FORT WAYNE – Even now, the photo follows him. Fifteen years along, 15 years after the ’fro and the smile and the horizon-less joy of a man-child who did not yet know what was coming, it still turns up, still reminds Chris Porter of what it felt like to stand at the pinnacle.
Here it was back in ’99, and I still see it today here in 2014, marvels Porter, the 6-foot-7 Mad Ants forward. Puts a smile on your face.
And then the smile is there, the same one that appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in November 1999, when the world was young and Porter wore this throwback ’fro and the camera caught him from above, dunking with a certain fierce happiness.
Auburn is No. 1, the cover blared. And Chris Porter is the reason why.
You might think that would haunt the man, given everything that came after. But he’s 34 years old now, and the photo is just a photo. It is not the ghost it could be if Porter were inclined to let it.
That young man dunking on the cover of SI? Drafted by Golden State in the 2000 NBA draft, he was out of the league a year later. He showed up late to summer camp, and there were off-the-court issues, and, after Golden State traded him to Charlotte and he missed the flight, the Bobcats cut him.
He’s never seen an NBA roster since.
Instead, he knocked around the CBA and the ABA and the USBL, and played everywhere overseas from Portugal to China. There were a couple more arrests for marijuana possession. There was one suspended sentence of a year in jail.
Now he’s in Fort Wayne, a basketball ancient mariner of sorts who’s played on five championship teams and now revels in another championship run as the Mad Ants open the D-League Finals tonight against Santa Cruz. And the amazing thing, the astounding thing, is that there is no bitterness in him at what he cost himself.
I have no regrets, he says. Because the final decision is made by God himself. What he has planned for me, no man can take from it.
And if you think that means he didn’t learn from his mistakes, you miss the mark by miles. Not only has Porter learned from his mistakes, he passes on what he learned.
It’s why, when Mad Ants coach Conner Henry was looking for team captains, he chose Porter as one of them.
It’s why, even though Porter averaged just 21 minutes and 8.2 points as the Mad Ants charged to the best record in the league, Henry calls him my MVP in so many ways.
He’s a serious, focused leader that completely understands the rhythm of a season, Henry said.
Not to mention so much else.
They say experience is the best teacher, Porter says. So you can help a friend or someone (by saying), You don’t want to go down that road, because I’ve been there, and this is what it’s going to lead to.’ So maybe they take heed to it and make a better decision for themselves.
As for his own decisions they’re his to own, and he owns them. And when, a couple of years ago, he took a hard look at what they’d cost him, it was only Porter who made the decision to repudiate them.
It’s something you have to find within yourself, he says. Some guys have people help them, but me, it came from within. It was just knowing that what I was doing and the way I was doing it was leading to nothing. It was time to step up and do the things you need to and be a man.
He falls silent. A few minutes before, you’d asked him about the time he was playing Bakersfield, Calif., and a man drove four hours so Porter could sign the SI cover. And a few minutes before that, you’d asked what he tells younger players about pro basketball, about the secret to success or something like it.
The key to it is to stay on an even keel, he replies.
No one would know that better.