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What Bird Taught Me

I was, and still am, heartbroken when I heard the news that John Perry, affectionately known as “Bird” to many of us, has passed away after several months in a coma. He was a generous husband and devoted father who loved his family dearly. He was also a basketball aficionado who loved the game as deeply as anybody I have ever met.

I met Bird for the first time when I participated in the Gallaudet basketball camp in the mid-1990s as a middle schooler. He was Coach. I got to know him when I played basketball at Gallaudet from 2001 to 2006. He was Coach. I got to know him better when I started playing club basketball in the late 2000s. He was Coach. I got to know him even better when I coached at Gallaudet several years ago. He was Coach. And he had continued to coach until last Fall when he fell.

The truth is Bird will always be Coach to those of us fortunate enough to have played under him.

Coach John “Bird” Perry

Several memories of Coach Bird will stay with me as long as I am alive and able. One is that he would almost unfailingly write “PRIDE” on the whiteboard before the game, at halftime, and after the game. If we won? “PRIDE.”  If we lost? “PRIDE.”  If we played hard or soft? “PRIDE.”  If the opposing team excelled at shooting 3’s? “PRIDE.”  If they were good at scoring in the low post? “PRIDE.”  Sometimes he would mumble something about having “fire in your eyes” for effect. But that was it. Nothing else. No fluff or excuses or tangents or fancy stuff about how to execute a hard show on pick and rolls.

I remember getting rather tired of it after a while when I played in college and thinking that he was being repetitious and missing what it took to win games.

But guess what?

Looking back, Bird nailed it on the head because pride is what matters. Devising and executing good strategy, or telling inspiring stories, is nice but quite secondary because pride is the horse that pulls the wagon. Not the bad kind of pride that is featured in the seven deadly sins but the good kind that represents dignity and sacrifice. The type of steadfast belief that there are many things out there far more important than ourselves, and that which makes us take less than we need and give more than we want. It is what drives players to sprint back on defense, dive for loose balls, and cheer for teammates from the bench.

Another memory that sticks in my head is right after we won the United States Association for Deaf Basketball (USADB) championship in Minnesota a while ago, we were shaking hands with our opponents in a line, as is the custom in basketball. Before I knew it, however, an opponent with whom we had recently shook hands punched me in the head from behind. Bird was right behind me in the line and saw it all. He immediately rushed to my rescue but this is not necessarily why I remember the episode.

Rather, what is still vivid is that Bird was in tears. Literally. His eyes were puffy red and he was wiping away sodium water for the next ten minutes. He was so bothered by what happened, so peeved that comrades in competition would act dishonorably. Although the knot in the back of my head went away shortly after the incident, the heartfelt depth of his loyalty and, yes, pride about what we should represent as athletes has stayed with me to this day.

Goodness, as Robert Goolrich put it, is the only thing that matters in life and is “our soul’s wallet,” leaving behind the sole remnants in life for which we will be remembered. Bird may be gone today but he belongs to the ages. He was an unforgettable human being whose soul will live through so many of our memories. Not because he was fancy (he would have been the first to admit that he was as plain as 2 + 2 = 4) but because of his goodness. In a day and age when voluntarism and virtue are in short supply, he is an inspiration worthy of emulating.  

I once loved basketball mainly because it is a lot of fun. But now, it is not that which will immediately come to mind when I think of the game, whether days or years from now.

Rather, it is the goodness that Bird stood for. His habit of volunteering anytime he was needed, his arms waving us off, his head tilted back softly and mouth slightly agape, showing off that dead front tooth caused by diving for a loose ball and coming up missing vital nerves, whenever we apologized for imposing or thanked him for his help. More games to scout in person? Gratitude for having my back? Working with post players on their drop step after practice late into the night? Dropping off players who lived quite far? We were almost always told that it was “no problem.”

When we tell our loved ones about what basketball has taught us, let it be the pride of Coach John “Bird” Perry about which they will hear first. May we honor him not merely through words but by serving others and being good.

Rest in peace. We will miss you.