For most of the time since 1971, there would have been no reply. A shake of the head. A mumble. The experience was a suitcase of disappointment and discontent that Porter carried deep within himself. It colored everything he did, dragged him down, held him back. Howard Porter ... did something wrong. He would not talk about it. He could not talk about it.
He can now.
"I waited all those years for someone to come along and forgive me, but no one ever did," he says. "Finally I decided just to forgive myself." Twenty-five years. He is just now getting out of the breakdown lane where he landed at the end of the road to the Final Four.
He was the oldest of two boys and two girls in a single-parent, poverty-level, lots-of-love home in Sarasota. The family had lived first in Stuart, Fla., on the eastern coast, but when Howard was in 10th grade, his mother, Ada Mae, noticed some distressing signs. She didn't like the kids he was hanging with, didn't like the time he was spending in the neighborhood pool hall, didn't like the person he was becoming. She announced that the family was moving to Sarasota. Just like that.
"She wanted to give me a chance to start over," Porter says. "This was a new place, a new life. I could build myself into a new person. I wasn't doing anything seriously wrong, maybe throwing rocks and mouthing off, but she could see I was heading toward that criminal element."
The move was an inspired decision. The house that Ada Mae rented turned out to be next door to the home of Alfonso Baker, the basketball coach at Booker High. Howard already loved basketball, already had played as an eighth-grader on the Stuart High varsity. He now had a bicycle rim nailed to a makeshift backboard in the sandy backyard, and Ada Mae gave him a book by Oscar Robertson on how to shoot, and Baker was around to make sure all of this was being used. Make sure? Baker lived so close he could hear the back door open and close at Howard's house, could know everything he was doing. Howard now had a father figure to watch out for him.
In time Howard became the best high school player in Florida history. The game came easily to him. He could jump and run and hit that Oscar Robertson jumper again and again. Playing for Baker at Booker High, a segregated, all-black school that played only other black teams and went to an all-black state tournament, he averaged 35.1 points a game as a senior. Suddenly a lot of white faces started appearing at his games. A lot of the faces came from universities.
Howard could have gone to college almost anywhere. He had become a civic boast, especially after the Florida sportswriters' association named Booker the 1967 state champion. Local officials were so excited about Howard, who said he wanted to be an electrical engineer, that they made an exception for him and allowed him to attend all-white Sarasota High for certain courses in physics, trigonometry and other subjects that were not offered at Booker. He went to Sarasota High every morning, a sort of one-kid integration program. Strangely, he never felt different or out of place. He just went. "I always had a good sense of myself as a person," he says. "I knew who I was. And the other kids knew who I was. I felt the same way at Villanova. I never felt intimidated by the rich kids or their money. I knew who I was."
He picked Villanova mostly because he liked assistant coach George Raveling, a black man who sold him on the idea of playing at the Palestra in Philadelphia and getting a four-star education along with good basketball in the Big Five. Even though Raveling soon left to work for Lefty Driesell at Maryland, Porter loved where he had landed. The school was all he wanted it to be.
"There were only about 25 black students in the school at the start of our time there, so we sort of banded together," says Richard Walker, Porter's roommate for two years. "We watched out for each other, especially academically. Howard was terrific. He got me into jazz. He was a big-time jazz aficionado. He was a reader, always reading. I was from a middle-class background, from a family that had a summerhouse on Martha's Vineyard, so I exposed him to things like that. The idea of what you could do."