The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bobby Portis says he’s always been seen as a villain. Even before he broke a teammate’s face.

“I play with a log on my shoulder. It’s bigger than a chip,” Wizards forward Bobby Portis said. But he believes that on-court intensity brings excessive scrutiny. (Nick Wass/AP)
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They remember Bobby Portis in Little Rock. How his eyes would bulge before he made a big play and how he hated to lose, in anything. He would trash-talk his own mother if they were on opposing teams in a game of cards. So imagine how he treated rivals on the basketball court.

During “tough-man drills” at Little Rock Hall High School, when four teammates had to box one another out and whoever secured the rebound immediately had to score against a triple-team “Thunderdome,” things would get spicy. The coaches wouldn’t blow the whistle. Just about anything was legal. And that wild-eyed kid going the hardest excelled in these scrums. Teammates knew better than to fling elbows at Bob.

“He wasn’t one to be messed with,” said Portis’s high school coach, Jon Coleman, laughing at the memory.

For all of his basketball life, the 24-year-old has played with this passion. Coaches and teammates love him for it. But it has also given him a certain reputation, Portis said, which has fed into a kind of paranoia.

Portis believes he has long been perceived as basketball’s bad guy. Before AAU games, he remembers overhearing referees warn his coaches they better keep No. 33 in check, and Portis is still convinced that NBA officials anticipate chaos in the wake of what he simply describes as “the incident.”

In October 2017, Portis was with the Chicago Bulls when he got into a fight with then-teammate Nikola Mirotic during practice. According to guard Zach LaVine, who witnessed the incident, Portis “was not at fault” when he broke two bones in Mirotic’s face. He was required to serve an eight-game suspension.

Portis still believes he’s not particularly well-liked in the league, by officials or opponents.

Although Portis has mostly kept this feeling to himself or his closest allies, he shared his theory on social media March 8 after he was visibly hacked in the final seconds of a close game but didn’t get a call. The Wizards dropped that game in Charlotte, 112-111, and the loss went a long way in dashing the team’s realistic playoff hopes.

“I think if I was another player or anything, they would’ve gave it to me, but I don’t get as many calls as everybody else. That’s been me the last two years since the incident happened, but that’s just what it is with me,” Portis said after the loss.

Later, when the emotions had cooled and the NBA admitted the no-call, the outsider remained steadfast in his convictions.

“It’s kind of like,” Portis said, “I was a villain for a little minute."

Born an underdog

Back in Little Rock, they still call him Bob. They tell stories about the sensitive boy who would cry after his team lost and the caring teammate who would divide up his burger for hungry friends. They understand this kid from the east side and the mentality that will always keep him fighting as the underdog.

“He’s had more fights with adversity than a lot of people in this world,” said Marcus McCarroll, who coached Portis in AAU ball. “He got a one-two combo for adversity."

Tina Edwards held down several jobs to support her four sons. At times during Portis’s childhood, she worked at a rental car company, delivered bread to local supermarkets both early in the morning and at late hours, and clocked in as a customer service agent and ground crew member at the Clinton National Airport. Edwards still barely made a livable wage. In middle school, Portis came home one day to discover a moving truck outside his house packed with the family’s furniture. They were being evicted, beginning a cycle of displacement for several years.

“We all struggled, but Bob was probably worst because it was his little brothers and his mom,” recalled Anthony Black, a neighborhood friend who played on several teams with Portis. “She was doing everything. He’s the oldest, so he always had to be the man of his house. He never really had a relationship with his father. Everything was kind of hard growing up.”

This is how a boy begins to believe it’s him vs. the world. He thinks the odds are stacked against him, because that’s all he has seen. And when he discovers basketball, this mind-set defines every bit of his game.

“If you’re from Little Rock,” Black said, “you’re basically already an underdog.”

As a gangly 8-year-old wearing goggles and looking “kind of goofy” — which is the nicest way Black can describe his friend at that time — he possessed little athleticism, so he was taught to find bodies, hit them and get all the rebounds. They gave him No. 33, instead of his preferred No. 10, because that was the last jersey left. At 11, Portis told McCarroll he wanted to play professionally. The coach laughed.

“At 11, Bobby was lost,” McCarroll said. “He wanted to play basketball, but he didn’t really understand much about the game.”

