After Tough Childhood, Bobby Portis Has Become Draft's Most Intriguing Sleeper

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterJune 24, 2015

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Simply observing top NBA prospect Bobby Portis place an order at a restaurant, you begin to realize what he's all about, what has propelled him through poverty and more to get to this point in his life, one day before the draft.

It's a recent Friday around 7:30 p.m. at PM Fish and Steak House in Miami—a day before his predraft workout with the Heat—and Portis orders a New York strip steak, medium-well. Then he asks, "Can I have mashed potatoes with cheese and bacon?" After the waiter repeats his request, unsure because it's not on the menu, Portis says, "Y'all don't have cheese and bacon?"

The waiter calls the manager over for assistance, and he says, "Cheese on top? Absolutely." Portis, with an assertive delivery, makes sure his full order is heard. "Cheese and bacon," he says.

It may be a simple food request, but it means everything to Portis.

He was never supposed to make it this far, to this dinner, but his focus and resilience in school and basketball—with the support of his mother, Tina Edwards, and sympathetic coaches, including now Sacramento Kings assistant Corliss Williamson—kept him going while he encountered the gang-ridden streets of Little Rock, Arkansas. And kept him going through an eviction and multiple moves, domestic issues with his father figures, emotional episodes of doubt and adversity, and through three straight years of basketball injuries.

At only 20 years old, Portis has already experienced a lifetime of struggles. There is a maturity and toughness in his direct approach, an I'm-not-going-to-let-you-stop-me mentality.

Tina Edwards, Bobby Portis' personal trainer, Marcus McCarroll, and Portis.
Tina Edwards, Bobby Portis' personal trainer, Marcus McCarroll, and Portis.Courtesy of Marcus McCarroll

Even at 14, Portis wasn't afraid to speak up to his mother's boyfriend, who was usually not present at home. One day, according to Portis and his mother, the boyfriend got into a heated argument with Edwards. Portis was in the den working on an English paper on his laptop when he saw Edwards come running into the room, with her boyfriend right behind yelling at her. Portis, who didn't have a close relationship with his mother's boyfriend, as he spent more time at the horse track and hanging with friends, finally had enough.

"Bobby got up from the chair and was like, 'I'm not going to keep letting you talk to my momma like this,'" Edwards said. "I told Bobby, 'Let's go, let's go.' We made it to the door, and I was about to open the door and that's when I turned around and [my boyfriend] swung. Bobby stepped back and I just ducked and his knuckles hit the door."

"Then he tried to go at me a little bit, but I wasn't scared," Portis said. "I'm like, 'I'm taller than you.' After that, he went back to my mom, who was at the door crying. I thought he was coming over to say sorry or something, but he kept swinging. After that, my mom got my three little brothers [and all the sons of Edwards' boyfriend] that night and we left, and we started staying at my mom's dad's house."

While it was the first and only time the boyfriend (whose identity neither Portis nor Edwards revealed and who was not made available to speak with Bleacher Report) became violent—after a couple of months, he and Edwards made up and still remain together to this day—the incident left a lasting impression on Portis. Since the 11th grade, in the locker room before every game, he gets himself angry by envisioning the individual player he'll be facing as someone slapping Edwards.   

"I use that as motivation," he said. "I'm tuning everyone out and I'm sitting there just looking straight, not looking at anyone, and getting myself mad and going out and having a good game."

Edwards, who wasn't aware of her son's pregame ritual, said, "I thought it was kind of cool because he was like, 'I'll be my mom's protector.' He's always been a motivator."

Struggling early on to harness his anger while growing up in Little Rock, the nearly 6'11", 248-pound Portis was able to channel his emotions into a relentless style of play. Much like one of his favorite players, Kevin Garnett, Portis possesses a combination of full-court ball pressure, lateral movement and switching ability, finishing skills down the court, and a face-up and low-post game.

Now Portis has a chance to become the first SEC Player of the Year from Arkansas since Williamson 20 years ago to get picked in the draft lottery.

Corliss Williamson on the Sacramento Kings' bench.
Corliss Williamson on the Sacramento Kings' bench.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

"I would say 10 to 20 range is fair," an NBA team executive said. "He has a high character and motor, and has toughness and works. He may have the KG gene, but he's not as bouncy. He just has to quicken his shot, improve his bounce, and try to improve his passing ability out of the post. But he will play in the league a long time."

