FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Bobby Portis was in college before he was finally comfortable enough to tell his mother why he didn’t want to be at home as a teenager.
Much like his basketball game, the wait was worth it for Arkansas’ brightest star, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year who still plays and treats others like the overlooked ninth-grader he once was. The young kid who wept when he described feeling unwanted by his mother’s boyfriend, the teen who was mentored by none other than former Arkansas great Corliss Williamson, has led the Razorbacks back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
The Hogs (26-8) will play 12th-seeded Wofford (28-6) on Thursday, and they will do so anchored by the 6-foot-11 Portis.
Don’t let his roots as a high school All-American fool you.
Unlike some of his heralded prep counterparts, Portis looks you straight in the eye while you’re talking. He listens before he answers, and while he’s still more comfortable in a one-on-one setting rather than being the focal point of a large group, he’s adjusted and improved.
What hasn’t changed for the forward are the memories of who he was before the nine-inch growth spurt over three years in high school — one that left him initially “clumsy” before he finally grew into his size 18 shoes.
Those memories are of an overshadowed and often-times passive teenager, one who wasn’t yet fully sure of his own ability.
“Bobby’s story is a great story,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “It’s one of perseverance, a guy of belief and confidence.”
Confidence was in short supply for Portis at times last season, a frustrating freshman year for the Little Rock kid who many thought would lead an Arkansas program that had fallen on hard times back to national prominence.
He was timid, deferring to older teammates while trying to show he could fit in and do whatever was asked of him. Only what he didn’t yet realize was how badly Anderson needed him to lead, not follow.
Portis averaged 12.3 points per game last season and earned all the expected All-SEC freshman honors. And while the Razorbacks did reach the postseason for the first time since 2008, their two-round stay in the NIT wasn’t exactly what their fans had hoped for when Portis committed to play for his home-state school following his sophomore year in high school.
What they didn’t know was how disappointed Portis was — in himself.
“I didn’t feel like I was the Bobby Portis I was supposed to be,” Portis said.
Away from home for the first time, Portis spent many nights in Fayetteville last season reflecting on his performance as well as the often-times troubled path that had led him to where he was. He talked repeatedly on the phone with his mother, Tina Edwards, about how he could improve his play on the court.
They talked about life, as well. They talked about how Portis’ three younger brothers — Jarod, Jared and Jamall — were handling life apart from their older brother, as well as how Edwards was holding up in her role as a single mother supporting her family by delivering bread across Pulaski County.
He cried. So did she, especially following the conversation when Portis told his “best friend” how he felt unwanted by that boyfriend. That, he said, was why he spent so much time away from home with friends and at any basketball court he could find.
Portis said he finally stood up to the man as a 15-year-old, stopping him from hitting his mother during one awful night.
Edwards and Portis’ father separated while he was still in diapers. And while Portis did spend some time with his dad in Alabama during one summer in elementary school, he was sent home early because his step-mom said they were “having too much fun.”
“I hurt, but I never told my mom because I didn’t want her to find out,” Portis said. “Because she would have gone crazy on him, protecting her kid.”
Portis, however, wasn’t without a male influence while growing up. From the time he was in second-grade, he was coached — and mentored — by Williamson, who led the Razorbacks to the 1994 national championship.
“I’ve always looked at Bobby as another son,” said Williamson, a 12-year NBA veteran and now an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings.
The respect and admiration is mutual, and Williamson’s long hours spent with Portis while growing up are a key reason why the former Arkansas great is part of Portis’ inner-circle.
It’s a circle Portis has kept closed since his emergence as one of the best players in the country his final two years of high school. He even turned down an opportunity to reconnect with his father after he showed up in Little Rock following a standout performance in the McDonald’s All-American game.
Portis is asked about his NBA future “every day.”
It’s no surprise, considering he averaged 17.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this season. And he did so while showing a remarkable improvement in his post moves, all of which he learned and practiced for the first time last summer following a prep career spent on the wing.
Whether Portis decides to leave for the NBA following the season is something he’ll consider only after Arkansas’ NCAA Tournament run, one he hopes lasts as long as possible. Of course, his last two years have already exceeded what he ever thought was possible.
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