Perched in a tucked-away study room on the top floor of the Duxbury Free Library on a muggy Monday in early July, Tamika Perry suddenly stops talking and peers out the window, a single tear flowing down her right cheek.
She shakes her head, breathes in heavily and finds the strength to keep speaking about her son Khai, who died last year.
“I remember him always saying to me, ‘Mom, I’m going to make it big, and when I do, you’re going to get a butler.’”
That day never came, but it’s easy to see she’s still swelling with pride. The past year – her first year without Khai – has been unfathomably difficult for Tamika and the rest of her family, but she’s trying desperately to make something positive out of her dreary situation.
Khai never complained, so she strives to live the same way. He would do almost anything to play basketball or football. The flu, an injury or incessant heckling would never stop him from doing what he loved, and now Tamika is hoping to honor that unmistakable passion and exuberance for life the best she can.
Duxbury’s Khai Perry died May 4, 2016, at 20 years old, and an indescribable emptiness has stuck with Tamika ever since. But she wants to remember the blessings he brought the family and community while he was here, so she’s starting a 3-on-3 basketball tournament in his honor. The first Khai Perry All-Star Memorial Basketball Tournament Fundraiser will take place Saturday, July 15 at 10 a.m. at the South Shore Fieldhouse in Pembroke.
“It’s a big void that we’re living with,” Tamika said. “A constant, constant void. His passing was very unexpected. It’s very tragic. He left big shoes to fill, so we’re just going to continue on and try and continue his legacy and keep his memory alive. That’s all we have left, is his memory. For a lot of people, they may move on and it may fade, but for us it will never fade. If we can keep his memory alive and do good at the same time, that’s what we want to do.”
Their Michael Jordan
As soon as he learned how to walk, Khai Perry learned how to dribble. It was more surprising to see him frolicking around the house without a basketball than with one, and he gravitated to the sport immediately.
He wasn’t tall, but he never let that stop him from blossoming into a standout at the varsity level. He started as a freshman and was one of the Dragons’ best players as an upperclassman.
Tamika recalls a playoff game against Easton where Khai was sick with the flu and feeling miserable as he trudged out onto the court. Many in that spot wouldn’t have played, and many more would have played poorly, but it ended up being one of his best games ever.
They know about the Michael Jordan flu game, but to his family Khai’s masterpiece is a much more precious memory. One they’ll cherish forever, even with him gone.
As he developed a personal love for the game, he also helped those around him harness their own zest for the sport. His younger sister, Shaylice, went to almost every one of his games, but one particular moment stands out.
Duxbury was playing Marshfield, and the always-heated rivalry was intensified because the game was tight. In the final minutes, the Marshfield fans heckled him when he took his free throws, but he calmly sank both.
“He and I had a rough relationship,” Shaylice said, tearing up, “but basketball made us close. I miss going to his games. I fell in love with it because of him.”
Khai’s 12-year-old cousin, Devanti, is now a budding star on the Amateur Athletic Union circuit, and he’s gotten where he is largely because of Khai. Part of his success stems from Khai’s technical basketball help, but the more meaningful component is the way Khai played the game.
He was relentless, and he wouldn’t let you stop him. If you took a jab at him, he’d jab back even harder. Devanti plays the same way, with that unmistakable fire.
“He’s following in Khai’s footsteps,” Khai’s aunt, Tylana, said. “If it wasn’t for Khai, he wouldn’t be where he is now. He was like his big brother more than his cousin. You’re looking at a miniature Khai. Devanti’s going to keep Khai’s memory going. He’s going to do everything he does because of Khai. I miss Khai dearly. I wish he was here.”
The Perrys named Tylana’s granddaughter, who is five months old, Khaileah as another way to keep his memory alive. The way they look at it, just because he’s not physically here it doesn’t mean he can’t remain in their lives.
“He was only here 20 years, but he made his mark,” Tamika said. “My goal is to continue that.”
More than just another kid, a true friend
When Max Duggan was a sophomore and Khai was a senior, Khai always went out of his way to say hello.
“All my friends would be like, ‘How do you know KP?’” Perry recalled in a letter to the family.
One day after school, a senior on the football team slurred at Duggan as he left the gym. Khai heard him, approached him and pinned him to the wall. “If you disrespect Duggy you disrespecting me,” Duggan recalls him saying. “And you don’t wanna do that.”
The teammate apologized to Duggan and never insulted him again.
On another night, Duggan threw a party and was flattered when Khai made an appearance. Duggan let everyone know at 11 that his parents would be home so they all had to leave, but Khai stayed and said, “Your mess is my mess, Duggy. Let’s clean.”
“People respected Khai like he was more than just another kid, because he was,” Duggan wrote in the letter. “Khai is the strongest, most loyal person I have ever known.”
Like a celebrity
On that fateful day, when Khai passed away, his great aunt Angela Perry plummeted to the bathroom floor and sobbed when she heard the news.
“To say my heart sunk to my feet doesn’t come close to describing what I felt at that moment,” Angela said. “It was as if I had lost my own son.”
Those who knew him describe him as a momma’s boy with an infectious smile and a gregarious personality. When Khai Perry entered a room, you knew he was there.
He’d be the most rambunctious guy at a sporting event one day then go home to watch Discovery Channel and CNN at night. He was confident but caring, an unusual mix of swagger and sweetness.
“Khai was like a celebrity in the halls of Duxbury Middle School,” his friend Nick Kates said.
Those close to him know this tournament can’t bring him back. They’ll never quite feel the same without him, but that doesn’t meant they can’t try to honor him and make his legacy live on forever.
Tamika’s goal is to make this an annual tournament, and she also hopes to provide wellness scholarships in Khai’s name to kids in the area.
“He was an unforgettable kid,” Tamika said, “so we have to make sure he’s never forgotten.”