Edwards knew she had something special in her hands when Portis was born two feet long and weighing 10 pounds. But she also knew she needed to be on her own, as Bobby's father wasn't supportive, not even paying $81 for monthly day care, according to Edwards. Six months later, she moved back to her hometown of Little Rock, and she and Portis moved in with her father, Otis.

Edwards grew up in the Little Rock projects, and her goal for her son was to be "the best BP he can be." While she played basketball at Hinds Community College—basketball blood runs in her family—she wanted things better for Portis. No video games during the week, homework from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. before basketball practice at 5 p.m. And A's and B's in school; only one C was allowed.

"She didn't want me to be an average kid," said Portis, who even returned to Arkansas on the weekends this past spring to finish his classes for the school year. "And I always wanted to exceed her goals for me. I maintained a decent 3.2 GPA in high school and college."

The infamous gang culture of Little Rock was no joke in the mid-1990s, even inspiring the 1994 HBO documentary Gang War: Bangin' In Little Rock. The Associated Press on Oct. 1, 1995 (via the Los Angeles Times), wrote that Money magazine ranked Little Rock as the fifth-most dangerous city in the U.S. The story also painted this staggering statistic: "From 1988 to 1992, the number of murder arrests of those under 18 had increased a staggering 256 percent."

"It was very different, living in poverty for about five years as a kid," Portis said. "Little Rock was pretty tough growing up there. You don't really see successful people coming back or coming around to speak to you."

Edwards thought Portis would become a baseball player when he regularly hit balls over a fence in the family's backyard as a boy.
Edwards thought Portis would become a baseball player when he regularly hit balls over a fence in the family's backyard as a boy.Courtesy of Tina Edwards

One night, when Portis was in fifth grade, he was playing video games in his room on the top floor of Otis' two-bedroom townhouse. He looked outside and saw gunshots being fired two blocks away at the car wash. Three people got shot; one lost his leg. "I saw a lot," he said, "but I wasn't nervous. It was just part of the neighborhood."

Portis himself got jumped a couple of times but was never badly hurt. One afternoon after school when he was in eighth grade, he got off the bus and started eating a Snickers bar while walking back to his house five blocks away. When he made the turn on his street, he heard shouting in his direction.

"Three guys were yelling at me, 'Come here, come here!'" he said. "I don't know why I came to them and it just happened so quick. It was just a couple hits with their feet when I was on the ground. They took my wallet, but I didn't have any money."

Portis didn't succumb to the negative peer pressure, even though many of his friends were in gangs. While he went to one of the roughest local schools, Hall High, he stayed in his own lane, focusing on school and not what happened outside, being there for his brothers over any Bloods.

"I always swayed toward the right way," he said. "Even in class, my friends were doing the wrong thing, so I moved to the other side of the classroom to get away from them."

Where Portis encountered difficulties was at home, stemming from Edwards' finances. She was living paycheck to paycheck. While she was always working long hours during Portis' youth—mostly in the airline, automotive and food industries—times got tougher starting in November 2006, when he was 11 years old. His brothers, Jarod, Jared and Jamal, were all under four years old.

Portis and Edwards in his younger days.
Portis and Edwards in his younger days.Courtesy of Tina Edwards

About a week before Thanksgiving, Edwards received a phone call while she was working at American Airlines that she was going to be evicted from her house. Before Portis returned home from school, Edwards was there first to see all of her family's belongings being boxed up and placed into a U-Haul truck.

"I was hysterical," Edwards said. "I was in panic of where are we going to go, what are we going to do?"

"I came home and there was like 10 people moving things out of the house to this big truck," Portis said. "I didn't know what was going on. I first thought we were moving to another house. Then, like two or three months later, I kind of got the sense that we lost the house or something. My mom never said anything about it. She just kind of went about it differently than most people would, so we didn't have to worry."

That started the process of Edwards renting a house from one of her friends, which she did for three years until March 2009. But then the friend put up the house for sale, and Edwards and her family had to move to her boyfriend's mother's house. But when the altercation happened with the boyfriend a month later, the family had to scramble once again, and that's when they moved in with Otis and his wife, Stella.

Nine people occupied the house, including Edwards' sister and cousin. Portis, who was about 6'1" at the time, mostly slept on a recliner or the floor some nights. "Wherever I was comfortable," he said. "Growing up, everything was tough on me kind of mentally, not physically. Mentally, I was kind of drained a little bit. But I feel like that kind of made me the man I am today."

