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“So much of the good in my life has come through basketball.” A Michael Porter Sr. Q&A

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Missouri’s assistant basketball coach on what basketball has done for him, what he brings to the table, and what it’s like watching his five-star offspring.

Instagram / Mizzou Hoops

When Michael Porter Sr. was teaching his four oldest kids — Bri, Cierra, Michael Jr., and Jontay — the fundamentals of basketball, he never would have guessed that they’d all become 6-foot phenoms for Missouri basketball. We reached out to the backbone of the Porter family powerhouse for a chat. Here’s what he had to say.

Tramel Raggs: What originally brought you to Columbia, MO?

Michael Porter, Sr.: Well, Robin Pingeton, the women’s coach, is my sister-in-law. As my girls were growing up, I went from training them to coaching their AAU team. I would take them to Illinois State basketball camps where she was the head coach.

We always joked around and talked about how cool it will be one day to work together. Well, when she was making her changes from Illinois State to Missouri, her whole staff came except for the girl occupying the Director of Basketball Operations (DOBO) position. She and I had more conversations, and she subsequently slid me into that position. [Pingeton is] honestly what brought us to Columbia.

I think it was two years ago that Coach Anderson offered you an assistant position on his staff and you chose to take the one at Washington. What went into that decision?

Well, man, a lot went into that decision. It was literally about a year ago when he offered me that job. KA had gotten wind that Lorenzo Romar had offered me a job on his staff for the third time. People don't know this either, but I turned Coach Romar down twice before finally accepting the job out there. The long and short of it was this: I had seen the results of what he was doing even though they were in a four-year tournament drought at the time.

I trusted him as a man. I knew what he was about. I trusted his voice in my sons' lives. Lorenzo Romar's voice was one that I wanted in my sons’ life to help mold them. That's largely why I took the job. The University of Washington was also able to offer me significantly more in terms of compensation than Missouri was at that time, which obviously plays into any decision.

How did Coach Romar help you become a better man when you were at a crossroads during your Athletes in Action times?

The bottom line was my background, my community; there were not very many African-American men that I had seen stay with one woman and pour into their own children.

Athletes in Action couldn’t really pay for housing for guys like me who would come and be a part of what they were doing for a month or two at a time. They’ve had what they call host families, and this one particular time, Romar and his wife hosted me. I lived with them and I saw the way he treated his wife. I saw how he fathered his three girls. It left quite an impression on me; it was what I wanted. It was starkly different from what I had seen being raised in the South.

Besides Robin Pingeton and your family already having some familiarity with Columbia, what was is it about Mizzou and Coach Martin that made you say, "This is the right decision for me?”

I had a chance to meet Coach Martin, obviously, before taking the job. Lisa and I flew over to Berkeley and we had breakfast with him and his wife. Here's this guy who has had all this success in coaching and has made a lot of money, but when I met him he was just a normal guy, down to earth, a man of faith, and that's how he had raised his family.

I was impressed because he's a man of principle, that cuts from a similar cloth as Lorenzo Romar. He's just a different piece of that cloth obviously, but he was a guy who had some of the same values and ways of doing things that Lorenzo Romar does. When they made the job offer, coupled with the opportunity to be back here reunited with my daughters, it was just too great an offer to refuse.

Plus, I remember when we first moved to Columbia in 2010 and no one knew who I was [or what] my children would become, I remember [thinking] of Columbia [as a] great place to raise kids and be a family.

In the past you've said that you’re probably better suited for the women's game, but what do you think now? What are the major differences between the men’s and women’s game in your mind?

Well, when I first transitioned from women’s to men’s, the game was so fast on the men's side for me because of the athleticism. Guys run faster, they jump higher, they do more athletically. But now that I've been on the men’s side a little bit, I've watched a ton of games and broken down a ton of film, it's basically the same game. The women just play it a little bit slower and they mostly play below the rim, but it's the same game. You got to be able to handle the ball. You got to be able to shoot. You got to be able to make decisions on the fly.

I think the recruiting piece is where the biggest difference lies. When [recruiting women], most moms — if it's a single mom, or if both parents are in the house — are very protective of their daughter, so they only allow limited people [to be] present in their circle if you will. Really, all you got to deal with on the women's side is recruiting the kid, recruiting the moms, maybe having some conversation with the high school coach, maybe an AAU coach, or [trainer].

