“I’m looking for Reggie Perry!” yells seven-year old Jasper, the urgency in his voice reverberating further than his pint-sized frame can carry him. He wants what everyone who has seen Perry play wants; a chance to be beside greatness. At any given Raptors 905 home game, children wait by the tunnel far ahead of the halftime whistle in hopes of getting an autograph from the 6’9” power forward, squealing with delight when he signs their cards, shoes, or jerseys. Their parents quickly sneak in a photo, their excitement just as substantial. Long after the game has ended, with midnight approaching quickly and the chill of the winter Mississauga air warbling throughout the now empty Paramount Fine Foods Centre parking lot, fans wait in negative temperatures to tell Perry what he means to them, and to the game of basketball. Even if their goal is one that is far from that of playing basketball professionally, Perry’s success - his story - is one that inspires hope. If the little boy from small town Thomasville, Georgia can achieve his dreams, why can’t they?
Most notable for its football program, Thomasville High School is home to less than one thousand students. His 260 lb frame and quick speed would have allowed Perry to become the perfect offensive lineman and to contribute to the 30 state titles that Thomasville had won throughout its history. He could have joined the likes of William Andrews, Eric Curry, or Guy McIntyre as former Thomasville Bulldogs who saw success in the NFL. But it was basketball that called out to Perry until he couldn’t ignore it any longer.
It was in his ninth grade year that Perry realized the talent he possessed. “I don’t know if other people knew, but when I was younger I knew that I had a chance. I knew that I was special,” he says in a tone that is factual and not at all braggadocious. “I felt like I was better than a lot of the players we were playing against.”
Perry did not come to this conclusion entirely on his own. Ben Tillman, his coach during his sophomore year at Thomasville fought to have the team moved ahead an age group in order to better challenge Perry specifically, and Perry, as he has always done, rose to the occasion. Averaging a double-double, the then-senior led Thomasville to its first ever state championship in the school’s 109 year history.
When scholarship offers began to pour in for the five-star-recruit, Perry originally committed to the University of Arkansas, a school that had successfully prepared Patrick Beverley, Bobby Portis, and Oliver Miller among others for successful NBA careers. But Perry’s humility and his intrinsic desire to improve saw his vision shift, but never his goal.
“It was a little bit of everything,” Perry says of his decision to attend Mississippi State University. “I felt like Coach (Ben) Howland was going to do a better job of developing me. On top of that, my dad went there (so) just being able to continue the legacy and get back to my roots in Mississippi was going to be a great opportunity.”
Perry’s continuous and conscious decision to stay close to those who keep him grounded would pay off tenfold. In his two seasons with the Bulldogs, Perry would be named to the SEC All Freshman team (2019), First team All SEC (2020), and Co-SEC Player of the Year (2020). Even as the individual accolades began to stack under his name, leading the Bulldogs to their first NCAA tournament in a decade remains Perry’s most cherished accomplishment.
It was the same people who drove five hours from Flowood, Mississippi, Perry’s town of birth, and who encouraged him to remain humble and work harder, that would be by his side on NBA draft night in 2020. “That was probably the most stressful night I’ve ever had,” he admits “I just really wanted to get drafted. Really, really bad.” As the draft clock wound down and Perry had yet to hear his name called, he was anxious, but he wasn’t afraid. In the same way he took the road less travelled to get to this point, he was aware that he may have to alter his path yet again. “Maybe I wouldn’t get drafted and I’d have to choose where I wanted to play, undrafted, but I believe that everything happens for a reason. “With just three picks remaining, Perry’s goal of hearing his name called during the NBA draft came to fruition as he was selected with the 57th pick by the Los Angeles Clippers and subsequently traded to the Brooklyn Nets.
Now, without the comforts of home, Perry would begin his professional career. “There was definitely a culture shock, going from a small town to the city that never sleeps,” Perry confesses.
What he lacked in knowledge of the workings of a big city and an NBA career, he made up for in his ability to drown out the noise, to focus on becoming the star he knew he could be, and surrounding himself with people whose focus was the same. “Just seeing other guys on the team, the work they put in, what they eat, how much work they put into their body and their craft each and every day, that’s what really kept me grounded.”
There is no chip on his shoulder when he talks about draft night, as he again speaks in his truthful and genuine tone that those close to him recognize. He knows what he was capable of then, and what he is capable of now. “I remember so many of the guys who got drafted before me, and the promises that were made from teams on draft night that ended up falling through,” Perry divulges. “And it definitely makes me play harder.”
Off the court, Perry prides himself on his ability to grow both as a person and a player. He has not once forgotten who would take him to practices or shoot a ball with him until the lights went out. “I think my biggest accomplishment,” he says. “The thing I’m most proud of is being able to take care of my family.”
Reggie Perry may be able to recite the draft order of everyone before him, but he also remembers the name of every person who assisted him in achieving his lifelong goal. Now, in a full circle moment, Perry has become what inspired him in his youth. “It’s important to me to be to these kids what I wanted when I was younger.”
He recalls visits from Kobe Bryant and James Harden, core memories that would go on to serve as the catalyst of his community outreach. “Giving back is always a good thing, and it’s a big part of what keeps me humble, to remember that I was once in their shoes.” The kids waiting in the cold or the tunnel, the children he visits with the team and on his own, they are never a nuisance or an inconvenience to him, because before he was Reggie Perry the basketball star, he was Reggie Perry, the humble dreamer from Thomasville, Georgia.