By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
In today’s college basketball, it’s hard for any great player to suddenly just appear.
They are tracked since junior high school by recruiters who watch them all summer in AAU tournaments. They are on the top 100 recruiting rankings of various services. They get enormous publicity from all angles.
And then there’s former Vanderbilt center Will Perdue, who didn’t start playing basketball until he was 13 years old. During his first three seasons at Vanderbilt from 1983-86 (the second a redshirt year), he was one of the world’s tallest invisible men, playing in 39 games, scoring just 112 points.
But perhaps nobody in SEC basketball history jumped from virtually a zero to an all-American in his last two seasons in ’86-’88, someone who earned two-time first-team All-SEC honors as well being SEC Player of the Year, conference Athlete of the Year and a NBA first-round draft choice by the Chicago Bulls.
“It was a combination of things happening at the right time, with my skills and maturity coming together when there was an opportunity,” says Will, 47, now an NBA and college broadcast analyst after a 13-year pro career in which he won four NBA titles (three with Michael Jordan-led Chicago, one with San Antonio). “First, our starting center Brett Burrow graduated. Ed Martin from Tennessee State was hired as an assistant and I became his project. And I played on a team with a bunch of outside shooters in offense that fit me. I just took advantage of everything, and it took off from there.”
Raised in Merritt Island, Fla., located on the Atlantic Ocean's Space Coast, which is home to the John F. Kennedy Space Center, Will didn’t start playing basketball until he was 13 years old.
“I grew up in Florida, and it was all baseball and football,” Will says. “Basketball was a sport in high school that football players played to keep in shape for football.
“A friend of mine named Tony Long moved from Virginia to Florida. He’d been playing basketball since he was six years old, and he initially taught me to play. I really had to learn how to play. Even my sophomore year in high school (at Merritt Island High), I played on the junior varsity team, not the varsity.”
Will quickly progressed into a high school all-American, averaging 25 points and 18 rebounds as a senior. He narrowed his choices Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Florida and Purdue, and went with the Commodores for two reasons.
The first was Will didn’t have NBA aspirations, and was realistic at that point of his slim chances of playing professionally. He felt he needed the quality education that Vanderbilt could provide.
The school also had C.M. Newton as its basketball coach, as good a man that has ever taught the game.
“When C.M. told my parents he’d be my Dad away from home, my parents felt comfortable,” Will says.
Will arrived in Nashville as a freshman in the fall of ’83. He was 6-10, 195 pounds, all arms and legs, looking like an unsteady baby giraffe. He knew he was behind physically with the rest of the team, and soon his grades faltered because he lacked time management skills.
That’s when Newton redshirted him as a sophomore, and turned him over first to assistant John Bostic, who schooled Will on the art of making a daily schedule and sticking to it. Will’s daily schedule as a redshirt was an individual workout with Bostic at 6 a.m., followed by breakfast, class at 8 a.m. and then an afternoon practice with the team.
“That taught me a lot of what I was capable of doing,” Will says. “You have an idea of what you’re physically capable of doing, but by being forced into that position, I really I could physically do more than I thought.”
It was also at this time that Will realized his civil engineering major wasn’t working for him. Like many kids entering college, Will had aspired to follow in a parent’s footsteps. In Will’s case, his father was an engineer at NASA, so he declared civil engineering as a major at Vanderbilt.
A noble thought indeed, but not realistic.
“I enjoyed the challenge, but it was more than I could handle,” Will says. “I knew I had to get out of engineering. Dana Turner, the girlfriend and later the wife of Steve Reece, one of my teammates, suggested I speak to Kassian Kovalcheck, a professor in the communication department. He recommended that I take some general classes to see if I liked it. I took one class and I was hooked.”
Will began developing a legit post player’s body, because he stayed in Nashville for both summer school sessions. While he was catching up academically, he was also living in the weight room.
Meanwhile, Newton hired Martin as an assistant. A superb teacher of post play, he had been Tennessee State’s head coach for 17 years.
“I was constantly in a controlled environment,” Will recalls, “and that just paid dividends. I took classes in the summer, but I spent the majority of the day working on basketball. That was significant to me making such a big jump in a short period of time.”
Nobody was more important to Will’s rapid ascent than Martin, who patiently taught Will the intricacies of post play.
“Ed took it personally that I was his project,” Will says. “He felt if I didn’t succeed that he failed. When I worked with Ed I thought, `This guy really wants me to succeed as a player.’ He had more belief in me than I had in myself.
“I continued to feed off that. I was like a sponge. I couldn’t get enough. If I wanted to work out at 6 o’ clock at night, Ed was available. If I wanted to work out at 6 o’clock in the morning, he was available. I felt I was part of his family, as well as part of the Vanderbilt family.
“We used to go his house and he’d pull out tapes of old post players. He sat down with me and broke down tape. He constantly hit play, rewind, play, rewind. He was, `I think you can do this. Don’t do that.’
“To him, I was like a tree being planted by a family moving into a new house. You want to make sure it grows. I know when I graduated and got drafted by the Bulls, you could tell his joy. And there was also some relief, because he had spent so much time with me.”
Will returned the court as a third-year sophomore in 1985-86 when the Commodores were 13-15. He averaged just 3.2 points and 2.8 rebounds in 22 games off the bench, remaining confident that all his hard work with Martin would pay off.
His teammates though, like Barry Booker, weren’t so sure.
“I remember talking to Will one day at breakfast when we were struggling in SEC play,” Booker says. “He says, `We have a chance to be really good next year. You’re coming along, Goheen’s playing better and I think I’m going to step in and be a big part of the team next year.’