On the men's side, it's a labyrinth sometimes because you have to figure out who's helping this kid make the decision, who they talk to the most. You may have to talk to a whole entourage of people and recruit them as well as the kid in order to get the kid to come. It's a lot more time-intensive on the men's side in that regard. That's what makes recruiting guys and girls, in my mind at least, so much different.

Do you think that your transition into collegiate coaching [especially on the men’s side] was about your credentials/knowledge for the game or did it have more to do with your children being D-1 prospects?

Well I had a background in coaching in Indiana. If you remember my daughter, Bri — I believe she was starting as a freshman — was 14 when we moved here. I had coached her in the AAU state championships. To go way back, I coached in Upward Basketball, which is just a specialized little Christian league. The rules are a little different, but it’s meant to introduce little kids to basketball in a way to help them fall in love with it.

I had been coaching for years when Robin brought me on as the DOBO [Director of Basketball Operations]. Then I got a chance to learn from her and her staff during the three years that I served as DOBO.

She didn’t have to hire me into a vacant assistant coach slot when she did. She considered other folks. She took her time and prayed about it, thought about it, and then she would mention that slot.

Whether I was here or not, I was going to be coaching. That was something that I had decided to do. It just so happened that because I started coaching my own children at a young age, they became really good.

It is really rare that my first five kids [are] going to be Division 1 basketball players. My daughters and then my three sons; it’s too early to tell on the younger ones after that. That just doesn't happen, and I think Robin recognized this. She saw the growth in the girls over a couple of years.

When we would come to Illinois State camps, she came and watched my teams play. I’m not saying that I was Cuonzo Martin or anything, but my kids were organized. My teams communicated. My teams defended. That’s part of my background that people don’t really know.

That’s why I say I don’t get offended by that question because people don’t know me. People don’t know what my journey has been to get to this point.

You said that you trained your kids from a young age. How did that get started?

Basically it started by seeing that my kids were tall for their age. Their mother and I both played basketball in college. She played professionally. When we met, we were missionaries, and the writing on the wall would say we were not going to be able to pay for our kids to go to college without taking out a bunch of loans. We just decided to see if basketball or any kind of athletics [would] be something that we’d be interested in.

I started doing little fun things with them out in the backyard with our group — dribbling contests, that sort of thing — and they had a blast. Then they started to get better and better at it.

It was age-specific stuff. I believe Brie was six years, Cierra was five, Michael was three. I got video footage of it all. They really took to it. Because it was fun, they enjoyed doing it and they got better at it. We just started adding more and more stuff. We ramped up the intensity as they got older. This is where it has taken us.

What do you bring to the table as a coach?

What I bring to the table is I have a holistic approach to the game. I have a great interest in culture and championship culture, and how it's created, and asking the questions: What drives winning? Why do people win? Why do the people that win year after year, why do they win? Figuring that out, looking at the aspects of their culture that lends itself to winning and then trying to implement that sort of thing in our program.

It’s funny because I wasn't ever a lock-down defender, but defensively, I am extremely motivated and excited when guys give great effort. Just nuances like how are we going to guard the ball screen? What is our help style rotation looking like? Are we communicating? Those are the things in games that [are my] thing.

Also, I'm just a great believer in positive affirmation. I'm a great believer when kids are doing stuff right, [we should be] affirming them and congratulating them and celebrating them. I think that it creates an internal environment for them that links itself to further success. Most of us are pleasers. We want to please our boss. We want to please our coaches. We want to please our spouses.

I think college athletes are no different. Most of them want to play professionally so they want to please some GM. They want to please some professional coach. Given that most of them come to college with that mindset, I just want to capitalize on that and really help them understand how hard it is, and how hard they have to work. But I do believe if they work hard and they work smart, that they will reap what they sow.

The last three years of Missouri basketball have been rough. How do you bring back that championship mindset here? Obviously, when you lose 20 games a year, it looks like you're far away, but I feel like when you look at those games, you see they were closer than people thought.

That's a great question. There are a couple different ways that I believe you can do that. First of all, you have to help them to see what you just said. Help them realize the progress that they made from their first year to their second year.

One is painting that picture. Two is helping instill a belief or a knowledge that we as a coaching staff believe in them. We really believe in them, and that the sky is the limit if they put in the necessary work.

