is Division I, SEC basketball. Then on the other hand it is Vanderbilt. One of the reasons I went there was because I thought I would be able to play. I kind of questioned that. I redshirted the next year and really didn't start playing until my junior year. It took a while for me to get comfortable mentally and physically."

During that redshirt season, Vanderbilt was 11-17 (4-14) with senior Phil Cox as team captain. Perdue not only struggled to improve on the basketball court, but also had difficulty in the classroom. He nearly lost his scholarship due to his poor grades. Perdue realized that he lacked the maturity to juggle all the responsibilities demanded from him in the college athlete experience. Newton believed Perdue could benefit from a year off with a redshirt.

"My grades were good enough by NCAA standards just by the skin of my teeth, but as Coach Newton said they are not good enough by Vanderbilt standards," said Perdue. "I think most kids will tell you, regardless, if they go to public or private schools, high school is not that difficult. Once you get to college you realize it takes discipline and the ability to manage your time. We have so little free time and there were no athletic dorms at Vanderbilt. By the time I went to class, practice and had dinner, it is 7 p.m. when I'm back at my dorm.

"By that time other students had been to classes and done their homework. They are out playing whiffle ball and screwing around in the hallway. So I thought I needed a break. I'd start doing this stuff and a couple of hours later it was, oops, I need to get my homework done. You are burning the candle on both ends. If you are not used to doing that it is hard to adjust. I did not have the best time management skills. I struggled with the discipline to continue to do what was necessary because I wasn't playing a lot. I turned my attention elsewhere.

"One of the things that C.M. did with Coach [John] Bostic was to map out my schedule. They said this is what you are going to do. Every morning before class you are going over to McGugin and work out with Coach Bostic. Every morning I would do individual workouts with Coach Bostic. Then after the workout I'd shower, grab breakfast and get to my 8 a.m. class. I'd have to come back in the afternoon and go through the regular practice. I had to do that the first semester of what was academically my sophomore year and athletically my redshirt year."

Perdue was majoring in civil engineering, but changed his major during this redshirt season. He talked to Vanderbilt professor Kassian Kovalcheck and took some of his communications classes as an elective. Perdue liked the courses and changed his major to communications. His grades improved.

Perdue briefly considered transferring to another school, but didn't know where. He never took it to the level of contacting other schools and didn't want to "tuck my tail between my legs and walk away." After the redshirt year, Perdue was ready to start fresh with a new attitude while being a backup to senior Burrow.

"I figured it out academically that I wasn't making great grades, but I did a much better job with my discipline and time management." Perdue said. "I was getting my schoolwork done. I figured out how to do it and as I matured, that helped a lot with the continual work in the weight room and the work with Coach Bostic, I could begin to see some results. It wasn't like I had made a complete transformation, but you could see that the process was working."

With Perdue back on the court, the Commodores were 13-15 (7-11). This being his second full season, Perdue played in 22 games, averaging 3.2 ppg with 13 blocked shots and 2.8 rebounds per game. However he only averaged 8.2 minutes per game. After completing his third season at Vanderbilt with a redshirt included, Perdue could find little to be satisfied.

"I had a couple of games where I thought I had an impact," said Perdue. "I can't sit here and tell you exactly what game and what moment. The most encouraging thing for me going into my junior and senior years was that Brett had graduated and that left a spot open. The thought was that I was going to move into that spot and become the starting center. But yet I hadn't done anything significant to where I could say `that's my spot.' I think that mentally helped me as far as what I was doing that year between my sophomore and junior year to prepare to take over that starting spot. That really paid dividends."

In the 1986-87 campaign, Perdue would have a breakout year. The Commodores opened the season with three wins to capture the Hawaiian Airlines Silversword Invitational championship in Wailuku. Perdue was the tournament's MVP. Nine days later, Vanderbilt upset No. 2 ranked Indiana (79-75) coached by Bobby Knight in Memorial Gym. Perdue was gaining confidence in the post.