During that time in the townhouse, Edwards told Otis, a cab driver for 20 years who used to take Portis to and from school, "This is the last straw. I can't keep moving the kids." Otis replied, "Don't worry about the bills—just buy the kids some food and save." For almost a full year, Edwards put away enough money to buy a bigger house.

In February 2010, she received a life-changing phone call. "She said, 'It looks like you're the best candidate for the house,'" Edwards said. "And I'm like, 'Are you serious?' I said, 'Thank you, Jesus.'"

The family hasn't moved since.

The house Edwards and her family have been living in since February 2010.
The house Edwards and her family have been living in since February 2010.Jared Zwerling

From everything that Portis was experiencing at a young age, he found a respite on the court. Portis was so focused on hoops and studies that he didn't even take his phone to school, and he got his driver's license only two weeks before senior prom.

Portis played with a high motor, heeding advice from his mother to "always beat my man down the court" and taking a page from two of his favorite players, Garnett and LeBron James, for their tenacity and open-court speed, respectively.

But initially, Portis, who was picked on for his clumsiness and giant goggles, had trouble directing that energy. Before AAU games in middle school, the referees would come up to one of his coaches, Marcus McCarroll. "They told me, 'Hey, coach, you better get No. 33 under control today,'" said McCarroll, who coached with Williamson. "He couldn't control his emotions. He was kind of a loose cannon. He got in the game and he's 150 percent. I had to slow him down."

Portis would get angry over foul calls and talk back to the refs, thinking he was always right. That resulted in technical fouls. And if a player got aggressive with Portis, he would chase him down the court and get him back with a physical move.

"Bobby was very good at clearing his spot out, but the refs would say, 'Don't do that, Bobby,'" McCarroll said recently. "My motto is the bench teaches a lot of lessons, and the bench taught him. Our biggest word even today is poise."

Portis attended LeBron James' Nike Skills Academy for three straight summers from 2012 to last year.
Portis attended LeBron James' Nike Skills Academy for three straight summers from 2012 to last year.Courtesy of Tina Edwards

The highly competitive Portis also became frustrated easily, crying after every game he lost. He even threw fits after losing NBA 2K video games. "I wanted to be good so bad, but it wasn't happening for me then," he said. To make matters worse, his development was halted for three straight summers in between eighth, ninth and 10th grades. First, he busted his left knee open while playing with friends (it required 15 stitches), then he hurt his right knee in a game and finally, he fractured his left wrist.

But each summer, Portis had Williamson and McCarroll, who are longtime friends, in his corner. Williamson first met Portis when he was nine years old—through his brother, Jermaine, who went to barber school with Edwards—and was impressed with his height and length. Williamson allowed him during the summer to stay at his house in Ferndale, Arkansas, with his son around the same age, Chasen. While Edwards still supported Portis financially, Williamson provided a no-nonsense voice to guide him through his growing pains.

"Like Corliss, Arkansas is where Bobby wanted to play," said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, who was an assistant coach there when Williamson led the Razorbacks to the 1994 championship. "Corliss doesn't talk a whole lot; he does his action on the floor. Bobby's kind of like that, too. That's a male figure that's doing some of the things that Bobby would like to do, so it gives you that inspiration."

When Portis was fully healthy the summer before 11th grade—and had grown from 6'3" to 6'9" in one year—he and McCarroll went to work.

McCarroll first challenged Portis to set basketball goals the summer before 11th grade. He accomplished all of them the following spring, adding checkmarks next to each one.
McCarroll first challenged Portis to set basketball goals the summer before 11th grade. He accomplished all of them the following spring, adding checkmarks next to each one.Courtesy of Bobby Portis

Training five to seven days a week, a couple of hours a day, McCarroll incorporated moves from top NBA centers (Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon), forwards (Garnett and LaMarcus Aldridge) and guards (Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash). By the end of the summer, Portis was one of the best players in his high school class, starring on the standout Arkansas Wings AAU team alongside current Phoenix Suns guard Archie Goodwin.

The Suns, according to McCarroll, have paid special interest to Portis, even asking his coach in a phone interview, "Will you let your daughter marry him?" McCarroll responded, "Absolutely." Other NBA teams high in the draft with Portis connections include the Hawks (DeMarre Carroll, who was coached by Anderson at Missouri) and the Knicks (coached by Derek Fisher, who's from Little Rock). Fisher interviewed Portis at the Chicago combine.