Just us saying a bunch of nice stuff and being nice to each other and talking about it doesn't get it done. We got to get in the gym, and we got to roll up our sleeves and we got to go to work.

I just think through the way the last three years have gone. These guys are extremely hungry. Nobody comes to college and wants their experience to be what it has been the last three years. When you come in here, and you have energy and excitement and passion, I just think that it will spark something in them. It already has, man. They're in the gym now more than they were here before they went home. Jordan Geist had over 30k made shots this summer.

How do you manage the personalities of the returning players with this highly-touted freshmen class. How do you ensure that the returning guys aren't looking at this in a negative or with a mindset like, "This guy is here to take my job" and more like, "This guy is here to help me accomplish my goal of winning games."

It's all about managing expectations, I think. As I'm standing now, and the ship rises, and you're on it. It's good for everybody on the ship.

We're going to have to do a great job as a staff with managing expectations. Painting a picture for guys that they can buy in to, and the guys that we're bringing in. The new guys, they're highly ranked but down-to-earth kids. There's not one of them that thinks more of himself than he ought to.

They want to come in here and fit in. They're not trying to come in here and take over. Now, they want to come in here and win, and that's going to push some of the returners. They're not looking to come in here and cause a rift. They're looking to come in here and collectively get better. That's the attitude of our guys. Once those guys meet the new guys, and they're working with them, and sweating with them, and bumping into them, all they’ll be thinking is “Okay, yeah, man. This dude is alright. This guy is okay." And we'll go from there.

Do you think it'll be a little difficult to be unbiased and not favor your sons over the other players? You probably have prior experience with it, but how do you guys work with that? Say Jontay comes to you and he’s upset or has an issue with Coach Martin — how do you separate being his coach from being his father?

I have absolutely zero worries about that. Before I'm their coach, I'm their dad. I understand that there's going to be adversity, and things are not always going to go their way.

That's why I am so grateful that I'm in this position that when that does happen, that I'm here to help them process it the right way, to help them remember that none of us as a staff has anything personally against them: “This is about helping you get better. This is what you need to do. So if you have a problem with something the coach said, something your coach did, you need to march in there and have a conversation with him."

I know my sons, and I know how they usually respond to correction. Being young guys, it isn't always the right way, but I'm a part of Coach Martin's staff, and even though I did say that I'm a dad before I'm a coach, the dad in me 100% trusts Coach Martin.

What’s it like being the father of Michael Porter and Jontay? Those guys are kind of celebrities in a way. Is that weird? I'm sure at home they're just Mike and Jontay, but when you're coaching or watching them play, do you ever just sit back in awe, like, "Wow, these are my sons."

Sometimes, yes. In games and whatnot, I'll sit back. There are times when—I’ll be honest, I get a little bit emotional when I watch them doing what they're doing. It took belief in me and what I was teaching to get them to get to where they are.

They put in the work. They did it, but they believed that what I was telling them was the truth. Now, we're seeing it come to fruition. I guess just as a dad, you always want to put your kids in the best position you possibly can to succeed.

There's plenty of good players, but you're right. Watching my sons do what they do, it's an incredible blessing, man. An incredible blessing.

What does basketball mean to you and your family?

Wow, that's a big question. So much of the good in my life has come through basketball. It was being a basketball player that I met Lorenzo Romar, that I met my wife, and that I got involved in an organization that's helped me to see the wisdom in becoming a part of something that was bigger than me.

Basketball has provided a way for my children's education to be completely paid for, and we haven't had to incur any debt. It's through basketball that, for the last eight years, I have been able to provide for my family. Basketball means a lot. It really really does. What basketball has done is afforded all of us an opportunity to realize some dreams and goals. God has used it to teach us numerous life lessons.

Do you think that you'll ever be able to give back to the game of basketball, what the game of basketball has given to you?

I don't know if I could ever pay it all back. It’s because basketball exists that [my wife and I] met and we started our family. I don't know that I could ever repay that, but what I can do, and this is what I try to do — and Coach Martin is all about this — is helping young men to become mature men in terms of how they handle themselves and take care of business in their lives on the court, in the classroom, and in their personal lives.

This job is a way to help young people realize God's plan for their lives.