Missouri Basketball Rises on the Back of a Porter
Oct. 16, 1990. Missouri stonewalled eventual national champion Colorado at the goal line of Memorial Stadium to clinch an upset victory, but the officials mistakenly awarded the Buffaloes a fifth down. Colorado scored the game winning touchdown on the next play as time expired.
Nov. 8 1997. No. 1 Nebraska was in the red zone down by 7 at Missouri. On the last play of regulation, quarterback Scott Frost threw over the middle to Shevin Wiggins at the goal line and Missouri appeared to tip the ball away. But remarkably, Wiggins kicked the ball into the air and another Cornhusker caught it for a touchdown, sending the game to overtime before Nebraska ultimately won.
March 17, 2012. The Tigers’ Phil Pressey missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer as Kyle O’Quinn and Norfolk State upset No. 2 seed Missouri in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Missouri fans have endured a myriad of heartbreaks over the years, leading some fans to declare the university’s sports teams “cursed.”
The Michael Porter Jr. story seems like it belongs on that list. Yes, it’s a story of a disappointing, injury-riddled season that started with sky-high expectations and ended with a whimper. Yes, it’s a story about an athlete who barely even touched the court, dashing fans’ dreams of a deep tournament run.
But, there’s more to it than that. It’s a story about a hometown kid who revitalized Missouri basketball.
And did it in just 53 injury-plagued minutes.
Michael Porter Jr. grew up in a tight-knit, basketball family and moved to Columbia when he was 10.
His early summers were spent in a Gerbes parking lot on Nifong Boulevard serving up snow cones from his family’s shaved ice stand, long before he began to dominate the summer AAU circuits that vaulted him to the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2017. When Porter originally committed to play for the University of Washington, it seemed like the storybook tale of the hometown kid bringing Missouri basketball back to prominence had died.
But who could blame Michael? After the Frank Haith scandal and sanctions a few years’ prior, Missouri basketball was in the midst of its worst stretch in school history.
Students were giving away their basketball tickets to anyone that would take them. A once proud basketball program was now playing games in an empty arena.
Attendance was not the only problem. Coach Kim Anderson had recruited successive sub-par classes, leaving the future of the program looking bleak.
Everything started to change on March 15. The Tigers replaced Anderson with former Cal coach Cuonzo Martin, while Washington released Porter from his commitment after they fired their coach. Suddenly, the wheels were in motion.
Just nine days later, Porter Jr. announced that he had committed to Missouri; he was coming home.
His commitment sent shock waves throughout campus. Now everyone wanted to talk about Tiger basketball. Missouri hoops twitter quickly filled up with highlight reels of the 6-foot 10-inch smooth-shooting forward hitting step-back 3s and dunking on opponents.
Those Missouri basketball tickets that students were giving away? Now Mizzou Arena was the hottest destination in town and the athletic department rapidly sold out of season tickets.
When Porter showed Missouri recruits Blake Harris and Kevin Knox around Columbia a few weeks later, it was like the Beatles were in town. Fans mobbed the threesome as they walked through campus and downtown. Fraternity houses were draped with banners urging them to make Columbia their new home.
Columbia was ready for a new era of Tiger basketball.
Martin signed Harris, as well as Porter’s younger brother, 5-star forward Jontay Porter. And then as the cherry on top, Missouri flipped 4-star center Jeremiah Tilmon from Braggin’ Rights rival Illinois to give the Tigers the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the nation.
In just two months, Missouri had gone from losing at home to Lipscomb and NC Central to being touted as a potential top-25 team.
Missouri basketball was relevant again.
Nov. 9, 2018. With the lights dimmed in a packed Mizzou Arena, public address announcer Aric Bremer’s voice rang out across the arena.
“A 6’10 forward!… from Columbia!…. Michael!….. Porter!…. Jr.!”
The cheers were deafening as Missouri opened its season against Iowa State. No one could know this would be the only time Porter’s name would echo around Mizzou Arena.
Just two minutes into the game, he exited with an injury. He wouldn’t play another minute in front of his hometown fans.
Porter had to undergo back surgery, and was likely to miss the rest of the season. Missouri fans were devastated. It was yet another gut punch for a fan base that had just started to believe again.
While the intrigue over whether Porter would return hung over the rest of the year, the Tigers didn’t let his injury derail their season, finishing fourth in the SEC. Just before the SEC Tournament, Missouri fans got a jolt of excitement: Porter was coming back.
He was playing at 60 percent. He was risking his draft stock to help a depleted Missouri team.
He struggled in his two games: a loss to Georgia in St. Louis and a loss to Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
But he came back.
His season ended with tears, but it was the Tigers’ best season in five years: The program was finally back on solid footing.
Many will remember Michael Porter Jr.’s Missouri career as a “what could have been” story.
But that undersells his impact. Porter’s commitment to Missouri put the program back on the map at a time when it badly needed to be.
This is how he should be remembered: Michael Porter Jr, the recruit who revived Missouri basketball.