Altar boy patrolling the paint

Last week, the Oklahoma City Thunder got exactly what they needed to make a serious run at an NBA title: Kendrick Perkins, a defensive enforcer who was a critical piece of the Celtics’ 2008 championship team and is one of the scariest dudes in professional sports.

Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman had the responsibility of introducing Perkins to OKC readers and Thunder fans with a profile that looked beyond the hardwood to Perkins’ hard life growing up poor in Beaumont, Texas.

Carlson is a sports writer — probably best known outside Oklahoma because Mike Gundy thinks what she writes is garbage — and I don’t know how much occasion she has had to write about religion. But Carlson latched onto Perkins’ days from 7th grade through high school when he became the “world’s tallest altar boy.”

It’s a feature of decent length, but the part that will be of specific interest to those who like stories about religion and sports is a little more than halfway down, after Carlson has introduced early on that Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church was a critical and stabilizing force as Perkins grew big in his grandparents’ home:

Stand in the front yard of the lemon-yellow clapboard house on Glenwood Avenue, and you can see Ozen High School where Perkins would become a star. Stand in front of the main gym there, and you can see Our Mother of Mercy.

That became Perkins’ world.

The church was the axis. … [I]n seventh grade, he tried his hand at altar service and found a fit.

Over the next six years as Perkins became a superstar at Ozen and the basketball world was telling him how talented and great and special he was, he would go to Our Mother of Mercy and serve the church. Light candles. Carry incense. Hold books. Whatever the priest needed during Mass, he would do.

There are a few poorly chosen stereotypes in this story. Particularly odd for a story about a Catholic was this: “He’s no Holy Roller or Bible thumper either, but he knows what he believes.” I guess even Catholics in Texas are supposed to be fundamentalists.

But overall this is a nice story that gives warmth to a man who on the basketball court seems so cold. More importantly, Carlson saw a massive religion hook to Perkins’ story, and she didn’t let it become a ghost.

PHOTO: Perkins before he was traded from Boston, showing off that famous scowl, via Wikimedia Commons

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  • Michele

    African-American Catholics seem to be small in number, so I would have liked to know a bit about Kendrick’s family background – does he have ancestors from New Orleans or Haiti?

    I’d also like to know if he was still a practicing Catholic.

  • Bill P.

    Thank you GR! These stories are very helpful for me and others to share with teenage Confirmation students. And it helps show that goodness can sell.

  • Julia

    Nice story, but this is an odd way to describe the acolyte’s prescribed duties in a standardized ritual:

    he would go to Our Mother of Mercy and serve the church. Light candles. Carry incense. Hold books. Whatever the priest needed during Mass, he would do

    There are more African-American Catholics than most people realize. In my Illinois diocese we have a good-size parish in East St. Louis that is mostly African-American, in addition to such members in other parishes. Our last two bishops have been African-Americans, both originally from Chicago. There are also 3 African-American Benedictines teaching at the local Catholic high school, who I think are from New Orleans, and several priests from Africa serving in rural parishes.

  • Julia

    Actually, it turns out that 2% of Catholics are African-American,less than the 3% of Mormons that are African-American.

  • joye

    @Julia: It’s important to remember “percentage of nominal Catholics” versus “percentage of Catholics who are active”.

    In the United States, according to the USCCB, fully 12% of seminarians are Asian, and 5% are black. Compare that to the Pew Forum’s 2% raw numbers for each and you can see that these two groups of minority Catholics are making their presence felt in the Church.

    It’s a topic that could do with some more attention, to be sure.

  • BJ Mora

    For a data point of one: I grew up Catholic (saw the light and became a confessional Presbyterian as an adult) in a mostly African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn. While the church school was mostly white, there were definitely more than 5% black attending church. Of course this was thirty years ago and more.

  • Brett

    Stereotypes aside, this is definitely one of Ms. Carlson’s better pieces — but how do you write a story about a man so influenced growing up by his church experiences and not ask about what role that church plays now? The lessons of service in a house of faith taught him to be the kind of man he is in the middle of an industry crammed full of adolescent narcissists and all we get about that faith today is “He’s no Holy Roller or Bible thumper, but he knows what he believes?”

    Were Ms. Carlson a cat, none of her nine lives would be in peril of the feline’s proverbial doom.

  • Tony de New York

    Great story.