He lived in his lawyer's rambling, five-bedroom stone house for
the last months of his senior year. During the day he went to
his classes, walking across the Villanova campus on the Main
Line, outside Philadelphia, but when the classes were done, he
came right back to the lawyer's house. He did not say much to
anyone. No one said much to him.
He was inside his own cloud of negativity. Howard Porter...did
something wrong. That was the label he had to wear. Howard
Porter...signed the contract, took the money. That was all that
He was 22 years old then, in 1971, and alone. The place where he
had been loved and the people who had loved him had become
indifferent, even cold. This should have been a time of triumph.
In late March he had been named the Most Outstanding Player of
the Final Four for leading an underdog team of five iron-man
starters to within six points of the national championship,
losing 68-62 to UCLA. He was arguably the best college player in
the country, a 6'8", 215-pound forward, agile and smooth, headed
toward certain wealth. He was going to get his degree in
education right on time. Where was the happiness? Where was the
joy? He was pretty much alone.
He thought he'd done nothing, nothing that anyone else in his
situation wouldn't have done, nothing that wasn't being done by
other players at other colleges. But the spotlight was on him.
Howard Porter...did something wrong. He wanted to talk about
it, wanted to explain himself, wanted to shout, "What's the big
deal?" but his lawyer told him to keep quiet. Legal stuff. He
kept quiet. A feeling of injustice took hold deep inside and
would not go away.
"Whether he was merely a victim or not, that's for people to
decide, depending on the way they want to look at it," his
lawyer, Richie Phillips, says today. "But I say this: Here's a
kid from Sarasota, Florida, who grew up in the most humble
circumstances; businessmen are showing up with bags full of
money, saying, 'Here, we want to give you this.' They're telling
him, 'This is the way it's done. Here. Take it.' What's he
supposed to do? Why should kids be held to a higher standard
than these businessmen? There were a lot of people conducting
themselves in a lot more reprehensible ways than Howard Porter
The 1970-71 season was played when the NBA and the nascent
American Basketball Association were in a tong war for talent.
Agents and general managers were flying around the country,
money and contracts in their pockets. Sign on the line, kid.
Keep it quiet. The ABA was trying to sign players to league
contracts, team to be named later. But if you signed before the
end of the college season, you signed illegally in the eyes of
the NCAA. A Wild West atmosphere pervaded. Do anything. Don't
get caught. Porter signed and got caught.
Other people assuredly took the money too, but they never
suffered the public humiliation that Porter did. Howard Porter
...did something wrong.
Twenty-five years have passed, 25 years of championships won and
championships lost, but that is the little tag line that
remains: The 1971 Villanova Wildcats, along with the '71 Western
Kentucky Hilltoppers, who also advanced to the Final Four,
forfeited all their tournament wins and all the money that came
with them. But no other player received quite the same notoriety
as Porter. No other player before or since has been stripped of
his Most Outstanding Player award.
An asterisk was stuck indelibly to his name. The NCAA declared
the Most Outstanding award for 1971 "vacated." Would the ensuing
25 years have been so empty, so "vacated," if that word had
never been used in the first place? Would the drugs and the
isolation and the struggle have come along anyway? Twenty-five
years. An asterisk can be hard to shake.
"There's a guy I know, asked me just yesterday about it," Porter
said recently. "I've known him for three or four years, a
friend, and he never said anything, but just yesterday he said,
'Howard, I've always wondered, what happened back there at
For most of the time since 1971, there would have been no reply.
A shake of the head. A mumble. The experience was a suitcase of
disappointment and discontent that Porter carried deep within
himself. It colored everything he did, dragged him down, held
him back. Howard Porter ... did something wrong. He would not
talk about it. He could not talk about it.
He can now.
"I waited all those years for someone to come along and forgive
me, but no one ever did," he says. "Finally I decided just to
forgive myself." Twenty-five years. He is just now getting out
of the breakdown lane where he landed at the end of the road to
the Final Four.
He was the oldest of two boys and two girls in a single-parent,
poverty-level, lots-of-love home in Sarasota. The family had
lived first in Stuart, Fla., on the eastern coast, but when
Howard was in 10th grade, his mother, Ada Mae, noticed some
distressing signs. She didn't like the kids he was hanging with,
didn't like the time he was spending in the neighborhood pool
hall, didn't like the person he was becoming. She announced that
the family was moving to Sarasota. Just like that.
