He lived in his lawyer's rambling, five-bedroom stone house for the last months of his senior year. During the day he went to his classes, walking across the Villanova campus on the Main Line, outside Philadelphia, but when the classes were done, he came right back to the lawyer's house. He did not say much to anyone. No one said much to him.
He was inside his own cloud of negativity. Howard Porter...did something wrong. That was the label he had to wear. Howard Porter...signed the contract, took the money. That was all that anyone knew.
He was 22 years old then, in 1971, and alone. The place where he had been loved and the people who had loved him had become indifferent, even cold. This should have been a time of triumph. In late March he had been named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for leading an underdog team of five iron-man starters to within six points of the national championship, losing 68-62 to UCLA. He was arguably the best college player in the country, a 6'8", 215-pound forward, agile and smooth, headed toward certain wealth. He was going to get his degree in education right on time. Where was the happiness? Where was the joy? He was pretty much alone.
He thought he'd done nothing, nothing that anyone else in his situation wouldn't have done, nothing that wasn't being done by other players at other colleges. But the spotlight was on him. Howard Porter...did something wrong. He wanted to talk about it, wanted to explain himself, wanted to shout, "What's the big deal?" but his lawyer told him to keep quiet. Legal stuff. He kept quiet. A feeling of injustice took hold deep inside and would not go away.
"Whether he was merely a victim or not, that's for people to decide, depending on the way they want to look at it," his lawyer, Richie Phillips, says today. "But I say this: Here's a kid from Sarasota, Florida, who grew up in the most humble circumstances; businessmen are showing up with bags full of money, saying, 'Here, we want to give you this.' They're telling him, 'This is the way it's done. Here. Take it.' What's he supposed to do? Why should kids be held to a higher standard than these businessmen? There were a lot of people conducting themselves in a lot more reprehensible ways than Howard Porter ever did."
The 1970-71 season was played when the NBA and the nascent American Basketball Association were in a tong war for talent. Agents and general managers were flying around the country, money and contracts in their pockets. Sign on the line, kid. Keep it quiet. The ABA was trying to sign players to league contracts, team to be named later. But if you signed before the end of the college season, you signed illegally in the eyes of the NCAA. A Wild West atmosphere pervaded. Do anything. Don't get caught. Porter signed and got caught.
Other people assuredly took the money too, but they never suffered the public humiliation that Porter did. Howard Porter...did something wrong.
Twenty-five years have passed, 25 years of championships won and championships lost, but that is the little tag line that remains: The 1971 Villanova Wildcats, along with the '71 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, who also advanced to the Final Four, forfeited all their tournament wins and all the money that came with them. But no other player received quite the same notoriety as Porter. No other player before or since has been stripped of his Most Outstanding Player award.
An asterisk was stuck indelibly to his name. The NCAA declared the Most Outstanding award for 1971 "vacated." Would the ensuing 25 years have been so empty, so "vacated," if that word had never been used in the first place? Would the drugs and the isolation and the struggle have come along anyway? Twenty-five years. An asterisk can be hard to shake.
"There's a guy I know, asked me just yesterday about it," Porter said recently. "I've known him for three or four years, a friend, and he never said anything, but just yesterday he said, 'Howard, I've always wondered, what happened back there at Villanova?' "