Howard Booker Jr. Edward
Finally forgiven: The Howard Porter story
On the day Howard Porter's body was found, when some children traipsing through an alley in north Minneapolis discovered two large feet protruding from a discarded roll of carpet, he was not wearing the gift.
He had his own watch once, a gold one that commemorated his greatest achievement. But he had pawned it years ago because of the asterisk in the college basketball record books.
Villanova's Howard Porter blocks a shot against UCLA in the NCAA championship game at the Houston Astrodome, March 27, 1971. (AP Photo / Houston Chronicle, Sam C. Pierson Jr.)
The asterisk had brought him shame, and shame led to drugs, and drugs led to the former superstar managing a 7-Eleven and sleeping on his mother’s couch because he couldn't live with the guilt of selfishly failing his teammates.
He once played basketball at Booker High in Newtown, and those who saw him shatter that backboard in 1967 swear he was the best the state has ever seen. People would stand on an elevated platform and watch through an outside window because the gym was always so packed and everyone just had to know: Would he single-handedly outscore the other team again tonight?
Racially charged hate mail took him out of the South and brought him from Sarasota to Philadelphia, where the arch of the silkiest jumper in the country led the Villanova Wildcats to the 1971 national championship game against UCLA.
Villanova lost 68-62. But Porter was so good, he was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player anyway.
Then came the bombshell - he had signed a pro contract while still in college, and apparently that ankle-length fur coat he had been wearing wasn't purchased with his own money after all.
The NCAA rules violation meant Villanova’s tournament appearance was expunged, and although a record 31,675 people saw the national title game at the Houston Astrodome, to this day it’s as if it never happened.
All he ever had to show for that tournament, for that brilliant season, was a gold Bulova watch with the inscription “1971 Final Four Participant” on its face.
Looking back, the decision wasn't an easy one to make, Ed Hastings says. But it was the right one. Hastings was Porter's teammate at Villanova, and when he learned Porter had hocked his watch for drugs, he placed his own tournament watch in an envelope and mailed it to his old friend.
Attached was a note.
"We forgive you."
Howard Porter cherished that gift until the day he died.
A state championship
Start in Florida. In Stuart. That’s where Porter lived with his brother, sister and mother, Ada Mae. He never knew his father.
Ada Mae was a maid. She worked two jobs, and because she didn't want Porter playing basketball all day she made him wear her dresses when she was gone.
Porter would be too embarrassed to go outside in a dress, she reasoned, and if he changed clothes, the neighbors would tell her. But Porter, who was 6-foot-2 at age 11, would go out anyway and dominate the other kids at basketball wearing Chuck Taylor high tops under Ada Mae’s pink floral dresses.
By the time he was a freshman, he had moved to Leon Avenue in Newtown and his next-door neighbor happened to be Al Baker, the basketball coach at Booker High. Baker couldn't believe his luck: Porter was 6-foot-8 at age 15.
Porter would shoot at an old bicycle tire rim attached to a plywood backboard with a tattered cloth that dangled like a net, and he would run up the railroad tracks from Newtown to Palmetto to stay in shape.
By his senior season in 1967 he was on another planet. He averaged 35 points per game, without the 3-point line, and despite always being pulled early. He led the Tornadoes to a 35-0 season and the state championship for all-black schools.
Baker says he has never seen anyone in high school better, and he just turned 90.
On Feb. 7, 1967, as the first-half buzzer sounded in the Booker gym, Portershattered a backboard against Arcadia, more than a decade before Daryl Dawkins did it in the NBA. The game was called with Booker leading by 30; fans threw pickles, donuts, pork beef and popcorn boxes onto the court. Then they ran out and picked up the shards of glass. No one had ever seen anything like it.
Lou Watson, then head coach of basketball powerhouse Indiana University, came to see Porter play - the first time he had flown to see anyone. Porter didn't score in the first seven minutes. Then he exploded with 54 points over the next 25.
Watson was quoted in the Herald-Tribune as saying, “I gave Howard a 98 percent rating out of 100 percent the first time I scouted him, and my first comment on the scouting report was 'Superstar.'” Colleges across the country wanted Porter . But Baker was also intercepting a lot of hate mail from towns like Gainesville and Tallahassee, where people were not too keen on having a black player at the local university.
Villanova was among the first northern schools to recruit blacks in the South, and it dispatched assistant coach George Raveling to scout Porter.
