From Small-Town America to the NBA Draft: The Otto Porter Story

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From Small-Town America to the NBA Draft: The Otto Porter Story

Morley, Mo. — It’s 2:30 p.m. on a sunny Wednesday in the small hometown of Otto Porter Jr., and the legendary coach who tutored both Porter and his father is asleep in his office.

Ronnie Cookson owns a seed shop about three miles down the street from Scott County Central High School in Morley, Mo., population 696, and he wakes up to tell stories of the Porters. Every story seems more unbelievable than the next for a guy who is about to be one of the first picks in the NBA draft on Thursday.

One of Cookson's favorites is how John Thompson III got Porter to Georgetown, or rather how Cookson’s wife got Porter to Georgetown. Porter was interested in the Hoyas, but he wasn’t sure about visiting campus before making a decision.

Ronnie Cookson (left) receives a basketball commemorating his 700th coaching win from former Scott County Central superintendent Joby Holland. (Courtesy Chris Pobst/Standard Democrat)

“Washington D.C. is jammed full of history,” Cookson said. “And Bubba, he’s kind of into history.”

That was all it took for his wife, Dee Cookson, to convince Porter to visit Georgetown. She told him to go to see the sights. It wasn’t the college girls or watching a game that pulled at his heartstrings, but history.  

Bubba, as they affectionately call Porter in his hometown, was president of his high school’s history club. He was salutatorian of his graduating class. When he was home last summer, Porter went to the high school to visit with teachers before a meeting they had in the library. Porter was enjoying catching up with teachers so much that superintendent Al McFerren eventually had to pull him aside.

“After a while I said, ‘Hey, man, we’ve got to start the meeting,’” McFerren remembers.

Every person you talk to in Morley has a story like this about how good a student Porter was or how polite the young man was.

Porter was more nerd than jock, and that makes sense when the first thing most talent evaluators rave about is his basketball IQ. And that comes from an uncommon basketball upbringing.

Most players these days are discovered before they get their driver’s license. Porter avoided the discovery zone—AAU basketball—and instead trained with his father, uncles and cousins and went to summer camps with his high school teammates.

In April 2011 at a party thrown by ESPNU for the Jordan Brand Classic, recruiting analyst Dave Telep asked the players who had been practicing together for days if they knew this guy’s name, pointing at Porter.

“Only half the team knew it was Otto Porter,” Telep said.

They all know now. And the more you learn about Porter and where he came from and who he played against, it all adds up to a once-in-a-lifetime story.

 

***

Porter’s graduating class at Scott County Central High School was 32. It takes three towns—Morley, Vanduser and Haywood City—to get enough kids the same age to fill a classroom.

Around these parts, they take pride in raising their boys right. Basketball and religion are what most people talk about. Nearly every other radio station on the dial is Christian Talk Radio. How the team is going to be next year is usually the talk this time of year.

“Between me and you and a fencepost, that’s all the boys have got is basketball,” says Jim Tyler, a retired bus driver who now runs the scoreboard at the high school games. Tyler has been going to Scott County Central games since he got out of the Navy in 1968. “They don’t have a lot of money. That’s the only thing they’ve got.”

The area, or at least the school, is on the map because of those boys, particularly the Porters.

In southeast Missouri, the family is royalty.

Otto Porter Sr. and Marcus Timmons, the school's all-time leading scorer, are among the players honored at the Scott County Central gym.

Scott County Central has won a Missouri state-record 16 state championships and Porter’s relatives have been involved with most of them. His father, Otto Sr., won the first in 1976. Otto Sr.’s brothers, Melvin Porter and Jerry Porter, won state titles.

On Otto Jr.’s mom’s side, his uncle Marcus Timmons won state titles in 1990 and 1991. He is the school’s all-time leading scorer and was Missouri’s Mr. Basketball in 1991. Otto Jr.’s cousin Mark Mosley was the starting point guard on those teams.

Otto Jr. had two cousins start alongside him in 2011. Even his mother, Elnora Timmons, won a state title and was all-state in 1985.

“I don’t really think that there’s very many people who are knowledgeable about basketball in the southeast Missouri area who haven’t heard about the Porters, period,” McFerren says. “The Porter family has been around a long, long time, and as a result of that, it’s been sort of like not recycling but renewing what they started years and years ago.”

When Otto Jr. graduated in 2011 after winning three straight state titles, the team won a fourth straight title in 2012 with two of his cousins in the starting lineup.

“Everybody says we recruit,” Dee Cookson says of the team that keeps winning because of the families, like the Porters, that keep filling talented rosters. “It does sound unbelievable until you live it.”

Otto Porter Jr.'s high school gym is named after Scott County Central's legendary coach.