"It was starting to come together," Perdue said. "Because of the weapons we had on offense, teams had to decide what they wanted to do. If they wanted to play me one-on-one in the post, I felt that I could score on anybody at that point. If they wanted to double team me, I felt comfortable finding the open man on the perimeter whether it was [Barry] Booker, [Barry] Goheen, [Scott] Draud or [Derrick] Wilcox that would hit the open shot. Not only did I have confidence, but also there was confidence of everybody else.

"That's when things changed in a sense by how we won the tournament in Maui and beating Indiana. That's when expectations came in. Before that it was `let's improve on last year and play as hard as we can.' We had expectations to live up to."

After the victory over the Hoosiers, Knight asked Newton if he could address the team in the locker room to say how impressed he was by their performance. In the press conference, Knight made the comment that Perdue was one of the best five centers in the country. Without smiling Knight said that he didn't care much for Perdue's name, making a joke towards Big Ten rival Purdue.

The 3-point shot was now an instrumental part of college basketball. With Booker, Goheen, Draud and Wilcox, the famous "Bomb Squad" came into existence.

"At the start of the season we didn't sit around and talk about it like, `hey man, we are really good and developing,' but you started to see the pieces coming together," said Perdue. "We've got a guy like myself in the middle who is a threat in the post. We've got guys with the new 3-point line that can knock down a three and stretch out the opposing team's defenses. I think the biggest thing we talked about was making the necessary improvements on defense. I think our offense was pretty potent already. We talked about doing better in the SEC, and in order to do that we needed to improve our defense."

The Commodores finished that season 18-16 (7-11) with Perdue earning First Team All-SEC honors. Vanderbilt ended the season with two wins in the NIT and a loss to eventual tournament champion Southern Miss. In the Southern Miss game, Perdue recorded a career-high 34 points.

Perdue played in 34 games to average 17. 4 points per game with 8.7 rebounds a game. Perdue's field goal percentage was 59.9 and his minutes per game jumped to 30.4. After two wins that season over LSU, Coach Dale Brown said that in all the years he had been coaching basketball, he'd never seen a player improve as much from one year to the next as Perdue.

"It was not an overnight transformation," Perdue said about his dramatic improvement. "I think a lot of it was gradual. The biggest thing was Brett graduated and that opened the center position and that provided the minutes that I needed for that production. It's funny that Goheen and I talked about it [Perdue's progression] occasionally and some of my other ex-teammates. It was the fact that I was now a starter. The minutes from my sophomore to junior year increased dramatically. I think if you look at production per minute as a junior it all stayed consistent throughout. Since I was playing more minutes my production increased."

Perdue Media Guide 1987-88Perdue had now bulked up to 245 pounds and had grown to seven feet. Vanderbilt's record improved to 20-11 (10-8) for Perdue's final season as a Commodore. They were off to a quick start with a 7-1 record including a home victory over No. 1 ranked North Carolina coached by Dean Smith and led by J. R. Reid.

The streaky Commodores would lose its first three SEC games then went on a tear to win nine out of its next 10. During that stretch, Vanderbilt blew out Georgia (92-77), Kentucky (83-66), Florida (92-65), Mississippi State (82-66), Tennessee (90-62) and Mississippi (93-68) all at home.

"At night, during the week of those games going to the library or walking across campus, I'd see students waiting in line at the student center to get their tickets the next morning at 8 a.m. for games," said Perdue. "It was like a phenomenon. It was the hot ticket in town, but only for the people in Nashville. There were so many student tickets available. The students and other athletes around campus kept telling us how exciting the games were.

"The fans were rowdy and we had confidence playing in Memorial. It was an advantage with the benches being on the end of the court and the opposing teams having a difficult time being able to communicate with the coaches on the floor. There was a comfort level we had playing in that building. So you could say that maybe we were a little cocky, but I think for the most part we backed it up with the way we played at home."

Vanderbilt basketball fans will remember the sometimes-bitter rivalry with Perdue and Florida's 7-foot-2 center Dwayne Schintzius. Florida gave a tireless effort in recruiting the home state Perdue.

