Barrel-chested Terry Porter and two of his University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point teammates are slapping each other's wrists silly as they take part in something called Circle Knockout, a thrust-and-parry ball-handling drill. In it, each of three players tries to protect the basketball he's dribbling while attempting to steal the ball of an opponent. Circle Knockout is harder than rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time, and leaves a lot more scratches.
Porter's thick arms take more abuse than they dish out, but he suffers the pain with deep laughs that come between gasps of effort. He deftly and ambidextrously maintains a tight dribble a few inches off the floor and shoots his free hand out at the other two balls in cobra-quick strikes. His rivals in the drill, guards Mike Janse and Craig Hawley, are ruthless competitors, but the jousts keep ending the same way—with a smiling Porter dribbling two balls. Circle Knockout shows off the completeness of Porter's game and his affinity for hard work, his knack for bringing out the best in his teammates and his sunny disposition, which has earned him the nickname—with apologies to Walter Payton—Sweetness.
Indeed, at 6'3", 195 pounds, Porter looks Paytonesque when surrounded by his bony teammates, an oak among Wisconsin birches. But don't assume that the Pointers, who went to the NAIA tournament finals last year and are also members of NCAA Division III, are a one-man team. Oh, there's no doubt that Porter is their best player—and possibly the best small-college player in the country. It's just that he keeps his talent under wraps. It rarely jumps out in 30-point bursts.
Porter was the only Division III player invited to the U.S. Olympic trials in Bloomington, Ind. last April, and he was rated so high on Olympic coach Bob Knight's fundamentals meter that he survived the cut from 32 players to 20, even after coming down with a case of chicken pox that kept him out of two showcase scrimmages. Porter didn't make the final 12-man roster, but he stayed with the team longer than many more heralded players for a simple reason: He doesn't have any weaknesses. Porter probably turned in the best defensive performance of any guard at the Olympic camp. "He was the surprise of the trials as far as I'm concerned," says Dayton coach Don Donoher, a Knight assistant for the Games. "He plays such a clean game. We sat around and second-guessed ourselves a little after letting Terry go."
November 26, 1984
As a tuition-paying ($1,676 per semester) junior last year—athletic scholarships are not available at Division III schools—Porter averaged 18.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game. He paced the Pointers to a 28-4 record and first place in Division III in scoring defense (48.7 points per game), the fourth straight year they led in D. As a swingman in a three-guard, two-forward system, Porter was often asked to bring the ball up, to go to the defensive board and to guard the opponent's best player. When his teammates started getting overmatched at the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, Porter took on more of the scoring load, averaging 25 points for five games. Even though the Pointers lost to Fort Hays (Kansas) State in the finals, 48-46 in overtime, Porter's performance earned him tournament MVP honors, made him an NAIA first team All-America and got him a shot at the Olympic team. Now, of course, the NBA knows all about Porter.
Porter's life at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which has an enrollment of 9,000, includes few of the perks of a Division I star. "It just makes me hungrier," he says. Porter works at various jobs for the school to pay off student loans. He doesn't have a car or even a license, and he spends most of his time away from basketball studying with Susan Kadrich, a sophomore he met a year ago in the school library. His off-campus apartment is decorated predominantly by posters of Magic Johnson. Stevens Point, a town of 23,000 that lies smack in the middle of potato and dairy country, takes more pride in the success of Porter and his teammates than it does in Point Special Beer, the product of a local brewery that was once rated the best in America by the Chicago Tribune. Before Porter went to the Olympic trials, thousands of citizens signed a "Good Luck, Terry" card promoted by a local radio station.
Attention was not something Porter received a lot of as a boy growing up in the poor section of Milwaukee's north side. The youngest of six kids by seven years—"I guess I was an accident," Porter says—he turned to playground basketball after his parents split up when he was 12. "Terry sees what works and what doesn't," says his 32-year-old brother Michael, a cement-worker in Milwaukee who quit the basketball team at Wisconsin-Oshkosh after a successful high school career. "He watched us get into a little trouble as kids. Then he just said, 'I'm not going to be like that.' I really admire him."
Porter didn't play organized basketball until his junior year in high school and even then didn't have impressive statistics. Pointer coach Dick Bennett was scouting another player in Milwaukee, but his wife, Anne, called his attention to Porter. "I kept noticing this great passer on the other team, and he had this terrific body that just stood out," she says. "I thank Coach Bennett for where I've gotten," says Porter. Says Bennett, "Terry is so willing, he makes you want to reach out and help him."
To prepare Porter for the Olympic trials, Bennett devised grueling ball-handling drills like the Circle Knockout. "I know Terry worked hard," says Hawley, "because we got tired just from beating up on him." Kadrich says, "He'd come back after one of those practices and say, 'Susie, I'm sick of basketball.' It was the most down I've ever seen him."
But Porter persevered. When he got to Bloomington, he was momentarily unnerved by all the new cars he saw in the players' parking lot. "I thought, 'I don't even have a bike,' " he says. But on the court he was an equal, even against Michael Jordan. "When they told us to pair off, everyone sort of fell away from Jordan," says Porter. "I just stood where I was. All of a sudden, I was matched up against him. I went 'Uh-oh,' but then I told myself, 'Just play.' " And play he did, right up until the penultimate cut.
Now Porter is working to extend the range of his jumper and lifting weights to make his body even stronger. As co-captain of a team whose tallest player is 6'7", he has become a more vocal leader. "Terry really doesn't have to say much," says Janse. "He makes us all play harder just by his example."
Porter's style is so familiar to his teammates that any departures from form stand out. "His first day back from the trials," says Brad Soderberg, a Pointer graduate assistant, "he sort of strutted into the gym and said, straight-faced, 'The Star is here. Give me the ball.' There was a pause, and then we started laughing. We couldn't stop."