“I’m thinking, `What? You’re getting shredded in practice. Maybe you’re a bit player in a couple of years. But be a big part of it next year?’
“But then it was amazing to see him that next fall. He was clearly a star player. As we began our fall workouts, we knew we had something special in him. I had never seen anyone develop from not being able to get on the court to winning SEC Athlete of the Year his senior year.”
When Vanderbilt opened Will’s first season as a starter in 1986-87 by beating Virginia Commonwealth, Missouri and New Mexico to win the Silversword Classic in Hawaii, eyebrows were raised. Eyes flew wide open a week or so later when Vandy beat Bobby Knight-coached No. 2 Indiana in Memorial Gym.
“I’ve got to credit C.M.,” Will says. “He changed our offense from where we worked from the inside out. Because of myself, other bigs like Steve Reece, Frank Kornet, Eric Reid that fed off me and guards that fit into the system, it became a difficult offense to defend.”
Will averaged 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds as a fourth-year junior, and scored a career-high 34 points in Vandy’s season-ending NIT loss to Southern Mississippi. The Commodores finished 18-16 (7-11 in the SEC), fading because of poor defense.
That was something Vandy needed to fix for Will’s senior year in 1987-’88. Opposing SEC coaches marveled at Will’s transformation to a multi-talented 7-foot, 245-pound post presence.
Vanderbilt started the season 7-1 including a win over No. 1 North Carolina, lost three straight to open SEC play and followed nine league wins in the next 10 games. The Commodores cooled again, yet got a NCAA tournament invite despite losing five of their last seven games including a first-round SEC tourney exit.
But anything can happen in March Madness. Vandy scored NCAA tourney opening weekend wins over Utah State (80-77) and Pittsburgh (80-74 in overtime). The Commodores advanced to the Sweet 16 where they lost to eventual national champion Kansas (77-64) in the regional semifinals.
“Pitt was like the second seed and we won that game with me fouled out on the bench,” Will says. “(Barry) Goheen hit some three-pointers that got us to overtime. Goheen, Booker, (Derrick) Wilcox and (Scott) Draud won that game for us.
“Even though we lost to Kansas – they played really well and I got in foul trouble – it was the culmination of all of our hard work and belief. It wasn’t that we didn’t think Vanderbilt couldn’t compete in basketball. But every guy on our team realized basketball was a means for an end, not the other way around.
“So occasionally, Vanderbilt would have a good team and then years would go by and there would be another good team. I like to think myself, Goheen, Wilcox, Booker and Draud was the group that started what has become a very viable and competitive program. We were the groundwork.”
Will’s solid senior season – 18.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 64.4 percent from the field and 74 blocked shots – earned him SEC Player of the Year honors.
When it came time for the Chicago Bulls to choose 11th in the ‘88 NBA draft, they selected Will despite already having two quality centers in Dave Corzine and Bill Cartwright.
In Will’s third NBA season, the Bulls won the first of three straight championships from 1991-93. His playing time increased each year, and he was a perfect fit for Bulls’ assistant Tex Winter’s triangle offense.
“It showcased some of my best abilities, such as passing out of the post,” Will says.
Will also found out it was tough earning the respect of Jordan, perhaps the NBA’s greatest ever player. Jordan could be brutally critical of teammates in practice. Early in Will’s career, Jordan acted as if Will played for a junior college instead of Vanderbilt.
“Michael was very vocal in his feelings, and he was difficult to play with, because of his expectations and the high level at which he played,” Will says. “Until he went and played minor league baseball (with Class AA Birmingham in 1994 during Jordan’s 1½-year NBA retirement) and changed because he realized there would always be guys better than him, he was tough to deal with.”
Will finally earned Jordan’s respect one day in practice when he set a hard screen on Jordan when Will and four teammates were simulating an opponent’s play.
“The team we were playing was going to run Michael through screen and screen, wear him out to affect him offensively,” Will remembers. “We run the play, I got Michael pretty good with a screen, because his big guy didn’t let him know where I was screening.
“Michael wasn’t happy about it. He turned to me and said, `You do that again, there’s going to be consequences.’ We run the same play, I set a screen on Michael and he whips around and punches me. Then, I went after him, get into an altercation before I get wrapped up.
“I don’t know if expected me to back off when he made the threat. But the fact I went right back at him helped me gain his respect. He eventually came and apologized. People don’t realize there are fights in practice in the NBA all the time. There were fights in practice when I was at Vanderbilt.”
After seven seasons in Chicago and winning one last title, Will was traded to the Spurs for future Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman.
“The Bulls offered the Spurs other players, but the Spurs wanted me,” says Will, who played four seasons with Spurs through 1998-99 before heading back to the Bulls in 1999-2000. “When they put me on the floor with Tim Duncan and David Robinson, a frontline like that at the time was unheard of.”
When Will retired after the 2000-2001 season he spent with Portland, he flawlessly moved into the broadcast field. He’s one of the best NBA radio analysts in the business, and he’s also gotten into the college game, also.
“I joke I spent 13 years in the NBA before I could actually get to do what I wanted to do,” Will says with a laugh.
There’s a tiny part of Will that wishes maybe had scored more points as a pro, maybe that he started more games. Then, he realizes the list of Hall of Famers who never won a championship, such as Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Elgin Baylor.
Then, he considers he got to play for two of the greatest coaches in NBA history – Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich – who have won a collective 13 league titles. And he can’t forget he played with Hall of Famers Jordan, Scottie Pippen and David Robinson and future Hall of Famers Duncan and Tony Parker.
“When I think about the things I learned and the guys I played with,” Will says, “I feel very fortunate.”