"I don't know that it was really a rivalry," Perdue said. "You can go back to how Florida was recruiting me and I didn't go there. My friends and ex-teammates give me a hard time about that, but that's more of we're playing Florida and Dwayne's talking a little trash. He said something to Eric Reid on our team and I just said, `if you are going to talk somebody, talk to me.'

"Then I had a big shot or dunk and he was still talking. That's when that whole thing started to get heated. Nothing happened physically. I responded to what was happening on the floor. Now that I think back on it, it was kind of foolish. Back then being a college kid and playing when you get emotionally involved makes you do some things you later on regret. When he was having a decent game he'd trash talk. And he did have some good games against us."

Vanderbilt would end the season that was historic and memorable to Vanderbilt fans. A win over Utah State (80-77) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament advanced the Commodores to a match with nationally ranked Pittsburgh. In that game, with Vanderbilt trailing most of the time, Goheen hit two 3-pointers with five seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime. Vanderbilt would win in the extra period, 80-74.

"With Jerome Lane and Charles Smith, Pittsburgh had a really good team ranked in the top 10," said Perdue. "I remember us just hanging in the game and I fouled out in regulation. I feel that was the first time those guys got the credit they deserved--Goheen, Booker, Draud and Wilcox. I was sitting on the bench. I wasn't there for overtime and those guys won the game. When the game was over I remember being stunned that we were going to the Sweet Sixteen. That was something you talk and dream about."

Advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, Vanderbilt lost to the eventual national champion Kansas (77-64). Their All-American Danny Manning led the Jayhawks. There had been some criticism towards Newton's strategy of letting Manning obtain his points and "guard the heck" out of the rest of the players.

"First of all I don't think people realize how good Kansas was and how good they were playing at that time," said Perdue. "And unfortunately, I take the responsibility for not playing as well as I needed to in order for us to win the game. That was another game I got into foul trouble and couldn't or didn't do the things I wanted to do.

"But at the same time when you go back and look at what happened, they stepped up and they beat teams that were maybe better than them. They got hot. You can compare them to what Connecticut did last year. They just started playing well at the right time. They faced an opponent, mowed them down, and went on to the next team."

Perdue once again was selected to be First Team All-SEC, SEC Player of the Year, and All-American while leading the SEC in rebounding (10.1) and field goal percentage (63.4). He raised his scoring average to 18.3 with 74 blocked shots. Entering the 2011-12 season, Perdue ranks 23rd all-time in scoring (1,281).

Perdue also put up the sixth (234) and seventh (233) best seasons in field goals made, ranks first in career field goal percentage (60.6), seventh in career rebounding (708) and second in career block shots with 157 (broken by Festus Ezeli on January 2, 2012, against Miami (Ohio)). Perdue was also selected as Vanderbilt's Male Athlete of the Year.

One word you will never see in a dictionary is "Perdunk." The reference is to Perdue's powerful two-handed dunk given by a writer for the Vanderbilt publication The Hustler. Perdue was also known for his famous foot size, which were 21 and a half AAAAAAA.

The Chicago Bulls selected Perdue as the No. 11 player in the 1988 NBA draft (Manning of Kansas was selected No. 1 by the Clippers). Perdue credits Vanderbilt assistant coach Ed Martin in developing him as a center and preparing him for the NBA and their individual workouts. The star player for the Bulls at the time was veteran Michael Jordan. Perdue met Jordan for the first time during the Bulls' first practice session. He had a memorable confrontation with Jordan in that rookie season.

"One of the things, when you are not a starter during practice, is to devote a significant amount of time running the other team's offense," said Perdue. "That way we can talk about how we are going to do our defensive set. We were preparing for a team that constantly ran a screen-roll on Michael. They ran the screen-roll to try and wear him down. It could slow him down in the fourth quarter if he was tired.

