COLUMBIA, MO. • Michael Porter Sr.’s life was plenty interesting before he became the second-most famous Michael Porter in his family. He grew up on food stamps as a child in Mississippi, but earned a college degree in English thanks to basketball. He later drove a limousine in New Orleans to pay for graduate school — his clientele included a Grammy winner — then grew long dreadlocks and traveled the world as a hip-hop artist.
Never, though, in his wildest dreams did Porter imagine where he’d be at 51: a highly paid college coach, father of eight and the centerpiece to the spring transformation of Mizzou’s basketball program.
Just eight years ago, Porter was coaching his two oldest daughters on their youth basketball team, but now, with just one year of experience coaching the men’s game at the Division I level, he has a three-year contract worth $1.125 million as Cuonzo Martin’s assistant on Mizzou’s newly formed staff.
The combination of bloodlines and extraordinary timing brought Michael and Lisa Porter from Seattle to Columbia to reunite their family this spring, but it wasn’t necessarily their plan.
Years ago when he toured the world from Africa to Australia as the Christian rapper Rahlo, Porter wrote lyrics based around one core message that he still believes today: “I would promote the Gospel to help young people understand that God has a purpose for their lives,” Porter said. “Life wasn’t random accidents. There’s a plan.”
Born and raised in Hattiesburg, Miss., Porter came from humble beginnings. He remembers his family being on welfare. His parents divorced when he was eight. In high school he grew to 6-4 and played basketball well enough to earn a scholarship to Wake Forest. A coaching change diverted him to the University of New Orleans, where he averaged 8.8 points per game in two seasons. After college, with degree in hand, Porter played in a Los Angeles summer pro league and signed a CBA contract but hurt his knee before training camp. He returned to New Orleans for grad school. To pay for tuition he worked as a chauffeur for a company called Celebrity Limousines. The most famous celebrity to ride in his limo? “I drove Natalie Cole,” he said.
His chauffeur days behind him, Porter resurfaced on the hardwood with Athletes in Action, a faith-based organization that developed pro teams to travel the world to play basketball and promote Christianity. That’s when he connected with Lorenzo Romar, an AIA player-coach who’d serve as a mentor in matters on and off the court.
Through Athletes in Action, Porter also met Lisa Becker, a former standout player at the University of Iowa who was playing for the AIA women’s team. Lisa had earned her MBA and worked in Fort Collins, Colo., as a financial analyst for Hewlett Packard, but her company gave her two months every year to play basketball. They met in Cincinnati and eventually married. Daughters Bri and Cierra soon followed.
Without asking her husband, Lisa signed up Porter to coach their daughters’ youth basketball team.
“We had a nice argument about that,” Porter said, joking. “But that put my feet on the path.”
The Porters resettled in Indianapolis where Michael volunteered at an inner city high school and set up after-school tutoring sessions and basketball camps. He grew attached to a small group of African-American male students who showed promise in the classroom but struggled with reading comprehension. Porter taught them Biblical principles but needed a different approach to make the teachings resonate.
“So I taught them through rhymes,” he said. “They loved hip-hop. I loved hip-hop.”
Rahlo was born. Inspired by the “Sanford and Son” character Rollo, Porter took on a new identity as he wrote rap lyrics and turned them into songs for what he called the blackSoil Project.
“I got better at writing rhymes and I met some people (in the music industry),” Porter said. “Finally, I was like, this is stupid. I need some training.”
As part of the ministry organization Campus Crusade, Porter gradually developed a following and recorded multiple albums. He underwent professional training to learn how to communicate and engage with audiences. World tours followed.
Back home in Indiana, the Porter family continued to grow. Michael Jr. came along in 1998. Another son, Jontay, was born a year later. As the children got older, Porter cut back on his musical career and devoted more time to training the kids on the court. The family plan began to take root: Lisa homeschooled the children while Michael coached basketball.
“We knew with what we were making as missionaries we couldn’t afford to put our kids through college,” Porter said. “Having grown up on welfare and food stamps, I saw what debt could do and how it destroys. I wanted to give my kids the gift of graduating from college with no debt. And all I knew other than music was basketball.”
When the four oldest kids embraced the training, Porter pushed harder. They secured a local gym in Indianapolis and held daily 90-minute workouts, starting at 6 a.m. After Lisa taught their classes, Porter resumed workouts in the afternoon. With both parents at 6-4, the kids figured to develop into frontcourt players, but in case they stopped growing, Porter taught them to play like guards.
“I went overboard on teaching ball handling and proper form shooting,” he said. “I’d snatch them off teams that tried to put them down on the block and not let them handle the ball.”
In 2003, family ties continued to nurture the Porters’ basketball lives when Lisa’s sister Robin Pingeton became the head coach at Illinois State. Porter began taking Bri and Cierra to their aunt’s summer camps in Normal.
“She was impressed with what I was doing,” Porter said. “We’d say, ‘It would be so cool to work together one day.’”
That chance came in 2010 when Pingeton landed the head coaching job at Missouri. She hired Porter as her director of operations. The Porters moved to Columbia, and after starring at Rock Bridge High, Bri and Cierra joined their dad and aunt at Mizzou. Pingeton promoted Porter to assistant coach for the 2013-14 season.