Portis also learned how to cultivate his aggression in college. Coming into his freshman year, a team psych evaluation found that the domestic dispute from 2006 was still on his mind. And it continued to fuel him. This past season, Anderson was impressed with Portis' demanding leadership, a la Garnett.

"He went right at [his teammates] and they listened to him," Anderson said. "This year, he really set the tone. There were some games where our guys kind of went away from him, and he would say, 'Get me the ball.' He definitely played angry; he screamed. It wasn't from a selfish standpoint, but teams [couldn't] hold him. It was more confidence than anything else."

Anderson said it all goes back to his intense desire to win. The Razorbacks went 27-9 overall last season as Portis averaged 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

"Even our last game [against North Carolina], he sat there with the uniform and he didn't want to take it off," he said. "He actually sat there and cried. That was a tough moment; that was his last college game. One thing about him, even to this day, he takes pride in being from Arkansas, being from Little Rock, and donning that University of Arkansas Razorbacks jersey. He will, to his last dying days, take pride in that."

Portis' trophy collection, along with some from his younger brothers, at his family's home in Little Rock.
Portis' trophy collection, along with some from his younger brothers, at his family's home in Little Rock.Jared Zwerling

It was March 2014, after the Razorbacks' season had ended, and Portis placed a phone call to Edwards when she was home in Little Rock. It was a rare call from Portis, who prefers to text. He wasn't happy with how the season had gone and expressed a few thoughts to Edwards.

Then he opened up to Edwards for the first time in his life, and it brought her to tears.

"I told her I didn't feel like her boyfriend liked me as a kid," Portis said. "He used to always say little things about me, like when we would go to the river and drive his boats. I had sand on my feet and he would say something about my feet. I didn't want to tell her as a kid because she loved him and everything. I told her I never said anything [because] I didn't want to disrespect her relationship. She just started crying from there."

"He was like, 'I just don't think he was right for you,'" Edwards said. "He was like, 'Mom, I was always worried that something was going to happen to you. I thought that I'd just come home one day and my mom wouldn't be there.' He just had me literally in tears that my son had been holding all this in all these years. He said, 'That's why I wanted to stay with Corliss. If I wasn't playing basketball, I really don't know what my life would be.'"

Portis and Frank Vogel during his predraft workout. He traveled to meet with the Celtics, Thunder, Suns, Jazz, Pistons, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Wizards, Bucks and then Hawks.
Portis and Frank Vogel during his predraft workout. He traveled to meet with the Celtics, Thunder, Suns, Jazz, Pistons, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Wizards, Bucks and then Hawks.Courtesy of Bobby Portis

According to Edwards and Portis, his biological father, Bobby Sr., remains in Alabama these days. Portis said he's only seen him four times in his life: as a toddler, during his first-grade Christmas, one week in fourth grade and when he turned 18. Bobby Sr. tries to call Portis sometimes, but he doesn't answer. "He knows it's too late to be the father he never was," Edwards said.

As for her boyfriend, the father of Portis' brothers, while their relationship has improved through the years, Portis is not engaged. At this year's Chicago combine, the boyfriend, who now sporadically stays at Edwards' home in Little Rock, found Portis and apologized. The two talked, but Portis has yet to fully integrate him into his life. 

"[My boyfriend] wishes he could go back and do a whole lot of things different then," said Edwards, who has dated him for 10 years and been friends with him for 17. "To this day, I say it's not too late to be involved."

Come draft night, Portis already knows who his five guests will be in the green room: Edwards; his agent, Mark Bartelstein; and his three brothers, who are all gifted at football and basketball.

"I'm trying to have a career in the NBA; that's my focus," Portis said. "I can't worry about all the other outside stuff. I only get this opportunity once in my lifetime. I can't let this opportunity slip. God has put me in this position to hear my name called. I've had a mom and dad, and that's my mom. That's all I need."

While Portis is a frugal spender—he checks his bank account every time he buys something, even toiletries at Walmart—he's planning "something overboard" for Edwards with his upcoming NBA contract to celebrate the special day together.

"I text him all the time when I see his face on Twitter or TV," she said. "I get a smile on my face because I see a reflection of me, I see an image of me—something that I took part in. Me and my friend from high school, Earnstine, always wanted to try out for a WNBA team. I told him that he's living the dream that I always wanted."

A dream definitely well-earned.

"It's crazy for me just to even think I got this far," he said.

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.