Back in the city where he's an icon, Terry Porter faces an uphill climb at Portland
BY BRIAN BENNETT, THE ATHLETIC
PORTLAND — Oregonians cherish two things: the Portland Trail Blazers and craft beer. So Matt Radtke had a slam dunk when he came up with the idea of making The Terry Porter for his family-run brewery, Gilgamesh. He just didn’t know if the beer’s namesake would approve.
Porter, the former NBA all-star point guard, did more than just sign off on his name and likeness. Though he prefers wine to beer, he threw himself into the project, driving to the Salem brewery several times to taste-test several varieties. His suggestion to add more chocolate directed the ale’s final composition. Porter even helped mash and boil the first official batch. “I like to say that it’s like me,” Porter says with a laugh. “Tall, dark and smooth.”
Even better, Porter signed bottles and other memorabilia and made appearances to help promote the beer. And he ensured that proceeds from sales would benefit the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation, where he is a board member. Since debuting The Terry Porter in January 2015, Gilgamesh has donated nearly $85,000 to the foundation. “He did so much more than we expected,” Radtke says. “It’s always a great experience when your heroes turn out to be heroes off the court too.”
Porter proved then that he’s not afraid to dig in and build something from the granular level. That trait is really getting tested with a more formidable undertaking: trying to jump-start the University of Portland basketball program. As with the beer, Porter’s enduring popularity helped create an initial buzz. But it’s a lot easier to ferment a beverage than foment a West Coast Conference insurrection.
The Pilots, loaded with newcomers in Porter’s second season, are 6-11 and losers of four straight WCC games heading into a Thursday night game at Gonzaga. They have a long climb to respectability. A beloved icon at least gives them something to pin their hopes on.
“They want to create that sort of cool, mid-major atmosphere that Gonzaga and other schools have,” Pilots play-by-play announcer Jason Swygard says. “And if Terry Porter’s the one to do it, then that makes it even more special.”
The University of Portland sits on a bluff overlooking the Willamette River on the north side of the city. Walking outside of their residence halls, the 3,800 undergraduates enjoy a spectacular view of downtown. The basketball program at the Catholic school has often been an afterthought, however, in a city that’s rabid for its Blazers. The Pilots have reached the NCAA Tournament only twice, in 1959 and 1996, and they’ve had only two winning seasons since 2011.
It didn’t exactly scream golden opportunity, especially not for a guy who was a head coach in the NBA twice, with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns. But Porter had grown tired of the itinerant life after 17 years as a player in the league and more than a decade as a coach, most recently as a Minnesota Timberwolves assistant from 2011-2014. He and his wife, Susie, decided it was time to pick a city and settle down. The choice was simple. “Portland has always been home to us,” he says.
Porter played for the Trail Blazers from 1985-1995, leading one of the franchise’s most successful runs. They made the NBA Finals in 1990 and 1992, and while Clyde Drexler was the superstar, fans fell in love with the bulldog point guard who still has the most assists in team history. That includes Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who admired Porter so much growing up that he wore his favorite player’s No. 30 in high school and as a four-year starting point guard for the Pilots.
“He was tough, he was a leader and he was clutch in the biggest moments,” Spoelstra says. “Anybody who grew up with the Blazers at that time, you connected with Terry Porter. He’s a living Portland legend.”
Spoelstra calls it “serendipitous” that Porter was looking for a lifestyle change when Portland athletic director Scott Leykam was in search of a coach in 2016. Putting down roots here had an added benefit for the Porter family. Their two sons, Franklin and Malcolm, chose to play for their dad. “We weren’t always together during high school and middle school,” says Franklin, a sophomore who transferred from Saint Mary’s. “So it’s cool to see each other every day now.”
Porter joins several other former NBA stars who have returned to campus, including Avery Johnson at Alabama, Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, Chris Mullin at St. John’s, Dan Majerle at Grand Canyon and Mark Price, who was recently fired at Charlotte. Porter had more head coaching experience than many of those peers, but he’d never coached in college. Leykam surrounded him with veteran college assistants Bob Cantu, a former interim head coach at USC, and Ben Johnson, who spent years on the bench with Dick and Tony Bennett.