"She wanted to give me a chance to start over," Porter says.
"This was a new place, a new life. I could build myself into a
new person. I wasn't doing anything seriously wrong, maybe
throwing rocks and mouthing off, but she could see I was heading
toward that criminal element."
The move was an inspired decision. The house that Ada Mae rented
turned out to be next door to the home of Alfonso Baker, the
basketball coach at Booker High. Howard already loved
basketball, already had played as an eighth-grader on the Stuart
High varsity. He now had a bicycle rim nailed to a makeshift
backboard in the sandy backyard, and Ada Mae gave him a book by
Oscar Robertson on how to shoot, and Baker was around to make
sure all of this was being used. Make sure? Baker lived so close
he could hear the back door open and close at Howard's house,
could know everything he was doing. Howard now had a father
figure to watch out for him.
In time Howard became the best high school player in Florida
history. The game came easily to him. He could jump and run and
hit that Oscar Robertson jumper again and again. Playing for
Baker at Booker High, a segregated, all-black school that played
only other black teams and went to an all-black state
tournament, he averaged 35.1 points a game as a senior. Suddenly
a lot of white faces started appearing at his games. A lot of
the faces came from universities.
Howard could have gone to college almost anywhere. He had become
a civic boast, especially after the Florida sportswriters'
association named Booker the 1967 state champion. Local
officials were so excited about Howard, who said he wanted to be
an electrical engineer, that they made an exception for him and
allowed him to attend all-white Sarasota High for certain
courses in physics, trigonometry and other subjects that were
not offered at Booker. He went to Sarasota High every morning, a
sort of one-kid integration program. Strangely, he never felt
different or out of place. He just went. "I always had a good
sense of myself as a person," he says. "I knew who I was. And
the other kids knew who I was. I felt the same way at Villanova.
I never felt intimidated by the rich kids or their money. I knew
who I was."
He picked Villanova mostly because he liked assistant coach
George Raveling, a black man who sold him on the idea of playing
at the Palestra in Philadelphia and getting a four-star
education along with good basketball in the Big Five. Even
though Raveling soon left to work for Lefty Driesell at
Maryland, Porter loved where he had landed. The school was all
he wanted it to be.
"There were only about 25 black students in the school at the
start of our time there, so we sort of banded together," says
Richard Walker, Porter's roommate for two years. "We watched out
for each other, especially academically. Howard was terrific. He
got me into jazz. He was a big-time jazz aficionado. He was a
reader, always reading. I was from a middle-class background,
from a family that had a summerhouse on Martha's Vineyard, so I
exposed him to things like that. The idea of what you could do."
"I'd never seen black people with money," Porter says. "I didn't
know a place like Martha's Vineyard existed. I knew white people
with money because I'd met them when my mother went to clean
He had such maturity--he even looked older than everyone
else--that his friends called him Geezer. The maturity carried
over to the basketball floor. He always felt he was a man
playing with boys. Those were his words. He felt he could do
anything he wanted on the floor. He just about could.
As a freshman, in the days when first-year students were
ineligible to play varsity ball, he scored his customary 30 a
night, and his games were as big an attraction as the varsity
games that followed. As a sophomore and junior he was an
All-America on teams that went to two straight NCAA tournaments.
As a senior? Well, that was when he signed the papers that he
shouldn't have signed. That was when he took the money.
"I look at it now, I say that I was playing the futures market,"
he says. "I was investing in my own future. I didn't know what
was going to happen. Our team wasn't having a great year at the
time. Who knew we'd go to the Final Four? The money was there,
and I'd never had any money. I invested in myself."
He signed with an agent named Norman Blass in December. "I think
it's harder now for agents to get to players, but I don't know,"
Porter says. "Back then, though, they could come right up to
you. There weren't any rules. Those guys ... they pissed me off.
I went out with a lot of them. They took me to fancy
restaurants, bought the meals. They gave me some fringe money.
They had me sign documents. That's what they always called them,
documents. They said they weren't contracts, weren't binding,
He bought some clothes with the fringe money. He bought a car.
