COLUMBIA, Missouri — Michael Porter Jr., the presumed savior for a Missouri team that endured a miserable eight-win season last year, rarely loses.
He was the No. 1 recruit in the country and headed for the likely No. 1 spot in the NBA draft. Then, in August, Marvin Bagley III announced on SportsCenter his plan to reclassify and play for Duke this season. Just like that, Porter wasn’t the No. 1 prospect anymore.
“I mean, Marvin is a good player, but I don’t see him being better than me,” Porter said following a September practice at Mizzou Arena with a smile as bright as the diamond studs in his ears. “But he’s a good player, I think. I think once the college season starts, that’s all that matters: How you perform on the court. We’re gonna see.”
He does respect Bagley.
“Dude is nice,” Porter added. “I think he’s a generational-type player as well.”
But Porter’s focus isn’t on Bagley. He’s here for something bigger. He wants to be better than everybody in his class, in any class. And he wants to end Missouri’s four-year absence from the NCAA tournament. His first unofficial game provided a snapshot of his ability to achieve that goal.
On Sunday, in an exhibition game for charity against Kansas, even though he couldn’t find an offensive rhythm — he was 6-of-20 — he kept shooting because Porter always assumes the next shot is good, no matter how many times he has missed. And that confidence is what NBA scouts love about the freshman.
“He has the size, athleticism, mentality and ability to score,” one NBA scout told ESPN.com. “He can create his own shot, and the way he does it translates to the NBA level. The NBA game is being played on the wing and to have a versatile and athletic wing that can play multiple spots is crucial.”
That winning dunk.
— Mizzou Basketball (@MizzouHoops) October 21, 2017
Porter believes he’s the show this season. He is college basketball’s must-see attraction. It’s hard to argue, given how long he held the title of top incoming freshmen, reigning over other big names — Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, Texas’ Mohamed Bamba, Duke’s Wendell Carter. But that was before Bagley arrived in Durham. Still, Porter is not backing down.
Last month, he wore cherry red shoes to a high school coaching clinic as peopled packed in to see a surefire NBA Lottery pick — possibly the No. 1 overall pick.
He hollers after dunks. He screams “Gimme dat!” when he chases rebounds.
“”I mean, [Duke’s] Marvin [Bagley] is a good player, but I don’t see him being better than me. But he’s a good player, I think. I think once the college season starts, that’s all that matters: how you perform on the court. We’re gonna see.””
Michael Porter Jr.
Porter plays with fire and flair. He hears his supporters — and his doubters.
He said his “pretty boy” look makes his critics think he’s soft. But his efforts this season, he said, will prove them wrong.
“I’m not scared to play nobody, especially on the court,” he said. “I’ll match up with anybody and not care who you are, how big you are. And, I think, once someone gets on the court with me, they’ll feel that.”
He already has the swagger of a young man who knows he’s capable of earning and banking an eight-figure contract in the NBA after his freshman season. And Porter would have earned millions no matter which school he’d pick to play what will likely be his one and only season of college basketball.
But he came to Columbia to fulfill what believes is a destined, threefold mission: stay true to his family’s spiritual values (his Instagram page says, “God 1st”), lead Missouri back to prominence and secure the top spot in next summer’s NBA draft.
“It depends on what an NBA team needs: If they need a scorer, if they need a big man,” he said. “You don’t have control over that. You just have to do your best in college. For me, I want to play so good, work on my game so much that it’s unanimous. Even if they need a 5, they don’t have a choice but to take me. That’s my goal, to go No. 1, but I’ve got some work to do, for sure.”
He will be surrounded by familiar faces. The Porters — Michael Sr. and his wife Lisa — have eight children. All 10 Porters are at Missouri, and given their faith, they think they are in Columbia at just the right time.
Two years ago student-led protests, including a threatened boycott by the Missouri football team, over racial bigotry broke out across campus. It lead to the ousters of the school president and chancellor and changed the national perception of the university and put the school in a financial bind. As a result of the lost tuition from the decrease in freshman enrollment, Missouri has been forced to cut more than 400 positions. Now, enrollment for this year’s freshman class dropped by 35 percent. As a result, visitors can rent dozens of unused dorms. Part of Missouri’s plan to rebuild its image is tied to the success of a basketball team that has gone, virtually overnight, from forgettable to buzzworthy.
“There has definitely been an excitement, especially around our core fan base,” said Christian Basi, a university spokesman. “There are a lot of individuals who are looking forward to watching. It’s an exciting time to watch and to be preparing for Missouri basketball.”
The entire program revolves around one family.