"We kept running the play and he kept running into me. I was setting the screen and he got mad. He told me if I did that again he was going to hit me. Johnny Bach, an assistant coach at that time, looked at us and said to run it again. So we ran it again. I hammered him on the screen again. He got up and took a swing at me and hit me. Once I realized what happened I started to go after him. But, I thought about who he was and who I was so I let it go."

Perdue played his first six seasons mostly as a backup to center Bill Cartwright. When Cartwright left Chicago, Perdue took over the center position during the 1994-95 season. He started 78 games (the most starts in a season of his NBA career) while averaging eight points per game with 56 blocked shots and 522 rebounds.

"I look at my NBA career as I do my college career," said Perdue. "I got to the NBA and realized everyone there was the best player on their college team. They are All-Americans. I had to go back to square one, start over and rebuild myself as a player. I also needed to rebuild my confidence and work my way into playing at that level. It was a repeat of what I had in college. I did not have the impact from a statistical standpoint, but I felt over my 13 years in the league each year I was getting better."

Perdue with Chicago BullsPerdue was involved with the Bulls' first three-peat in 1991-93. They would become world champions defeating the Lakers (4-1), Trailblazers (4-2) and Suns (4-2). Perdue said his favorite championship with the Bulls was with the first against the Lakers. Even though the Bulls had the better record, the Lakers were expected to win due to their roster and playoff experience. Los Angles won game one, but Chicago swept the final four games.

The Lakers' experience included James Worthy, Byron Scott, Magic Johnson and Sam Perkins. In that series, Perdue played in all five games, scored eight points, had one blocked shot and 12 rebounds. After being the Bulls starter for the 1994-95 season, Perdue was shocked when he learned about his trade to San Antonio for Dennis Rodman. Luc Longley had emerged for the Bulls making Perdue expendable. The Bulls did win another three-peat (1996-98) NBA championship when Perdue left.

"I wasn't happy about it," Perdue said about the trade. "Michael had retired to play baseball. He came back and played 17 games. Michael was coming back for a full season, but I was gone. We pretty much had the same team with Scottie [Pippen] and Michael with the main corp. We were in a position where we were favored not only to win the Eastern Division, but the NBA championship.

"Then I got traded before camp opened. But then I saw it as a compliment. You are talking about Dennis Rodman, one of the best rebounders of all time but also a really good defensive player. After talking to the Spurs, I realized that they really wanted me. They want me to be a contributor to the team. That helped with the transition."

In San Antonio, veteran David Robinson was the Spurs center and a future Hall of Fame member. The Spurs joined the NBA in 1973 and never won an NBA championship by the time Perdue arrived in the city. They had won several division titles, but never appeared in a championship series. In 1997, the Spurs made Wake Forest's Tim Duncan their No. 1 selection overall in the NBA draft.

"It worked out pretty good," said Perdue. "I backed up both Tim and Dave. At one point we came across a couple of injuries and there I was starting myself. They were calling me, Tim and Dave the `Triple Towers' with three seven-footers starting the game. Even though I missed out on the second three championships in Chicago by being traded to San Antonio, that allowed me to blossom into a player, and allowed me to answer a lot of questions from an ability standpoint.

"Not that I didn't do a lot with Chicago. I did accomplish a lot there. I thought they wanted me to do certain things which was fine. I just know that when I went to San Antonio, Gregg Popovich [Spurs general manager] and Bob Hill [Spurs head coach] told me they weren't going to predetermine what they wanted me to do. They wanted me to go out and show them what I could do. That allowed me to do some things that I was not allowed to do in Chicago. That put my mind at ease as a player and what I was good at."

During the 1998-99 season, a lockout forced the league to miss three months and cut the schedule down to 50 games. The Spurs tied Utah (37-13) for the division crown. They won their first NBA championship in five games over the Lakers. Perdue received his fourth NBA championship ring.

In August 1999, Perdue signed with the Bulls as a free agent. He started 15 of 67 games in a Chicago uniform averaging 2.5 points and 3.9 rebounds. Perdue left Chicago and signed with Portland after the 2000 season.