"It wasn't hard to see there'd been a change in my situation,"
he says. "I mean, I was walking when I came to that campus, and
now I was driving." There probably wouldn't have been any great
flap, no one would have said a thing as Porter moved on to play
for the Pittsburgh Condors in the ABA after finishing at
Villanova, except for the fact that the Wildcats' 23-6 regular
season turned into the best year Villanova had ever had. And
Porter turned into the best player in the country. Who'd have
"We'd lost six games during the season, but then we had that run
in the tournament," says former Boston Celtics coach Chris Ford,
who played guard on that Villanova team. "We basically had five
guys playing the whole game. But Howard was our star. He was
absolutely fantastic. No one could block his shot."
The NCAA opponents fell away, one after another, as though this
were the climax to some schmaltzy movie. St. Joseph's. Fordham.
Pennsylvania, ranked No. 3 nationally and a team that had beaten
the Wildcats during the regular season, was hammered 90-47 in
the East Regional final in Raleigh. Porter had 35 points and 15
rebounds. In the semifinals at the Final Four, played at the
Astrodome before what was then the largest crowd in NCAA
tournament history, the Wildcats outlasted Western Kentucky
92-89 in double overtime. Porter had 22 points and 16 rebounds,
and he seemed to be everywhere on defense during the two
overtimes. The opponent in the final was UCLA, led by Sidney
Wicks and Curtis Rowe, seeking its fifth straight NCAA title and
seventh in eight years.
For the Wildcats the game was a struggle against a strange tide.
They fell behind 45-37 at the half, and UCLA went into a stall
in the second half. Part of Villanova's success all season had
been coach Jack Kraft's 2-3 zone defense. The stall meant that
the zone had to be junked for a man-to-man. The Wildcats cut
UCLA's lead to 58-54 with 5:09 remaining, but the Bruins hung on
to win 68-62.
The consolation was the play of Porter. He and Wicks, the two
best forwards in the nation, had been the matchup to watch, and
Porter had killed Wicks, getting 25 points and eight rebounds to
Wicks's seven and nine. Porter was voted the Outstanding Player,
even though he played on the losing team. This was the highlight
to his college career, his moment--but the moment soon ended.
He never received the trophy. "To this day, I've never seen that
trophy," he says. "There was no presentation after the game.
That tells me the NCAA knew exactly what it was going to do
next. They knew before the tournament began, but they wanted to
put those 35,000 or whatever into the Astrodome first. Then they
There had been allegations before the tournament that both
Porter and Western Kentucky star Jim McDaniels had signed
contracts, but both players had denied that they had. Two days
after the tournament, the NBA held its draft. Teams had been
advised not to draft either Porter or McDaniels because they had
already signed with the ABA, but 30-year-old Chicago Bulls
general manager Pat Williams decided to risk a second-round pick
on Porter. Why not try?
"This was the marquee player in the country," Williams says.
"The marquee player on a Cinderella team. Dick Motta, our coach,
had seen him play a great game during the season against Notre
Dame and had said, 'The three greatest forwards I've ever seen
in college basketball are Elgin Baylor, Gus Johnson and Howard
Porter.' It was worth a shot. We drafted him, and the next day
two agents showed up and said they wanted to negotiate for
Howard Porter. Then the Pittsburgh Condors showed up and said
they had a signed contract. It was a mess. It was typical of
what was happening at that time."
Porter moved into the house with Phillips and Phillips's wife
and kids. They were strangers, really, at the beginning. The
Bulls had told Porter to get a lawyer, and Phillips was the only
lawyer Porter knew. Phillips, a former Villanova football player
who is now best known as the attorney for the baseball umpires'
union, was then in charge of homicide prosecutions in district
attorney Arlen Specter's office in Philadelphia. Every year back
then he gave the lecture to all the Big Five teams about being
wary of gamblers and game fixers.
The contract dispute between the Bulls and the Condors was
eventually settled in an odd deal in which Chicago sent an
undisclosed amount of cash and the receipts from an exhibition
game in Sarasota to the Condors, along with the rights to a
player named Paul Ruffner, in exchange for Porter. But before
that happened, a lawsuit had been filed by the Condors in U.S.
district court in New York. The court documents were obtained by
the newspapers. Porter's signature was read. Villanova
voluntarily forfeited all its wins dating back to Dec. 16, 1970,
the day Porter signed. As a result, both the Wildcats'
second-place finish and Porter's Most Outstanding Player award
were "vacated." Villanova returned the $72,000 it had received
from the tournament. Porter signed a big NBA contract, a
five-year deal worth $1.5 million, with the Bulls.