Porter is a big name on a small campus, but he doesn’t act like it. He eats lunch in the faculty dining room. He has played kickball with other athletic department staffers. His office doesn’t contain much NBA memorabilia except for a framed Blazers jersey and the front page of The Oregonian from the night his number was retired. “There’s no secret persona, no difficult side to Terry,” Leykam says. “He’s just another member of our staff.”
Porter will occasionally bring a recruit to a Trail Blazers game and point to his jersey in the Moda Center rafters. But most high school kids don’t know much about him, he says, since he retired in 2002. “It’s more that their dad or their uncle or an AAU coach remembers me and maybe respected the way I played,” he says. “It’s helped me at least have conversations with guys we might not have been able to have in the past.”
Portland had only one professional team for decades until the MLS Timbers arrived in 2009, so Porter remains local royalty. He still gets asked for pictures and autographs. Last year, fans would walk up to the Pilots bench to try and talk to Porter before and even during home games. This year, the school put security personnel behind the bench to prevent those interruptions. Clearly, the community is itching to support one of its favorite sons. “They love their basketball here, but you’ve got to give them something to come out and see,” Swygard says. “The next step is to get some wins.”
That, of course, is the hardest step of all.
It’s a frigid Saturday night in early December, and the Pilots are hosting San Jose State. The white-domed, 4,852-seat Chiles Center is maybe a third full. Almost all of the students and even the dance team are wearing purple No. 30 jerseys with Porter’s name on the back. They cheer loudest when Porter is introduced before tipoff. Many filter out at halftime after a sloppy 20 minutes.
Those who stick around witness the team’s first regular-season victory over a Division I program since New Year’s Eve 2016. The Pilots started 9-5 in Porter’s first season, including a win over Oregon State, before star guard Alec Wintering tore his ACL. That precipitated a 14-game losing streak and an 11-22 record.
This year’s team has 11 new players and just one returning starter. The newcomers Porter and his staff brought in are athletic but raw, and they didn’t have much time to gel before getting thrown to the wolves. Portland played in the loaded PK80 tournament in November, losing by 24 points to North Carolina, by 22 to Oklahoma and by 13 to DePaul. “It was great for us to be in that event and get that exposure,” Porter says, “but it wasn’t good for a young team that’s trying to build confidence.”
Leykam and Porter know they’re fighting an uphill battle in the WCC. Gonzaga is the 800-pound gorilla of the conference, while Saint Mary’s has turned itself into a top 30 program. Meanwhile, BYU dwarfs its league mates in terms of resources — $38 million in total athletic revenue and a 19,000-seat arena, among other things. According to federal Department of Education figures, Portland generated $3.57 million in men’s basketball revenue last season and spent $161,526 on recruiting in all men’s sports. Compare that to Gonzaga, which reported more than $12 million in men’s basketball revenue and spent nearly twice as much on recruiting men’s sports. The last WCC team other than BYU, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga to make the NCAA Tournament was Pacific in 2013.
“You look at the top of our league, and the order may change, but it’s the same three,” Porter says. “The other seven are the ones fighting to get some sustainability and consistency.”
Leykam says the program must do a better job recruiting California and the Seattle area. Foreign-born players, who have been a boon to the development of Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, could also be a key for the Pilots. They have players from New Zealand, Germany, Puerto Rico, England and Mali on the roster. “You have to be able to use that avenue,” Porter says.
The school has gone the NBA route before, having handed the reins over to former Trail Blazers guards Michael Holton and Larry Steele in previous decades. Neither managed to post a winning season. Porter has a bigger name but also some experience in coming up the hard way. He played for Dick Bennett at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, leaping from the non-scholarship ranks to carve out an NBA legacy. He still carries that underdog mentality, a fitting one for a place that has never quite figured things out. “You have to have the right kind of coach, the right kind of leader, the right kind of ambassador,” Spoelstra says. “I think Terry really checks all of those boxes.”
The school’s initials say it all: UP. There’s nowhere else to go for this program. Now it’s up to Terry Porter to get things brewing.