basketball Edit

Porter: "I can't wait to come home"

CHICAGO - The lights were dimmed low at the United Center, the host site of the McDonald's All-American game. As anticipation for a new generation of basketball stars rose, a bright spotlight illuminated the nation's No. 1 recruit — also known as the Gatorade High School Player of the Year. The young forward with generational talent and a baby face sat in a bench chair, waiting for his name to be called and a new era to begin.

The event was the culmination of a wild, two-week period, with an end result that seemed impossible not too long ago. Was this really happening? This can't possibly be real...

Then, the PA announcer spoke.

"A 6-foot-10 forward from Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington," the PA announcer said, as the recruit stood to his feet, raised his arms and pointed toward the ceiling. "Joining the Mizzou Tigers, number one, Michaelllll....Porterrrrrrr...Juniorrrrrr!"

If you're at all familiar with Porter Jr.'s story, you know he's not really from Seattle. That title belongs to Columbia, Missouri, a town he's lived for seven years and blossomed into a bonafide superstar in front of all its people.

Ask Porter Jr. about his favorite memories. He's got plenty of them, and most take place in CoMo. There was the day he first stepped foot in Mizzou Arena, watching Missouri basketball players like Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Laurence Bowers pacing the courts in Columbia during the Big 12 days.

Or maybe he'll tell you about the time when he was in middle school, no older than 12 or 13-year-old. He was on the floor for a shoot-around, when-Missouri coach Frank Haith approached the young Porter child. On the spot, Haith offered him the first of many scholarships he'd go on to receive. But the first one stands out the most. These are the memories Porter Jr. cherishes.

"I've put more shots up there than I can count," he said, smiling. "I was in (Mizzou Arena) every day, even with some of the Mizzou players, I was there."

The Porter basketball ties run deep. There's Cierra and Bri Porter, the oldest of the Porter children, who play for the Missouri women's team. Then there's Michael Porter Sr., who coached his daughters while working as an assistant under his sister-in-law, Robin Pingeton.

Porter Jr.'s love for Missouri is evident. When he talks about the town, the whites of his eyes disappear as he squints, and his huge smile stretches from cheek to cheek. It's his home. It's family.

But for a short period of time, Seattle — the city announced in his pre-game introduction — actually became his home. It was also set to be his college town.

In 2016, Michael Porter Sr. accepted a position with his close friend and Washington men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar. The new job meant a move to a new city, so the Porter family, minus Bri and Cierra, moved to Seattle.

"It was definitely different," Cierra Porter said of her family's relocation. "I've been around my family for as long as I can remember, so it was weird not being at my siblings' games and stuff."

At the time, Porter Jr. was known as a top three player in his class. He drew comparisons to Kevin Durant for his length, ball-handing and shooting abilities for his size, and it's easy to see why. When he dunks, it looks like he's playing on an 8-foot rim. His three-point stroke is a thing of beauty, effortless and graceful. He's arguably the most complete player in his class.

Off the court, he was still unsure of his college plans, but he had narrowed his list to five schools: Oklahoma, Virginia, Indiana, Washington and Missouri. With his dad on staff, his little brother Jontay committed for 2018 and his Godfather as the head coach, it wasn't hard to guess where Porter Jr. would end up. He committed to the University of Washington in July 2016.

Porter Jr. played his senior season at Nathan Hale High School. He led his team to a perfect 29-0 record and a state title, scoring 27 points and alley-ooping a ball to himself for a highlight dunk in the game.

"I think this year in Seattle has really been a blessing for me," Porter Jr. admitted earlier this week. "Playing under Brandon Roy and other assistant coaches, I really felt like I got better this past year."

Back in Columbia, a once-respected Missouri men's basketball was in the midst of one of the worst stretches in program history. From 2014-17, Missouri won a total of 27 games under head Kim Anderson, who was brought in to pick up the pieces after Haith bolted for Tulsa. Anderson is respected for his nice guy attitude, but in his three years, he didn't get the job done.

His tenure ended in 2017 with an 8-win final season that saw his team lose 13 consecutive games. Fans weren't showing up, ticket sales decreased. Missouri was without a coach and any sense of direction.

Then, almost out of nowhere, the unthinkable happened.

On the West coast, Romar had no problems bringing talent to Washington, after recruiting projected No. 1 draft pick, Markelle Fultz, to lead the team this year. However, he did have trouble getting the most out of his talent. Washington finished the year with a 9-22 record, and Romar was on the hot seat.

It appeared his job would be safe until about two weeks ago. A team meeting was called in Seattle to announce the future of Romar's job, which is never a good sign for a coach. Unsurprisingly, he was let go.

So was Michael Porter Sr.

At the end of a coaching search back in Missouri, Cuonzo Martin was hired from Cal to coach the Tigers. As Martin began to fill out his staff, rumors swirled that Porter Sr. was eying a return to Columbia. Martin met with Porter Sr. in Berkeley, California, to discuss the job opening, and an opportunity to return home.

"In terms of basketball philosophy, life philosophy and world view, we're on the same page," Porter Sr. said of his relationship with Martin. "And the things that Cuonzo wants to create in the young men that play for him are the same things that I want in my son."

Porter Sr. was hired shortly thereafter. All eyes were on Porter Jr., as he had a decision to make. He could've returned to Washington, but the initial draw was gone. He could've teamed up at Oklahoma with close friend and fellow All-American Trae Young, something they've discussed in the past.

Porter Jr. took his time. Finally, on March 24, 2017, at 4:10 P.M., he tweeted a picture of himself in a Missouri basketball jersey with a caption consisting of three words.

"I'm coming home."

It's simply amazing how quickly this all came together. How often does the No. 1 player in the country fall into the lap of an eight-win basketball team? Things like this rarely happen, but it did.

Porter Jr. has quickly adjusted to life in black and gold. He said he's hungry to recapture the feelings of Missouri basketball he first felt as a kid. At McDonald's All-American practice this past week, he's been silently (or not-so-silently) recruiting players to come join forces with him in Columbia.

He's also laid out his expectations for next season, as bold as they might seem.

"My goal is to win a national championship," he said confidently. "I feel like if you don't dream too high, then you're not dreaming big enough. My goal is a championship."

Porter Jr. knows the road from here won't be easy. He's an 18-year-old kid with the weight of a program on his shoulders. Missouri won't be guaranteed success for having the best player in college basketball on its roster. Ask LSU and Washington about that.

But what he brings is a sense of hope and optimism to a basketball team, and a town, that desperately needs it.

Wednesday night, Missouri fans tuned in for their first glimpse of Porter Jr. in game action as an official Missouri commit. He led all scorers with 17 points and eight rebounds in the McDonald's All-American game, taking home the game's MVP honors.

As he walked off the court, he high-fived children leaning over the railing, risking their safety just to touch. Grown men called his name hoping for attention. There were even a few Missouri fans in the crowd, chanting "M-I-Z" as he walked off the court.

It was a fitting end to an eventful two weeks.

"It felt amazing," he said of the love he received. "I love Mizzou fans. I didn't know there were that many Mizzou fans, and for them to support me the way they have feels amazing. I can't wait to come home."