"After Portland released me, there were a few teams that called and wanted me to play with them, but none of them would guarantee a contract," Perdue said. "They wanted me on the team to see how things worked out and if things didn't work out, I'd be released. I didn't want to start bouncing around the league going here for a few weeks and there for a couple of weeks. Then after a few weeks when nothing solid came along, I just decided it was time to hang it up."

Perdue played in 13 games for the Trailblazers. In his first stint with the Bulls, Perdue played one season with former Vanderbilt standout Charles Davis. The Bulls also played an exhibition game in Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium against Utah. Perdue received a larger ovation from the fans than Jordan. In his 13 seasons of professional basketball, Perdue competed against some of the greatest centers in NBA history that became Hall of Famers.

"When I first came into the league I played against Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]," said Perdue. "I got to play against Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O'Neal. Probably the toughest guy I played against and the most difficult guy to guard was Hakeem Olajuwon.

"He had such good footwork and so many moves. He was so quick it was just a tough cover. With Hakeem you knew that it was going to be a long night. You're still going to give it your best effort and you go to work. You looked forward to the challenge, but you knew it was going to be rough."

Perdue was such a popular Bulls player with their fans that he appeared in several local television commercials. In one commercial, Perdue was dressed in a Chicago White Sox baseball uniform that was too small. The 7-footer would attempt to bounce a baseball and said, "I don't like baseball--the ball doesn't bounce."

"This is something I learned at Vanderbilt from not living in athletic dorms," Perdue said. "When I went to Chicago, I'd go to White Sox games a lot because Jerry Reinsdorf was the owner of the Bulls and the White Sox. I'd sit out in the stands. I didn't separate myself from people sitting up in a box. I'd go up there periodically.

"I enjoyed sitting near the field and being outside. I'd go to Cubs and Blackhawks hockey games. I think a lot of people appreciated the hard work I did on the court. But most people saw me as a regular person because they'd see me at these games sitting with them. I tried to be a normal person."

Perdue's NBA career totals include 13 seasons, 792 games, 3,740 points (4.7 ppg), 3,918 rebounds (4.9 rpg) and 526 blocked shots (0.7 bpg). His shooting percentage was .515 (1517-of-2943).

Perdue, 46, works for ESPN Radio as an analysis for NBA games. He also does work for the SEC Network, which is run by ESPN. Perdue can be seen working at Vanderbilt games on occasion. He was selected into the 2011 Vanderbilt Sports Hall of Fame. Perdue was asked to look back on his years at Vanderbilt and its importance to his life and career.

"When I look back on my years at Vanderbilt, I feel fortunate," Perdue said. "I made the correct decision coming out of high school to play at Vanderbilt. I always thought what if I had gone to Purdue, Virginia or another school. Would I have played or what type of impact would I have had on the program and where would I be now? Would I have played in the NBA and be in broadcasting? The friendships I have now with my former teammates like Steve Reese, Barry Goheen, Barry Booker, Glen Clem, Scott Draud and those guys that I still stay in touch with are special. I keep in touch with friends that were not athletes at Vanderbilt.

"I've never felt that Vanderbilt athletics would be at the point it is right now. I always thought that once in awhile Vanderbilt would have a good basketball team. They would have a good football team every once in awhile. You look at the prominence of the men's basketball team now and the quality of the recruits including the women's athletic teams and the baseball team. When you start looking at that athletic department as a whole, I don't think the former athletes from my era thought that Vanderbilt athletics could reach the prominence it has now. I think Vanderbilt is at a crossroads because now there are significant expectations. They can continue on the path they are on now and be better than average.

"Today golf, tennis, baseball and the other sports are competitive. These expectations are not put on just the teams, but also the coaches. With the success of James Franklin, [Kevin] Stallings and [Tim] Corbin there is an expectation to live up to every year. In order for those coaches to live up to those expectations the athletic department must provide the funds, means and the resources to make that happen. I think that is happening now. Vanderbilt is no longer an also-ran in the SEC. Vanderbilt is in a position to accomplish a lot of things that former athletes thought would never be possible at that university."

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