"By halftime I knew there couldn't be five guys in the universe his age better than him," Raveling told the Orlando Sentinel.
The kid who used topracticein Ada Mae’s dresses was even better in college.
Former Booker High coach reflects on the school's and Porter's legacy
Not many people attended, and even fewer probably remember, but in 1971 the Chicago Bulls played an NBA exhibition game at Robarts Arena in Sarasota. The Bulls played the Pittsburgh Condors, an ABA team, and Porter was the controversial main attraction.
Howard Porter is seen in this undated file photo.
On Dec. 16, 1970, Porter signed a contract with the Condors while playing for Villanova, which was an NCAA rules violation, but something not entirely uncommon for players to do in those days.
The Bulls, meanwhile, chose Porter in the second round of the NBA draft, and the fight for his rights between competing leagues was on.
When the Condors filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Porter's signature on the contract was revealed and it became a national story. The NCAA made Villanova forfeit every game of the 1970-71 season dating back to Dec. 16, 1970. That included the two Final Four games, played in March 1971. The school also had to return close to $ 72,000, its cut from the tournament.
Eventually the Condors agreed to forfeit Porter's rights and he signed a five-year deal with the Bulls worth $ 1.5 million, a mega-contract at the time.
Part of the agreement was for an exhibition game to be played in Sarasota and the Condors would keep the gate receipts.
But there was still so much animosity between the teams over Porter that the Condors ’coach offered $ 500 to anyone on his team who could injure Porter and take him out of the game in Sarasota, which actually happened.
Porter played in 457 NBA games from 1971-78 with the Bulls, the Detroit Pistons, the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets. He had a decent career, if short of all star expectations. A large blood clot discovered in his lung didn’t help matters.
Sam Shields grew up a few houses down from Porter in Newtown and was 10 years younger. He remembers Porter coming back to Sarasota and bringing him to a Mercedes-Benz dealership, where Porter bought a brand new car. The unspoken message: Anything is possible.
Shields went on to win a state basketball title at Booker and played in college. His son currently plays football for the Green Bay Packers.
Shields also recalls Porter trying to buy a house on Bird Key but being rejected because he was black.
The message that time: Not everything is possible.
In a 1996 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Porter said the professional contract issue crushed him and kept him from being the NBA star many felt he’d been destined to become.
“My understanding what it wasn't binding,” Porter said. “It was just a document and not a contract. I think the whole Villanova thing carried over and affected my confidence.
"I had always been the nice, easygoing, good guy, but back then I was viewed as a crook."
Theresa Neal, Porter's longtime fiancé who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, said Porter didn't talk much about the contract issue. What Porter did say was that his agent, Richie Phillips, had hung him out to dry.
Phillips, now deceased, was a powerbroker who would later become the head of the Major League Baseball Umpires Association and served as counsel for the NBA Referees Association.
"The full facts of that whole NBA thing died with Howard," Neal says. “Howard said to me, 'Richie Phillips knows the truth and Howard Porter knows the truth and it is not what the papers said.'“ Howard was not one to hold a grudge, but he said he would never forgive Richie Phillips for the untruths that were told.
“He always said to me,‘ I was legitimate, Theresa. ’And my response to him was always:‘ I believe you, Howard. I believe you. ’"
Howard Porter is seen during his playing days with the Chicago Bulls.
By 1981 Porter - the snappy dresser who played clarinet and graduated college with degrees in English and psychology, the superstar who played basketball at Madison Square Garden with Walt Frazier, the millionaire who owned property in Atlanta, Detroit and Bradenton, the favorite son who ' d been given the key to Sarasota - was sleeping on the couch at his mother's two-bedroom duplex near Orlando.
And when he wasn't managing 7-Eleven, he was doing a lot of drugs.
And when he ran out of money he pawned his Final Four watch for cocaine.
There was also a drug possession arrest, and six months in jail. The guilt was too much.
“I took a ride with the devil and the devil picked me up and rolled me for a while,” Porter told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2001. “But I always knew, deep down inside, God wasn't through with me yet . ”
In 1989 Porter went to rehab in Minnesota and cleaned himself up. Then he got a job as a probation officer in St. Paul, and he couldn't have been more respected.
"I waited all those years for someone to forgive me, but no one ever did," he told Sport Illustrated in 1996. "Finally, I just decided to forgive myself."
Beyond just dribbling a ball
Forgiveness was no easy process. In 1985, when the Villanova basketball team pulled one of the greatest upsets in sports history and beat Georgetown for the national championship, coach Rollie Massimino invited Porter to speak before the game.