"Here's the thing," says Williams, who is now the general
manager of the Orlando Magic. "We pay him this ransom, much more
than he would have received on the signed contract with the ABA.
We go through all of this involved business. We have our star,
Howard Porter. We go to training camp. There is a morning
session, and then there is lunch. Motta is a very frank guy. He
sits at the table for lunch and says, 'Howard Porter can't
play.' I didn't think I heard him right. 'Howard Porter can't
play,' he says again. 'He can't pass the ball from here to the
wall. He can't dribble. He can't play.'
"Just like that. All that work."
During his college years Porter had thought that maybe someday
he would go into television, become a broadcaster. He has one of
those deep, Barry White voices, pleasing to the ear, and he
speaks very well. He had thought that maybe he would go into
politics. That was a possibility. He had thought that he would
be somebody. The boundaries of basketball never were the
boundaries of his life. He had left Villanova with his degree.
There were other things he could do. He had thought he would rip
the NBA apart and go from there.
None of that happened.
Motta's stark verdict wasn't exactly right--Porter did spend
seven years in the NBA with four teams--but it did have some
substance. A back-to-the-basket scorer for Villanova, Porter
never fully made the transition to a face-the-basket forward.
His ball handling was weak. He'd never had to dribble much
before joining the pros; he could jump over every defender, get
off his shot. He could move, bound, fly. In the pros he was
hampered by a chronic ankle injury, and he couldn't move as
well. He was a pro player but never a star. In his best season,
1976-77, he averaged 13.2 points.
His career ended on an odd note: A blood clot from an injury
dislodged and landed in a lung. Doctors told him he could have
died. Scared by the news and with his market value down, he
simply quit rather than take a nonguaranteed contract offer from
the New Jersey Nets. He'd had enough of basketball. Geezer was
tired of the game.
Porter got a job as the manager of an enlisted-men's club at a
naval base back in Florida, figuring that he would learn how to
run his own business someday, but that didn't seem to work. He
ran a 7-Eleven store. Not promising. He had the vague idea he
should be doing something better, that he had been given the key
to the city of Sarasota and maybe should be looking to see what
doors it opened, but he never did. Howard Porter...did
Nothing seemed to work. He had married young, in his first year
out of college, to a woman named Regina and was the father of
three children, Ebony, Howard Jr. and Keelee. The marriage
eventually developed assorted stress fractures. She had become a
different person. He had become a different person. The marriage
he had thought would last forever was another part of his life
that didn't work. He moved out, staying in Florida to be close
to the kids, but floundering, searching. How could he help
anyone else if he couldn't figure himself out? He wandered to
the easiest path available. He went to cocaine.
He had used the drug socially in the NBA--not an uncommon
practice in the 1970s--but had stopped after the blood clot
appeared, fearing that cocaine might have been at fault. But he
had gotten over that fear. And he wasn't a social user anymore.
He was an every-day user. "If you feel bad about yourself, you
find a way to medicate yourself," he says. "My medication was
He left all the other things he was doing and followed the drug.
He went to parties in the Caribbean. He rented hotel rooms. He
spent his money. The NCAA business, crazy as it sounds, was part
of his perpetual lament. He was a kid when that happened, 22
years old. Wouldn't anybody else with any sense have done what
he did? He never had seen any of the real money, in the end,
from those "documents." What did he do that was so wrong?
He drifted away from all of the anchors in his life. He got
divorced in 1986. He stayed away from basketball people. He
stayed away from Villanova people. He saw his classmates busting
out, becoming successful in different fields, and he felt a
longing. Not a jealousy, a longing. How had they known how to
make the right life decisions? How had he not? He took some more
"I was alone, but I never was lonely," he says. "I had my little
friend. The cocaine. I had a false pride that told me I could
handle anything, could dress up and carry it off. I didn't want
to be around people of substance. People would say about me,
'Howard's an all right guy...but he sure does love that one
thing.' The cocaine."
Phillips sent Porter money and a plane ticket to Lexington, Ky.,
when Villanova reached the Final Four and won the national title
there in 1985. Porter said he would see Phillips there. He never
showed. Williams was called by a chaplain to see Porter in a
jail in Orlando. He went. Porter had violated the terms of an
earlier probation on a drug-possession conviction and was sent
to the slammer for six months. Ada Mae lived in Orlando now, and
when Howard got out of jail, he slept on her couch. That was his
situation when he met a man named Ken Lough one afternoon.
