The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Elliot Perry on leaving basketball, collecting art and living in Memphis His grandfather participated in the famous sanitation workers’ strike in 1968
Memphis, Tennessee, native and 6-foot point guard Elliot Perry was Memphis State University basketball coach Larry Finch’s first recruit. He started every game during his collegiate career (1987-91), leading the program to two NCAA tournament appearances and a second-round berth in 1987.
That was more than three decades ago.
Now, Perry is director of player support for the Memphis Grizzlies, a title he’s held with the team since 2014. His responsibilities include helping players prepare for life outside of basketball — an area in which he’s found much success. He also advises the team on community-based efforts in Memphis.
Perry played for seven teams over his 10-year NBA career. Known as “Socks” because of the high footwear he wore during his collegiate and NBA careers, he retired from the NBA in 2002, closing his career out with his hometown Memphis Grizzlies on a 10-day contract. He later worked a year with the National Basketball Players Association.
“I really loved that job,” Perry said. “I was always a player rep on each team that I was on, so it was just a natural transition when I retired to go work with the NBA players association. Then I got recruited back to Memphis.”
Perry is part of the minority ownership group for the Grizzlies, along with singer Justin Timberlake, Ashley Manning (wife of Peyton Manning), Penny Hardaway and others.
“I’ve been working here about 11 years now, going on 12 years, and loved every minute of it,” he said. “Also, doing the radio with the Grizzlies.”
Perry holds a degree in marketing. He was selected in the second round (37th overall) of the 1991 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. Inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, he founded the annual SOCKS Banquet (Supporting Our Community and Kids) to provide financial support to organizations committed to helping Memphis-area youth and also serves as a board member of Teach for America.
An avid art collector, Perry focuses on modern and contemporary works by African-American artists and artists of African descent.
Perry spoke with The Undefeated about his grandfather, who was part of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, art, philanthropy and basketball.
Do you miss the hardwood?
Yes, you always miss it. Now I realize I can’t get out there and play, but you always miss it, and you miss it for a few reasons, I think. Obviously, being in the locker room and being a part of something bigger than yourself, but more importantly it’s the relationships that you build and being able to compete at a high level. Probably, every young kid in the country that’s playing basketball aspires to be in the NBA, and for me I was fortunate enough that by God’s grace and mercy, and the little bit of talent I had and the work ethic I had, I brought to my job every day, I was able to play 10 years.
What’s been the hardest part of transitioning from the court into the professional space?
I think the hardest part, probably for any player, is they’ve been playing basketball and being on a schedule and having an agenda and knowing exactly what to do for the majority of their life, really, and so the hard part of transitioning is a lot of players just don’t have the skill set. Whether it’s doing whatever they need to do in an office setting or if you’re going to do radio, if you’re going to do TV. I think the NBA players association has done a really good job of trying to help guys transition now. That wasn’t what was happening when I was playing.
I think one of the things that players miss out on is the ability to network while they have opportunities and doors open for them. While I was playing, I was always happy to go meet with people, to speak with kids, to speak with other people.
How did you and your wife get into art collecting?
Back in the summer of ’96, Charles Barkley took a group of us over to Japan and we played three exhibition games. And the who’s who, from Gary Payton to Clyde Drexler to Alonzo Mourning, we had a really, really good crew of guys. Anyway, I was on a plane with Darrell Walker, who was a former NBA player who was coaching at the time in Washington. He started talking to me about art … about how he has started to collect art over the past eight to 10 years, and who got him started was Bernard King. And the more we talked, the more I listened, and just started reading a little bit.
When the season started that year, Darrell would always call and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re in New York, go by this gallery or this museum.’ He would always send me books. The more I read, the more interested I got in artists, artists’ lives, their trajectory, the work that they were making, the conversations they were having around their work and why they were making work. I decided, maybe the year after that, to purchase my first piece. Then it just snowballed. I really got addicted to it. For me, the mission, and for my wife and I, this collection that we’ve been able to amass is a lot of just preservation of history and culture too.
Do you remember your first purchase?
A print by an artist named Paul Goodnight. The title of it was Tennessee T Taster.
Do you still have it?
Oh, yeah, absolutely still have it. No doubt about it.
Do you sell a lot of the art you collect?
No, we’re not in it for just pure money reasons. Out of the years that I’ve been collecting, that’s over 20 years or so, I’ve probably sold five pieces out of our collection. This has been a kind of labor of love and passion, and we started collecting a lot of old-school artists when we initially started doing it, but in 2004 we did a 180 and really just started collecting young, living, contemporary artists. That’s really been a much better journey in terms of being able to communicate with artists, being able to talk to artists about our mission and why we collect work, and then we’ve been able to visit their studios and hear their work and hear why they make their work.
What made you decide to return to Memphis?
It’s probably like anything else, you always can come home, but I just think that Memphis is an authentic place, this community for me personally. I was born to a 15-year-old mom; my father died a month after I was born. My family has always rallied around me. My mentor, Michael Toney, rallied around me and taught me so much, exposed me to so much at an early age and also challenged me. My high school coach poured a lot into me, and then when I signed with Memphis State at the time, Coach Finch poured a tremendous amount of his time into me and really started to help me shape why I was a leader and how I could be more of a leader in my community.
I feel obligated to give back to my community with the most precious gift that God has given me, and that’s my time.
Tell me about your grandfather’s relationship with the sanitation workers strike in 1968?
Most people know Ernest Withers’ photograph, when all of the men are holding the ‘I Am A Man’ sign and there’s a gentleman that’s walking right in the front of the camera, and he doesn’t have a sign yet, but he looks directly into the camera and the guy that’s looking into the camera is my grandfather. He worked for the city of Memphis at the sewage and drainage department. He wasn’t a sanitation worker, but he worked for the city; they wore the same uniforms.
I remember after Dr. King got killed when I was probably about 6 years old. In honor of Dr. King’s death, my grandfather used to march every year and I used to march with him as a kid. He had a fifth-grade or sixth-grade education. A lot of these injustices that we were fighting for were for his kids, and for his grandkids to be able to sit in a quality seat, around education, to be able to get equal pay, to be able to use whatever water fountain, or to be able to live in whatever community they wanted to live in.
How do you balance family, work and art collecting?
I asked my grandmother this question after I graduated college and started playing in the NBA a little bit and I wasn’t married, but just starting to have bills and do all of those things. And then when I had my daughter, obviously my grandmother was a lot older, just raising one kid is tough in itself. My grandmother and grandfather had nine kids: eight girls and one boy. And I can clearly remember asking her, ‘How did you do it? It’s impossible.’ One thing she told me was that, ‘We didn’t think about it, we just did.’
I don’t think about it, I just do. That’s what I say about balancing it all, is I just do.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s from mentor Michael Toney. When I was young, growing up in North Memphis, you see so many things. You’re growing up in poverty, so many distractions, and when he started mentoring me and he was exposing to some things, he was helping me try to gain my confidence in myself. And I can remember one time when I was struggling, he took me to a mirror, he said, ‘You see a little boy looking back at you?’ He said, ‘Everything in life that happens to you, that little boy is going to tell you. He’s going to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to compete again, he’s going to be the first person to tell you I can’t do it, he’s going to be the first person to tell you if you can do it. Other people are just going to reinforce that.’