When Lanier assistant boys basketball coaches Martin Cardenas and Joseph Martinez watch Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins play, they invariably have flashbacks of the 6-foot-10 man-child they faced in the 2001 Class 4A state final.
"Every time I see him dunk and bring his knees up, I think of him dunking on us in Austin," Martinez said. "I saw that up close and personal."
Martinez and Cardenas were junior starters on the 2000-01 Lanier team that lost to Beaumont Ozen in the 4A title game when Perkins was a sophomore being touted as the state's best high school center since Shaquille O'Neal.
Perkins scored 17 points, pulled down 13 rebounds and had five blocked shots to lead Ozen to a 58-42 victory against the Voks at the Erwin Center in Austin. The win capped a 36-0 season for the Panthers, who were making their first of three consecutive appearances in the 4A state championship game.
With the Spurs playing the Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday night, Martinez and Cardenas have reminisced about the day they crossed paths with Perkins more than usual during the past week.
"Joseph and I talk and we'll say, 'Remember when this happened and that happened?'" Cardenas said. "We'll remember a specific play that had an impact on the game. It's pretty amazing."
The Spurs open their highly anticipated series against the Thunder at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the AT&T Center.
Cardenas, Martinez have affinity for Perkins
While Cardenas and Martinez are die-hard Spurs fans, they feel a connection to Perkins and have followed his career closely since he made the jump to the NBA after graduating from Ozen in 2003.
Cardenas, who at 6-foot-3 was the tallest player on Lanier's 2000-01 team, drew the assignment of guarding Perkins in the state final.
"I pull for him internally, given the situation that I played against him," Cardenas said. "I catch myself pulling for him because I know what he's about."
Martinez, a guard, recalls being awed by Perkins when he saw him for the first time in person.
"Right off the bat, I knew he was different," Martinez, 28, said. "We had played 6-10 guys before, but not anybody with that size, coordination and athleticism. You just knew he was a special player. He was big, quick and strong. He was a load. It was a surprise to see a guy that big and that coordinated."
Cardenas, 28, has a vivid memory of the 2001 state final that has crystallized with time.
"I remember one time that I got switched off and I was guarding the other post," Cardenas said. "I'm at the top of the elbow and Perkins spins and dunks the ball. He kicks his legs up. It was like a little Shaq dunk. He wanted to swing on the rim a little bit."
Voks advanced to state tournament in 2000, 2001
Lanier advanced to the 2001 state final by upsetting Dallas Lincoln 50-48 in the semifinals. The Tigers were led by junior Chris Bosh, now an NBA star with the Miami Heat.
Lincoln beat Ozen in the 2002 4A state final and finished No. 1 in USA Today's final national high school rankings that season.
"Whenever I see Perkins and Bosh play, I think of that time when we played them," longtime Lanier boys basketball coach Rudy Bernal said. "It does make you appreciate even more what our team did in 2001.
"Sometimes I don't think these kids realize what we accomplished when were up there in Austin. They look back now and say, 'Man, the guys we played when were in the state tournament were really good.' When they watch those guys play now, a lot of those things come back to them."
Lanier, which lost to Denton Ryan in the 2000 state semifinals, finished the 2000-01 season 32-6. The other starters on the Voks' state finalist were senior point guard Josh Martinez, Joseph's brother, senior guard Louis Martinez and senior post Charles Perez.
Bernal has given Joseph Martinez and Cardenas copies of the game films of the 2001 state semifinals and state final.
"I've seen them multiple times," Cardenas said. "It's something that makes you think and appreciate where you've been and where you are now, especially when you think of who you played against. It's humbling.
"I look back at it as something really exciting. To go to the state tournament two years in a row, even though we fell short, we accomplished something that brought our community together and really had an impact on our school."
Lanier stayed close to Ozen despite bad start
Although Ozen beat Lanier by 16 points in the 2001 state final, the game was closer than the final score indicates. The Panthers led by only six points with a little less than two minutes left, but managed to pull away with a strong finishing kick.
"We were down by six with about 1:45 left when they threw an alley-oop to Perkins from about 40 feet out and the pass went in the basket instead, giving them a 3-pointer," Bernal said. "So their lead went from six to nine."
That Lanier was within striking distance that late in the game was a feat in itself, considering Ozen led 12-2 after one quarter and outrebounded the Voks 50-18. Lanier missed 9 of its first 10 shots and its only two field goals in the first 14 minutes were fast-break layups off steals.
So what does Bernal remember about Perkins as a high school sophomore?
"He wasn't just a skinny 6-10," he said. "He was thick, probably about 265-270 pounds. He was really something."
Bernal, Joseph Martinez and Cardenas all predict the Spurs will win their series against the Thunder and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007.
"I'm fired up about it," Bernal said. "I think the Spurs will win it in five or six games. The Spurs match up well with those guys."
Joseph Martinez has tickets to Game 1 Sunday night.
"I like this series because it's more a matchup of two NBA teams, not one superstar against another superstar, like Kobe Bryant playing LeBron James. It's going to be great."
And when he sees Perkins dunk and bring his knees up?
"I'll remember when I saw that up close and personal," Martinez said, chuckling.