Porter was helping load some furniture for a foreman in Lough's
construction firm. Lough noticed Porter's size and said, just in
conversation, "Hey, did you ever play basketball?" When Porter
told him his story, Lough was shocked.
"There was no relationship between the man who was talking and
what he was describing," Lough says. "He talked so well. He was
obviously smart. I liked him."
Lough, who is white, became a friend. He was having his own
problems, fighting alcohol abuse and recovering from a divorce,
and he asked Porter if he wanted to live at his house. Porter
agreed, and he also took a job with Lough's company. At night
the two men would tell each other their stories. They talked
about things they had never told anyone else. There were times
when Porter would disappear for days, back chasing the drug, but
then he would return. The talk would resume.
Lough persuaded Porter that he should go somewhere to get
treatment. The problem was money. Lough didn't have enough to
pay for treatment. Porter didn't have enough. Lough started
making phone calls. He estimates he must have made more than 100
calls before someone asked, "Have you tried the NBA?" That was
the answer. A woman named Zelda Spoelstra was running the
Maurice Stokes Fund, an organization that helps former NBA
players in need. "It's nice that you called," she told Lough,
"but if Howard wants help, he's the one who has to ask for it.
Have him send me a letter."
Porter wrote the letter, hard as it was to ask for help, and
Spoelstra responded with a list of the main drug-rehabilitation
clinics in the States. Porter picked the Hazelden Clinic in
Center City, Minn. This was as far away from Orlando as he could
get. Minnesota. He didn't know much about the place. He left
Florida for the 28-day program near the end of 1989, promising
"that 1990 was going to be a much better year," he says.
He never returned.
"I finished the 28 days, and they offered me a chance to go to a
halfway house," he says. "I was at the halfway house, and they
offered me a job with a treatment program. Just like that. I
took it and told myself I wasn't going to go back to Florida,
even for a visit, for two more years. When I went back, I was
going to be the man I wanted to be."
He is a probation officer now in Ramsey County, in Minnesota,
this large black man walking across the Garrison Keillor tundra.
He laughs and says he is the only person in history who migrated
from Florida to Minnesota instead of the other way around. He
has been clean and sober for almost seven years. His life has
been turned upside down, almost a repeat of what Ada Mae did
with him all those years ago, taking him from Stuart to Sarasota
to have a fresh chance. He is engaged to Theresa Neal, the head
of the board of directors of the St. Paul YWCA. He is finishing
up a master's degree in family studies at the University of
Minnesota. He is alive.
"The way I look at it," he says at age 47, "the life of Howard
Porter is just beginning."
His grievances with basketball have been buried. Basketball is a
beautiful game again. He watches the Minnesota Timberwolves,
talks about the development of their 19-year-old rookie Kevin
Garnett. He watches the pro games, the college games, all the
games. Especially the college games.
As part of his new life, he has reestablished contact with the
best parts of his old life. A year ago he went to a celebration
of the All-Time Big Five Team at the Palestra. He was one of the
His relationship with his children from his former marriage has
improved. He talks with them on the phone, visits when possible.
Howard Jr., a 6'6" forward, was a senior at Central Florida this
year. They talked throughout the season. The Golden Knights
struggled a lot, and Porter drove to Northern Iowa to see a
game. He told Howard Jr. to keep playing hard, that good things
Three weeks ago, they did. Central Florida somehow stormed
through the Trans America Athletic Conference tournament,
winning three straight games for the first time all season and
beating Mercer 86-77 in the final to make the NCAAs. With an
11-18 record, the last seed in the field, the Knights were
doomed to a first-round matchup with top-ranked Massachusetts,
but who cared? Central Florida and Howard Jr. were in the show.
"I had to be here," Porter said as he stood at the end of the
court at the Providence Civic Center after Central Florida's
expected loss to UMass, 92-70, last Thursday. "We talked last
night, my son and I, about the game. We beat Penn, which was No.
3, but I guess that wasn't the same as beating UMass now. I mean
we had a good team. We had three guys who made the pros. Still,
it was just wonderful to be here."
There are times when this change of fortune seems to be almost
too much for Porter. Twenty-five years. His fiancee says
something strange is happening, that a magic light is finally
shining on Porter's balding head. Twenty-five years. Porter
thinks about that. He says he has to agree.
Yes, he does. Howard Porter...doing something right.