“With Mike, the thing that stands out more than anything is he’s a relationship guy,” Pingeton said. “He’s a culture guy. He’s real. He’s genuine. There’s so much great value to that. Obviously he’s a very good coach. You just look at the way he’s been able to train and develop his own kids at a very high level.”
A big move
By 2015, Michael Jr. had grown to 6-10 and emerged as one of the nation’s elite recruits for the 2017 class. Last year, as he began to consider his college choices, he and Jontay delivered Father Tolton Catholic the Missouri Class 3 championship. That summer, Porter interviewed for a position on Kim Anderson’s staff at Mizzou but turned down a multi-year offer. Left unsaid was the expectation that Michael Jr., the nation’s top-ranked recruit for 2017, would follow his father wherever he’d coach next. That place became the University of Washington, where Porter joined the staff and was reunited with Romar, the Huskies’ longtime coach and Michael Jr.’s godfather. To no surprise, Michael Jr. committed to the Huskies. Jontay, a year younger, did the same.
But just like Anderson’s Tigers back in Columbia, Washington sputtered in the fall and winter. Both programs seemed destined for coaching changes. The Porters were unhappy in Seattle, 2,000 miles away from their oldest daughters.
“It was really hard, man,” Porter said. “It’s been well-documented how close-knit our family is. We watched every (Mizzou women’s) game on SEC Network or on the ESPN3 live streaming. It still wasn’t like being here. I hated missing the games and not sharing that part of their college experience.”
Pingeton knew how much her sister and brother-in-law missed Columbia. She talked to new Mizzou athletics director Jim Sterk about their situation in Seattle. Sterk did his own research, watching clips of Porter Jr. on YouTube.
“They weren’t shy that they really wanted to come back,” Sterk said. “We heard it from a number of people. I heard it from Robin. I knew if things worked out right and we hired a coach (the Porters) were confident in, then we’d have a great shot at getting them back.”
By then Sterk had decided to fire Anderson and focused on Cal coach Martin. On March 15, the day Mizzou announced Martin’s hire, Washington fired Romar and his staff. The Porters became the No. 1 free agent family in college basketball.
“By the time Cuonzo and I met personally, I think there had already been talks between Michael Sr. and (Martin),” Sterk said. “They met and they hit it off and that was all positive.”
On March 23, Porter agreed to join Martin’s staff. The next day Michael Jr. committed to the Tigers. Jontay, a 2018 recruit who might reclassify and enroll in college this summer, committed to MU last month.
On the surface, Sterk understood the optics might provoke a cynical reaction. Did the Porterization of the Mizzou roster cross ethical boundaries? In the 1980s, Kansas coach Larry Brown drew scrutiny when he hired Ed Manning, a truck driver who happened to be the father of star recruit Danny Manning. More recently, Bill Self and John Calipari hired the fathers of recruits at Kansas and Memphis, respectively.
Around the time former Mizzou coach Norm Stewart hired Lee Winfield as an assistant coach in 1992, his son Julian Winfield transferred from SLU to MU.
The NCAA has a rule prohibiting basketball programs from hiring what it calls an IAWP (Individual Associated With a Prospect) in a non-coaching role for a two-year period before and a two-year period after a prospect’s enrollment, which means if you’re hiring a player’s father, you can’t hide him on the staff with a do-nothing role.
For Sterk, the Porter situation was unique in that he’d already coached at Missouri. The family had grown up in Mizzou Arena, and the four younger kids — Coban, Jevon, Izaak and Jayda — have known Columbia as home most or all of their lives.
“It’s bloodlines,” Sterk said. “It was a matter of making it work so it could happen how (the Porters) wanted it to happen. It wasn’t all us forcing the issue or anything like that. I felt good about that. And they’re such a quality family.”
father knows best
As the reunited Porters celebrate Father’s Day back home in Missouri, the family has endured recent tragedy. Arlo Becker, Lisa and Robin’s father, was killed last Friday in a tractor accident, surely making Sunday’s holiday bittersweet for the families touched by the family patriarch.
For Porter Sr., the dreadlocks long gone and his hair cropped short and speckled with gray, the spotlight that’s shined on his oldest son will burn brighter this fall in Michael Jr.’s freshman season — and possibly only college season before he’s in the NBA. Through the team’s first few summer workouts, Senior has watched Junior’s talents begin to surface.
“What I’ve seen so far is he can get off his shot whenever he wants,” Porter said. “Whether or not that’s a good shot that’s a whole other deal. It’s not as easy as it was for him (in high school.) That’s the biggest thing. And he’s going to have to be a more consistently good defender.”
The coach who knows the Porters best has no doubts Senior will keep the star freshman driven and focused. In the Porters’ world, life isn’t random accidents.
“Their faith is really important to them, and that drives a lot of their decision-making,” Pingeton said. “They’ve done an incredible job of managing such a high-profile son like Michael Jr. The foundation they’ve laid with their kids, and not just this year but the past 10, 15, 20 years, has been incredible. That’s allowed for them to be where they are today.”
All according to plan.