Porter's ex-teammate Mike Daly was waiting for him at the airport, but Porter never showed. Porter would tell Daly 15 years later that he’d been too embarrassed to go.
But Porter's life changed dramatically one night at Morton's Steakhouse in Minneapolis. That’s where he met up with Hastings, Daly and former teammate Chris Ford. Porter apologized for what had happened; Daly said it wasn't necessary.
Then Porter told them about the watch.
“He was really embarrassed by it and he was genuinely sorry that he did something that would hurt us,” Daly says. “I remember saying:‘ Get over it. We never would have gone to Hawaii and played in the Final Four and been treated like royalty if it wasn't for you. ’“ That was the start of the healing process. Nobody really understood the weight he was carrying with him up until that point. "
Daly will never forget the crushing bear hug Porter gave him as they left the restaurant.
"It was as if the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders," Daly says. “Moments are best when they are unexpected, and that was unexpected.
"We reconnected that night, and it was pretty damn wonderful."
Something awakened in Porter. Indeed, when Villanova retired his No. 54 jersey in 1996, and the school finally recognized the team on the 25th anniversary of the 1971 season, Porter was there.
Porter was also there in 2006, when he was honored as the second-best player in the last 50 years of the Big 5 schools league in Philly. Daly thinks that was his proudest moment, and Neal remembers how he strutted across the court with his chest puffed out.
She also remembers walking through the Philadelphia airport with Porter, and how everyone stopped to talk to him, how everyone welcomed him back, how no one harbored any resentment.
“I thought it was an out-of-body experience,” she says. “I couldn't wrap my brain around it. We were like a magnet and all these people would come up to us and I'm thinking, 'Who is this man?' ”Daly and some of Porter's Villanova teammates even accompanied him to Sarasota when Booker High honored him in 2001. The Howard Porter Hall of Champions contains the trophy case at the new gym.
“He carried himself well at the end,” Daly says. "I think he found out he was a man of more than just dribbling a basketball."
In the alley
Pallbearers carry the casket of Howard Porter to the hearse after June 1, 2007 funeral in St. Paul. (Associated Press archive)
Mike Daly was on the third hole at the Atlantic City Country Club in 2007 when the cell phone rang in his golf bag.
It was Theresa Neal “I remember where I was when John Kennedy died and I remember where I was when Howard Porter died,” he says.
Sam Shields, who has a picture of Porter at his house next to photos of his son and Muhammad Ali, was at the Newtown Rec Center when his phone rang.
When recently asked to describe his reaction to the news, Shields responded by saying, "This."
Hey was crying.
Porter's yellowed obituary is taped to Shield’s refrigerator as a reminder of the old soul nicknamed "Geezer."
On May 18, 2007, Porter left his St. Paul home in his champagne-colored Cadillac and Villanova sweatpants and met a prostitute who lured him into a home, where he was badly beaten by two men looking to rob him. It was a setup. The men checked his car and found out that Porter was a probation officer. Fearing he might recognize them, they drove him to Minneapolis and dumped his body in a narrow alley.
When the authorities arrived, he was comatose. Because he was not carrying ID, no one knew who he was.
Howard Porter died on May 26, 2007. He was 58.
"He was a blessing at birth and then the spirit died for a period of time and then that spirit was renewed," Neal says. “It's tragic in many ways, but what he left behind is eternal.
"I loved him from the depths of my soul."
More than 2,500 people attended three funerals for Porter in three different states, and people were turned away at each one. The scenes were reminiscent of Porter's old Booker High games, when fans peered through the windows to catch a glimpse of him.
Hall of Fame baseball player Dave Winfield and Chicago Bulls teammate Bob Love showed up in St. Paul. Before the service, members of the 1971 Villanova team drove to the alley on a peaceful morning and stood in silence, out of respect.
Those same teammates carried his casket out of the twin-spired church at Villanova after the second service in Philadelphia. He was finally laid to rest in Washington Park Cemetery near Orlando, next to Ada Mae.
At the Orlando funeral, Neal sat next to Baker, Porter's old coach from Booker High, and held his hand throughout the service.
When the service was over, and most everyone there was too busy crying to notice, she set the gold watch in the casket.
And then she softly said goodbye to the Most Outstanding Player of the 1971 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Villanova’s Howard Porter, the man who accepted the gift.
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