Ronnie Cookson started the dynasty when he was hired in 1972. He was the second choice then. Now, the school’s gym is named after him.

If Cookson is handing out credit for his accomplishments, he would start with Otto Sr.

Otto Sr. was such an intelligent and gifted player that Cookson says he was probably the best high school player he ever coached.

“If a kid was having a bad night, [Otto Sr.] made sure he would get the ball where he could score,” Cookson says. “He would give up points. You won’t find very many kids doing stuff like that. He didn’t give it to him where he couldn’t score. He’d give it to him where he could score.” 

Unlike Otto Jr., the big-time college coaches never made it to see Otto Sr. play. He went to two junior colleges before landing at Southeast Missouri State (SEMO). At SEMO, Otto Sr. averaged a school-record 25.9 points per game in two seasons. When he graduated in 1981, Cookson tried to get him a tryout in the NBA.

“I called the headquarters of the Los Angeles Lakers,” Cookson says, acting out the phone call. “‘Yeah, this is Coach Cookson of Scott County Central High School, I’d like to… Click. Ehhhhh!’”

Cookson searched for any number for any team he could find. And every time before he could even spit out Otto Sr.’s name, he’d get the dial tone.

“They wouldn’t even ask me what I wanted,” he said. “They’d just hang up. Every one of them did the same thing. I didn’t get the time of day.”

You would think Otto Sr. would have chosen a different path for his son. Instead, as the locals tell it, he moved his family from nearby Cape Girardeau to Morley before Otto Jr. started the seventh grade so he could play for Scott County Central.

Cookson had been retired since 1995, but Otto Sr. helped convince the old coach to come out of retirement Otto Jr.’s freshman year to help coach the boys.

On his first day back on the job, Cookson noticed Otto Jr. was trying to mimic some of the older boys on the team by doing a lot of talking, a luxury he had not earned yet.

“I said, ‘What the [flip] did you say? Would you shut your g------ mouth? I’ve already heard more out of you than I heard out of your dad in four years!’

“And boy, he never said another word the whole time I was there,” Cookson says, chuckling.

Cookson kept Otto Jr. out of the lineup that year until the postseason. He would help the Braves finish third at state.

The gym at Scott County Central has pictures of Otto Porter Jr.'s state championship teams.

The next three years, there was no doubt that Otto Jr. was the star. The Braves won three state titles. His exploits are legend now.

“One night out on the floor, the clock was running out and he got the ball inbounds and he underhanded it all the way down the floor through the net,” Tyler says.

Chris Pobst, the sports editor at the paper in nearby Sikeston, said, one game he covered, Otto Jr. scored 47 points, and when asked about it after the game, he had no idea.

“He didn’t look at the stats. He didn’t care about them,” Pobst says. “His game, his demeanor, he was the same every game.”

In his junior year, Otto Jr. broke one of his dad’s records by grabbing 35 rebounds in the state tournament semifinals. Frank Staple, who is now the head coach at the school, remembers tallying the stats that night.

“We came in at halftime and thought, ‘Am I looking at this right?’” Staple says. “Because he had 20-some rebounds at halftime. This dude has 22 rebounds at halftime. You knew he was snatching every board. He always did, but he just made it look so easy.”

“And you’re talking about the Final Four of the state championship,” McFerren says.

As Staple and McFerren share stories in McFerren’s office, it’s like two guys telling tales at the local barbershop.

McFerren says he knew Otto Jr. was special when little Scott County Central was able to stay right with powerhouse Simeon High School out of Chicago.

Otto Porter Jr. goes for a block duing his high school career. (Courtesy Chris Pobst/Standard Democrat)

“I had seen him do some things as a freshman being able to produce,” McFerren says. “I thought, ‘OK, well, we’re a small school. The people we’re going against night in and night out, and he’s tall, they just can’t do anything with that.’ But then when we started playing bigger level schools, larger schools, and it didn’t fall off, then I knew it was something very, very special. And he’s making it look so easy. Effortless. I thought, ‘Gah, are these big schools not preparing their kids very well on how to keep somebody out of the lane?’”

By the time Otto Jr.’s senior season started, the big-name colleges had started to take notice. McFerren had to give up his office so often for coaches visiting that he had to find a second room in the school to get work done.

Coaches from Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Saint Louis and Georgetown, to name a few, eventually found their way to Scott County Central.

Telep and his colleagues at ESPN.com rated Otto Jr. at No. 42 in the 2011 class without ever seeing him play.

“I’m big into the profiling,” Telep says. “And when you peel away the layers of this kid, what he accomplished and the genetics that he has and behind it all is just this strong upbringing and character, you can’t ignore that.”

Still, some of the locals wondered if Otto Jr. could handle the physical play in the Big East with his thin frame.