Although Portis was doubted, his self-confidence never waned. When he played the “NBA Live” video games, he would create a 6-foot-10, 250-pound stud and name him Bobby Portis. In high school, his virtual avatar began to reflect reality. Portis blossomed into a McDonald’s all-American who won four straight state championships. As a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, Portis beat out every future draft pick from the loaded University of Kentucky team, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Devin Booker, to be named 2015 SEC Player of the Year.

“We were both going for the same s---,” said Cauley-Stein, whose Wildcats advanced to the Final Four that year. “He grinds. I done seen him from playing in college. I like his game a lot.”

Still, such respect didn’t satisfy Portis. That year, he fell out of the lottery and was drafted 22nd by the Bulls, feeding his underdog mentality.

“I play with a log on my shoulder,” Portis said. “It’s bigger than a chip."

A ‘tag’ he can’t shake

There was one time in Little Rock when Portis came close to sending a grown man to the hospital.

Not only did Hall High coaches forbid foul calls, when they felt the boys really needed to toughen up, they would send in one of their own. During one practice ahead of a state tournament game, a 20-something assistant coach was schooling the players in big-boy basketball until he made the regrettable decision to attack the lane with Portis standing there.

“Bobby just went up and just creamed him,” Coleman said.

So when Coleman learned of the Mirotic fight in 2017, he reacted with little surprise. Although Portis had never thrown punches in practice, he stood his ground when he felt under attack.

“Bobby is still going hard,” Coleman recalled saying at the time.

People in Little Rock know why he’s wired this way. But the NBA isn’t Little Rock and, in the aftermath of the fight, Portis has felt judged.

In February 2018, Portis delivered a hard foul on Wizards point guard Tomas Satoransky on a drive to the rim that resulted in his future teammate crashing to the floor and hitting his head. At the time, Washington Coach Scott Brooks called it a “dangerous play,” former Wizards player Jodie Meeks implied that Portis didn’t abide by unwritten basketball rules, and Satoransky, who was put in the concussion protocol, said, “I don’t think [Portis] just tried to play ball.” When Portis was traded to Washington, Satoransky said the two did not talk about the play, but he no longer holds hard feelings about it. Portis, who was assessed a Flagrant-2 foul and ejected, maintains that he was attempting to block the shot and a flagrant was unwarranted.

Over the past two seasons, Portis has been called for four flagrant fouls, far below players such as Philadelphia 76ers all-star Joel Embiid and Booker, now a guard for the Phoenix Suns, who have collected seven and six during the same stretch. But just last week, Portis was involved in another play in which he felt his reputation preceded him.

Portis received a Flagrant-1 on Wednesday after twice making contact with former teammate Lauri Markkanen’s face while defending his shot. Portis shook his head and his downcast eyes fluttered as he talked about the play.

“I just went for the ball. I can’t control what happens after I go for the ball,” Portis said. “It wasn’t a dirty play at all. What happened, happened. I knew I would get a flagrant. I feel like if someone else would’ve did it and . . . then I wouldn’t get a flagrant call if I was Lauri."

At least one opponent understands. Cauley-Stein, now with the Sacramento Kings, thinks his personal appearance makes him a target for bias, so he can sympathize with Portis.

“I see his frustrations because I feel the same way. I got tattoos on my face. I look like I’m crazy, but then when people talk to you, they’ll be like: ‘Ah s---, he not really like that. He’s actually a really good dude,’ ” said Cauley-Stein, who was one of 223 users who recently liked a tweet Portis shared about not getting calls from officials. “And I think he’s the same. He’s got this look and he got the little tag with getting into that little altercation with Mirotic. It’s just a perception and, once you’ve got that tag on you, the league is going to keep it on you. That’s how it works. Anything you do, they’re going to keep it on you.”

To Portis, perception is reality. He is underrated and overlooked. Those closest to him say this mind-set is his survival tactic. He has to believe that everyone is against him to be the player he is today. The underdog from Little Rock will never go away.

"I’ve never been the guy that’s really picked, the guy that’s been the first guy that’s chosen on anybody’s team,” said Portis, who will be a restricted free agent this summer and perhaps soon will join his third NBA team. “I play with a log on my shoulder to prove everybody wrong since Day 1.”

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