NCAA tournament 2012: Otto Porter took an unusual route to Georgetown

Mike Wise
Columnist March 17, 2012

As Georgetown readies for North Carolina State and its first trip to the round of 16 since 2007, it needs to be asked: What gives with this Otto Porter kid?

Just 18, he plays so . . . old.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

The first thing that stands out about his game is the midrange jump shot — a 10- to 15-footer that always makes sense in the offense and is a lost art among young players. At a time when most kids run straight to the three-point line, Porter moves in to increase his odds.

Watch a YouTube clip of the Georgetown freshman’s high school career and it’s clear he’s not trying to throw down vicious tomahawk dunks when he maneuvers inside. Plain-as-vanilla layups that economize his energy will do.

He’s also that rare youngster who doesn’t need the ball to thrive — he’s never attempted more than 12 shots in any game the entire season.

It’s almost impossible to compare him to a modern-day player because he does so many things well from another century. He goes after rebounds with the tenacity of Moses Malone. Long and agile on offense, he has so much George Gervin in his game you want to ask, “But can you finger roll?”

“He never played AAU or went to any of the Nike or Adidas camps, you know that, right?” says Robert Kirby, the Hoyas’ second-year assistant.

Huh?

“He never entered that world,” Kirby explains. “His father didn’t want him to. It was the kind of world he thought would corrupt his kid of learning what he needed to about the game. He knew the guys that were coaching a lot of those AAU teams were not very good coaches. He knew more than them.”

Kirby knows because he watched Porter grow up in southeast Missouri. He played at the same junior college that Otto Porter Sr. played at, and remains friends with Otto’s father today.

The more he talked, the more it all made sense:

America, meet one of your last home-schooled ballers, a kid who incredibly had not taken a plane flight until his first official recruiting trip to the Hilltop last April.

Where did Otto Porter Jr. come from? The land the game forgot.

Not playing AAU basketball “helped me as a team player; I always wanted to win, do everything I could to win,” Porter said Saturday before practice. “I learned to find open teammates, rebound, play defense . . .

He paused and added, “I just wanted to have that old-school game like my father had.”

How refreshing, the first kid in forever not to want to be Kobe, KD, KG, D-Wade or any other player to go by their initials or first name. Granted, if you knew Otto Porter Sr.’s story, you’d want his game, too.

He once had 25 rebounds in the state tournament, leading Scott County Central to championships like Otto’s mother, Elnora, did. (Otto Jr. won three, breaking his father’s record with 29 points and 35 rebounds in the state title game as a senior.)

Otto Sr. also played for the legendary Gene Bess at Three Rivers Community College. Bess coached Latrell Sprewell there in the 1990s and was the first men’s coach to ever reach 1,000 victories in 2006. Light on praise, Bess told Kirby a few years ago, “You better come see him play,” which told Kirby all he needed to know. “When Gene Bess says that, you go right away,” he said.

Rather than jump on a plane to Vegas or New Jersey and be a part of what Grant Hill called “human cattle calls,” Otto eschewed the AAU world and attended Bess’s camps in the summer. “He taught me how to play defense,” Porter said. “He taught me how to continue to play hard. And rebound.”

There’s a delicious moment in John Feinstein’s first book, “A Season on the Brink,” in which Bobby Knight becomes obsessed with going to see an eighth-grader named Damon Bailey play basketball in the hinterlands of Indiana.

With the advent of the Nike Summits, AAU summer leagues in Las Vegas and the Adidas’s ABCD Camp, the parable of the big-school coach finding his next star in the backwoods seems so last century.

But that’s exactly what John Thompson III had to do: He caught a connecting flight and drove miles to wind up in the Scott County Central gymnasium of a self-described “country boy” from Sikeston, Mo. (pop. 16,318), located about halfway between Memphis and St. Louis.

“He’s showing you don’t have to go that route,” JTIII said of the AAU world where almost all talent is culled from now in college hoops.

Calling Porter the most prepared freshman he’s ever coached, he added: “Not to say the other way is wrong, but [Otto] had a support system where he got the proper teaching and coaching. You quickly saw how he wasn’t babied, wasn’t pampered. How his parents and even uncles instilled in him that there was no sense of entitlement. He understood hard work. He understood how hard the transition was going to be.”

On about six acres of land he and his brother and sister grew up on, he was subjected to outside labor: “Cuttin’ grass with a tractor, removing branches after a storm, you name it,” Kirby said. Porter said he never felt he missed anything not being shuttled around the country in his early teens.

“I had a couple cousins that played in the AAU,” Porter said. “They were always gone, getting free stuff like that. It never occurred to me I wanted anything like that. [My father] knew what it was all about and I did, too.”

Otto Porter Jr., a virtual “sleeper” until last year, stayed at home and learned everything he needed to play in the NCAA tournament. The more you watch him, the more you realize a lot of other kids, with the same support system, should wake up.

For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

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