“We can put that on him,” Georgetown assistant Robert Kirby told McFerren of the weight the Hoyas coaches were sure Otto Jr. would add. “He said what we can’t do is teach him what he already knows.”

Anyone who watched Otto Jr. play could see he thought the game at a different level than his peers, but the competition factor made some skeptical. Jonathan Givony, who runs the site DraftExpress.com, saw Otto Jr. play for the first time at the Jordan Brand Classic in 2011, and Givony says these were his notes:

“Great size. Nice length. Skinny with decent frame. Passive in the drills. Wants to make the extra pass. First time going up against good competition. Physically weak. Struggles to finish. Raw. Inexperienced. Needs to be more aggressive. Talented.”

Porter was worth writing about, but the small-town kid seemed far off from the NBA.

 

 

***

McFerren gets upset when he reads that Otto Jr. has less room for improvement in his game than the other prospects at the top of the draft.

“Y’all keep talking about his upside? What’s up with that?” McFerren says.

The people back home have seen how different Otto Jr. looks now compared to two years ago, and they believe it’s just the beginning.

USA TODAY Sports

Bubba, always a skinny kid, is chiseled now. Cookson said he remembers Otto Jr. hitting maybe two threes as a senior. Staple laughs and says it was more than that, but he knows he didn’t shoot from outside often. He made 43 last season at Georgetown and shot 42.2 percent.

“When he goes pro, it won’t take him very long to figure out how to play,” Cookson says. “He’s going to really catch on, because look what he did in college.”

Cookson watched every game. He got a $120 cable package so he would get all of Georgetown’s games.

“S---, I’m on a fixed income,” Cookson says. “He’s costing me.”

Cookson plans to get the NBA package next year. He knows it’s not likely, but he’s pulling for Otto Jr. to end up in Memphis so he and his wife can drive to games.

The coach has been watching the Porters for years, and he realized early on in Otto Jr.’s high school career that he had what his daddy had.

Dad and son worked to make his game as close to perfect as possible. Thompson told Cookson that Otto Jr. was the most prepared freshman he ever coached.

“They’re a pair,” Cookson says. “I think ol’ Bubba really likes that.”

“I never sensed that they didn’t want to do it. I just think they truly love basketball,” McFerren says. “When I saw him bring him up here and they start going through those drills, I never heard him have to lay into him or anything like that. They really took those drills very seriously. They wanted to master whatever needed to be mastered in order to get better.”

When Otto Jr. wasn’t with his dad, he was riding a racing bike around town. Part of the reason he was always so skinny was he did so much conditioning.

“I’ve never seen him truly get tired,” McFerren says. 

“I’ve never seen him get tired,” Staple echoes.

“Wherever he’s training right now, he’s working,” Cookson says.

Back in southeast Missouri, they’re preparing to honor their favorite son.  

The court at Scott County Central will be named after Otto Jr. and his jersey will be retired. There are also plans to put up signs in town that read “Home of Otto Porter Jr.”

“One of the things I’m combating in trying to get this together is he didn’t like the limelight that much,” McFerren says. “His dad told him, ‘Look, if Mr. McFerren and the community want to do this, we’re going to do it. We need to do it. We need to let them show their appreciation, because this is a once in a lifetime thing.’

“If it was left up to Bubba, Bubba would say, ‘OK, hi, I appreciate that y’all and I’ll see ya when I get home and I’ll come by and stop, but it isn’t necessary for you to hold a banquet for me. It’s not necessary for us to rename the court.’”

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McFerren says he would bet his house that the school will never regret honoring Otto Jr. He’ll never embarrass them, he says.

Otto Jr. has already been an ambassador for the school. At his high school games, he would sign autographs after road games for opposing fans. People from out of town would come to Scott County Central to witness Otto Jr.’s games.

 

The two years at Georgetown were necessary to become comfortable with a much bigger profile. When Otto Jr. went off to the Jordan game at the end of his senior year, Telep says he sensed the small-town kid was not comfortable in that setting.

“He was head down,” Telep says. “He did not believe he belonged in the room he was in. Most of the guys in that room would like to trade places with him now.”

Now, Telep says he believes Otto Jr. will be a 10-year starter in the league.

“It’s probably going to be a little while before something like this happens again,” Telep says. “There are some guys who don’t play AAU, but most of those guys don’t turn out to be in the upper one-half percent of basketball players in their class. While it’s unusual for a scholarship D-1 guy to not play AAU ball and get a scholarship, it’s very unusual for a guy who didn’t play AAU to end up a lottery pick in the NBA draft.”

A Porter is finally getting his chance. And the family did it their way.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand. Neither Otto Porter Sr. nor Jr. could be reached for comment during the reporting of this article. 

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