In the summer of 2015, Tylor Perry was in Las Vegas for a tournament with the Arkansas Mustangs, his AAU team. Frederick Lee, the team’s head coach, Perry and his teammates were sitting in their car in a shop’s parking lot waiting to meet someone related to the event. Outside the store sat a homeless man, shoeless and suffering from the triple-digit temperature.
“I tell you, it was probably 110, 111 degrees outside. I mean hot, hot,” Lee recalled. “And this guy was looking like he was about to pass out out there.”
Perry asked his coach if he could buy the man something, and Lee said sure. With that, the 14-year-old left the car, entered the store, walked out with food and water and handed it all to the man. Lee and the rest of his team watched in awe.
“When he got back in the car, a couple of the rest of the guys got out and did the same thing he had done,” Lee remembered. “They didn’t know what he was doing in the beginning, and then when they saw and saw the guy’s reaction and that it really did help him, that’s why they went ahead and followed suit.”
That moment is something Lee will never forget, and afterward he told Perry what characteristics he displayed that day.
“That’s the start of being a leader,” Lee said he explained to Perry. “You led by example. You went and did it, and I didn’t ask you to do that. Nobody asked you to do that, and by doing it, you saw what happened.”
Perry welcomes that responsibility, on and off the court.
Today, Perry is a high school senior living in his hometown of Spiro, Oklahoma, a town with little more than 2,000 people roughly 15 minutes from the Arkansas border. Home is situated firmly where city slickers might unaffectionately call the middle of nowhere. He attends and plays for Spiro High School, a victory lap for the point guard who will ship off to college in the fall.
He moved back to Spiro after his junior year, spending his first three high school years at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, for the increased basketball opportunities. Har-Ber is where he made a name for himself in the basketball world; he was the first freshman to start for head coach Scott Bowlin in his 32 years of coaching, earned Newcomer of the Year recognition in his first season and became the school’s first 1,000-point scorer midway through his junior year.
Perry has received offers from Central Missouri, Arkansas Tech, University of Arkansas-Fort Smith and the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, and gained interest from a handful of Division I schools.
“Anywhere in the state of Arkansas, if you know anything about basketball, you would know the name Tylor Perry,” Lee said.
His Har-Bar career culminated last spring with an overtime buzzer beater to send the Wildcats to the semifinals of the state tournament, a moment Perry had envisioned his whole life.
“As a kid, when you get in the gym alone and you count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, it was one of those types of moments,” he said. “I’ve always been the type of player who wants that big shot, and I wanted that big moment. To be in that position and to make it, it was so surreal for me.”
After the release, Perry leaned to the side, later admitting the shot felt off when it left his hands. But as the ball pinned the inside of the rim and ran through the net, Perry’s concern washed away and jubilant confusion engulfed him.
“I didn’t know how to act,” Perry said. “I was so excited, I actually slipped and fell trying to run to my teammates. It was a wild moment, a wow moment. Did this really just happen to me?”
Lee wasn’t surprised to see his former player command and make the final shot.
“He wants to compete. He doesn’t want to go into a game and it just be a blowout game,” Lee said. “He loves the attention, and he loves at the end of the game knowing that the ball is coming to him, it’s on his back to win the game.”
For as much as Perry enjoys the spotlight on the court, he doesn’t allow it to swell his head. He spends hours per week in the gym or otherwise working on his game, but there’s much more to him than basketball.
“When I was younger, I felt like basketball was everything that was me,” Perry explained. “Now, basketball is not who I am, it’s just something I do. I feel like I’m much bigger than basketball as a person. That’s not the only thing, that’s not the only person I am. That doesn’t define me.”
If you want to see what else defines him, check out the locker room before a Spiro High School boy’s game. There you’ll find Perry, seated alone, methodically working his way through a paperback.
Before jogging onto the court to a cheering crowd and flashing lights, the teenager loses himself in literature.
“It’s a meditation to calm me down, calm my nerves, take my mind off everything, not worry about what everyone else is saying,” Perry said. “I turn my phone off, and I read my book. That’s my meditation.”
It’s a procedure he’s practiced since first grade, he said, and one that has confused many other players and coaches throughout the years. When he first joined the team at Spiro, his teammates didn’t know where he disappeared to before games while they were in the stands watching the girls play. In their search, they happened upon Perry performing his ritual with furrowed brows.
“They were confused,” Perry said. “They were like, ‘Is he really reading or is he messing with us?’”
The team has since grown accustomed to his non-customary pre-game prep, an aide to Perry’s productive reading year. He estimated he completed 20 books in 2018, which included weekly trips to the library. At this point, he’s there often enough for the librarians to know what he likes to read.
For as excited as Perry is to play college basketball, diving headfirst into a college library is just as compelling.
“I know it’s going to be much bigger,” Perry said eagerly. “I can’t wait to step foot in those libraries and see what books I know we don’t have or books I haven’t seen and talk to library teachers about what they get.”
Unlike other readers around his age, Perry won’t be going digital, though. He’s a library man through and through and doesn’t see that changing.
“I can’t do the whole technology thing. I have to have a book in my hand,” he explained. “I’d probably lose my page on a Kindle. I know they have all that bookmark type stuff, but I don’t want to have to go in there and press save and save the page I was on. I like the old-fashioned way, the whole bookmark thing marking my place, being able to open it back up. You can break a Kindle by dropping it. I can’t do that to the book.”
The hard copy versus digital battle is one of the few areas Perry and Lee don’t see eye-to-eye. Lee prefers books on tape, and recently this difference of opinion played out between the two.
Lee was listening to an Earl Nightingale book on tape, and Perry would hear it when he was in Lee’s car, ultimately earning his interest.
“I told him I had the book at the house, and he wanted the book,” Lee said. “I told him I didn’t want to give him my book. He told me then he wanted the hard copy, he doesn’t want the CD. I don’t really know the point of why, because me, I like just riding and listening to a book. But he did want the hard copy, so I ordered him a book.”
Part of what draws Perry to reading is growth, intellectually and as a human. He has had many conversations with Lee and others about things they’ve both read, whether it’s an Earl Nightingale quote about goals or a passage from the Bible. Perry’s focus on basketball, reading and all-around improvement of self and community is extraordinary, particularly considering his age, Lee said. It’s something he commonly brings up to Perry in their constant conversations.
“The stuff that he does will amaze you,” Lee said. “For him to be his age and the attention that he gets from just being him, meaning the stuff with little girls and the guys because of his level of play compared to anybody in this area, is so high. For him to want to sit back and read is amazing, and I commend him on that all the time.”
Lee remembered a story he heard of Perry giving a fellow classmate a pair of his shoes unprovoked. He asked Perry about it later. Perry told him the kid was teased sometimes by other students for not having nice things, so he gave him a nicer set of kicks.
“I don’t try to give back so I can get back,” Perry explained. “As long as I’m trying to do right and be a blessing to someone and help the next person, God’s going to help me, and that’s really all that matters to me. I don’t look for anything back from anymore. What I give to someone is strictly from my heart.”
Perry gave a few options for his future endeavors, including launching his own affordable clothing brand and coaching basketball so he can pass on the knowledge granted to him by those who came first. But if all else falls through, Lee has an idea for him.
“He’s a great kid. Everybody loves him. Everybody,” Lee said. “One day, he could probably be the mayor.”
All photography credit to the Spiro High School Yearbook, Spiro, OK.