During a practice last month, Porter dominated with his brother Jontay, who reclassified to play alongside him this season. Michael Porter Sr., his father and an assistant coach who signed a three-year, $1.1 million deal in March, shouted instructions from the baseline. Bri Porter, plagued by knee injuries throughout her career, and Cierra Porter, second in scoring last season at 13.2 PPG, both play on the women’s team.
Robin Pingeton, Missouri’s women’s basketball coach, is their mother’s sister.
“I feel like it’s a special year for Mizzou basketball,” said Jontay Porter, a five-star prospect ranked 25th in ESPN.com’s 2017 class rankings. “I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be with my dad and with my brother, be with my sisters. The hype is unreal around here right now. Mizzou fans are craving a good basketball team again. It’s been a rough few years.”
LISA PORTER IS A LEGEND on the Iowa basketball prep scene, where high schools women’s teams played 6-on-6 until the early 1990s. Only forwards could shoot within that format. And the 6-foot-4 center had a reliable jumper.
That’s how she averaged 58.7 PPG and made 74 percent of her field goal attempts — no, that is not a typo — during her senior season at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“She was a post and we fed her,” said Larry Niemeyer, her high school coach. “She shot probably 85 to 90 percent of the shots. When you had a stud, you rode her to the championship.”
She attracted offers from the powerhouses of her era.
But the state’s Miss Basketball picked Iowa, where she helped the Hawkeyes win their first Big Ten title and reach the Elite Eight. She was invited to the 1984 Olympic Trials and played professionally in France.
“She was tough … tough,” Michael Jr. said. “She was 6-4. It was unguardable.”
After her playing career in France, she met Michael Porter Sr. at a basketball event in Cincinnati for Athletes in Action, a Christian ministry that uses sports as a tool for evangelism.
Sometimes, the duo would dupe unsuspecting competitors in open gyms. Michael Sr. would pick his wife. The guys on the other team, assuming she posed no threat, would make the mistake of leaving her alone.
“She could shoot it,” he said. “I would take the ball out and throw it to her every time. We’d be up 8-0 before dudes would be like, ‘Hey, man. Guard that girl!'”
Their shared beliefs and sports backgrounds fueled their union.
Lisa and Michael Sr. became evangelists and worked full-time in those roles for more than 20 years. Michael Sr.’s tool to preach his message? Music.
For years, he toured the world as a gospel rapper named Rahlo. Backed by Campus Crusade for Christ, he sported dreadlocks and performed in London, Bulgaria, Jamaica, South Africa and other locations around the world.
Sometimes, he’d take his children with him.
“When people look at my dad, they don’t really think ‘rapper’ just because he’s such a nice dude, such a cool cat, but he used to do his thing,” Michael Jr. said. “I remember going to Jamaica for one of his concerts back in the day. He could really spit some bars.”
He still makes a small sum each year off royalties for music he produced for TV shows like “Damages” and “Burn Notice” and the video game “NBA 2K7.” But the lifestyle put him on the road for long stretches, far from a young family that quickly grew to include multiple small children.
Michael Sr.’s mother and father divorced when he was young. And he understood the pain of a parent’s absence and refused to recreate that experience with his children. So he decided to quit his music career to focus on fatherhood.
“My dad used to wake us up at 2:30, 3 o’clock in the morning to take us fishing on the GoldCoast,” he said. “All my kids fish. All my kids. I missed that when my father was gone. When I started having kids, I wanted to be there more to be a part of that developmental part of their lives.”
He went from rap to a role to coach, first as a volunteer assistant — his wife signed him up without telling him — with his oldest daughter Bri’s youth squad.
Then he began to teach the entire family. They learned every position. They worked on fundamentals for hours. And the Porter children blossomed.
Their parents wanted their Christian tenets — the siblings participate in weekly Bible study sessions — to accompany the educational experience of their children. They decided that homeschooling, with Lisa Porter as the teacher, would allow them to continue “imprinting our values” while helping their pack earn scholarships.
Lisa Porter said her eldest son never gave her trouble as long as she promised to let him play after he finished his schoolwork.
“When I was homeschooling him when he was younger, that was the greatest gift,” she said. “He just had this passion in him. He would be a really good homeschool student if he could go out after and get up shots. He’d get done with math, and he’d go out to the court. He’d get done with science, and he’d go out to the court.”
That philosophy helped Porter blossom into an elite recruit, coveted by every blue-chip program in America.
“That’s how I got good,” Porter said. “It was that extra time I was able to put in.”
In 2016, Lorenzo Romar hired Michael Porter Sr., an assistant for six seasons with the Missouri women’s team who worked for his sister-in-law. He received a six-figure pay raise (from $144,000 with Missouri to $300,000 with Washington) to become an assistant with the Huskies. In the early 1990s, Michael Sr. lived with Romar and his family. And the two developed a bond so strong that Romar became Michael Jr.’s godfather. Those family connections placed Romar in the best position to land Michael Jr.
“It was never said, ‘If you hire me, you’ll get my son,'” Romar told ESPN.com. “He never said that.”
Still, Michael Jr. commit to Washington and his godfather after the family moved to Seattle for Michael Sr.’s new job, proof of how much he values familiarity and family.
By the spring, however, everything changed. Washington fired Romar after he finished 9-22 with a squad that produced the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Markelle Fultz.
Porter said that day altered his path.
“I went there to shoot and saw some of the coaches up there in the bleachers and a couple of them were crying,” Porter said. “No one thought they were going to get fired, especially with the class they had coming in. I went to dad’s office and he was there with Lorenzo. ‘Man, they might be letting us go.’ Ten minutes later, the athletic director finally called [Romar]. It was a sad day, a very sad day, but I mean, I kinda consider it a blessing because I’m back here.”
WHEN MICHAEL PORTER SR. received a call from Cuonzo Martin, he and his wife wanted to be sure he wasn’t just looking for a package deal.
“First of all, we made it clear at every opportunity that this job offer had to be about me,” Michael Sr. told ESPN.com. “I was not going to be pressuring my son to go someplace so I could have a job. It did not go down like that.”
But Michael Jr. had his own plan when he decommitted from Washington after Romar’s firing and picked the Tigers.
Lisa and I had much fun with Michael Jr. for his bday dinner! Happy 19 big head! Romans 12:1-2❤️🙏🏽💪🏽 pic.twitter.com/BIfLfYIJdb
— Michael Porter, Sr. (@coachporter8) July 1, 2017
He’d remembered sitting in the nosebleeds to watch Frank Haith’s Missouri teams in a packed Mizzou Arena during the six years his father worked for his aunt and the women’s team. He said he chose to follow his father back to Columbia to reignite the program he loved in his youth. The program fell on its face after the NCAA uncovered multiple violations under Haith. As a result, the school vacated multiple wins and surrendered scholarships.
“I remember going to games. I had tickets, but they were all the way up top because it was packed every game,” Porter said. “You take it back to the last few years, it has been sparse. But I know what Mizzou fans can be like. I know what they’re capable of. It’s just gonna be awesome to bring back that atmosphere.”
Somewhere in the upper deck, near his old seats, a young man with a black backpack had snuck into Mizzou Arena to watch a practice last month. It’s a familiar scene. Everywhere he walks on campus, Porter is hounded by folks who want his autograph, his time or his photo.
“It’s very frustrating sometimes,” Porter said. “You just want to go downtown, kick it with your guys and everywhere you go, heads are just turning, looking at you. You can’t even act like a normal kid. You’ve got to act like you’re always on your best behavior, even if you’re not feeling good. You’ve got to keep up a certain image. You can’t really be you all the time.”
For Porter, basketball is his release from the conflicts and drawbacks of sudden stardom.
During a practice last month, Porter toyed with his teammates. He hit 3-pointers from the wing and the top of the key. He swatted shots on the other end and fought for every rebound.
And then, on a fast break, he soared and seemingly paused in midair for what felt like forever before he flushed a dunk.
Missouri basketball had changed.
“He tries to compete every time to win games and it’s in his spirit, and I think that’s what separates him from other guys his age,” Martin said.
Eight months ago, Kim Anderson lost his job after an eight-win season. Now, the Tigers will enter 2017-18 as a threat in the SEC and beyond.
“If you guard him with a guard, which we did almost the whole time, that’s hard because he can take you to the post and he was able to do that a couple times,” Bill Self told reporters after his team’s 93-87 charity exhibition win over Missouri on Sunday. “And if you guard him with a big, he’s so good behind the arc that it puts a big in jeopardy.”
He intends to create matchup problems for the next five months and lead the Tigers to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.
Michael Jr. said he’s so inspired to lead Missouri back to the NCAA tournament that he will consider a return for his sophomore season if the team fails to meet its goal.
“I just want to leave a legacy in college,” he said. “I think we can do it this year, but if something goes wrong, I’m a team guy. I would come back and try to help the team next year.”
Few will trust that.
But whoever thought Missouri would have a projected top draft pick and a top-five class after what happened last season?
Who could have imagined Porter and his family returning to Columbia to save the program?
Only a young star who believes everything happens for a reason.
“My end goal is to get as good as I can and impact a lot of people for the good,” Michael Jr. said. “I just think that’s what I was born to do. God gave me the gift to do it.”