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The seven basketball players seem like giants as they move about the classroom, young students staring up at them. The children are 12-and 13-year-olds at Skinner Middle School, a plain brick building in a rundown section of northwest Denver. Students at Skinner typically record among the lowest reading levels in the city, and a large portion of Rose O'Dorisio's eighth-grade class in language arts is expected to drop out before finishing high school. Truancy is rampant at Skinner, but attendance is always high on the days the basketball players come to tutor. "I'm so grateful to them," says O'Dorisio. "They relate to the kids in a way that I can't. They walk in, these tall young men who play basketball for a college, and the kids are rapt."
The college is Regis University, a 120-year-old Jesuit school with a liberal arts curriculum and a pristine, manicured main campus three miles from Skinner. It costs close to $24,000 a year to attend Regis, which has a primarily white student body of about 8,000. But about 60% of the members of the basketball team are minorities who would not be able to attend Regis without financial aid. The NCAA Division II basketball program, fueled and guided since 1977 by coach Lonnie Porter, is one of the best in the country.
On this afternoon Regis's senior point guard, 6-foot Antonio Scott, is helping a slight girl with braces on her teeth complete the final draft of a research paper. Scott has had his own academic troubles—his 2.11 GPA suffers in comparison with the basketball team's overall 2.94—but not for lack of effort. Porter's rule is, you study rigorously or you don't play ball. Scott scans the student's report, points out a few grammatical errors and offers words of encouragement. "Keep trying," he says, and she goes back to work.
The weekly tutoring is something Porter started five years ago. All of his players are required to give 16 hours of community service each year, and they spend most of that time tutoring low-income students from first grade through middle school. Some players new to the program grouse about the demands on their time, but Porter finds that quite often those 16 hours are voluntarily stretched to more.
This is Porter's 20th year at Regis, and his record there is 341-209, including a 9-4 mark through Jan. 16 this season. His clubs have gone 132-55 in the 1990s and 25-5 in each of the past two seasons. Last year the Rangers made it to the Division II regional playoffs. Porter's contract, which was recently extended to 2001, requires that 92% of his players graduate, and the coach wouldn't have it any other way. Of the 82 players who have completed their eligibility during his tenure, 77 have gone out diploma in hand. "That's my job," Porter says. "If you're educated, you have an obligation to help people."
Yet winning games and graduating players at rates most coaches never approach is not enough for Porter. As a rule his teams are close-knit and thrive on defense, hustle and disciplined play. "We go through some of the same experiences by teaching the kids," says 6'1" junior forward Dwight Berry, of Youngstown, Ohio. "I think it brings us closer as a team. And it reminds you never to take playing for Regis and getting a college education for granted."
A college education was something that Porter, 53, certainly didn't take for granted. He was born in Mississippi and moved at age 5 to Indianapolis. There he attended Crispus Attucks High for two years before moving to Waterloo, Iowa. His ability as a point guard got him a scholarship to Adams State in Alamosa, Colo., where, after earning a bachelor's degree in education and a master's in secondary education administration, he became a graduate assistant for the basketball team in 1965-66. He later moved to Denver to teach phys ed and coach at Manual High. His 72 team won the Class 3A state title, and the next year Porter landed an assistant's job at Nebraska. He spent five years there before returning to Denver for the job at Regis, which he expects to hold, he says, "until I'm done."
He is six feet tall and as burly as a bulldog, but his chocolate eyes well up with emotion when he talks about his outreach to Denver's inner-city children, work that in 1994 earned him a prestigious Spotlight award from McDonald's Corp. and KWGN-TV in Denver. No one close to Porter can quite explain why he has such a bent for helping others, and Porter himself is reluctant to talk about it. Last summer he realized his dream of having a summer academy on campus. Every morning for two weeks he got behind the wheel of a bus, brought 22 kids from poor neighborhoods to Regis to read, write and play a little ball, and later got back in the bus and drove them home. "That's just Lonnie," says his mother, Verdie Mae, who now lives with her son in Denver. "Just Lonnie doing what he does."
But lest he come across as a pushover—this gentle man who dispenses hugs as he makes his school rounds—watch him as he runs practices and games. He often wears combat fatigues or all black, and he has the temperament of a commanding officer under attack. One of his favorite drills consists of firing basketballs from close range at a freshman player. Game time, he paces the bench area and stamps his foot in anger, his deep eyes narrowed and fierce, his forehead taut. "C'mon, boy, be a man!" he screams at forwards who don't rebound. Porter's players, the same ones he stands with quietly in elementary school classrooms, passing out free notebooks, fear him on the court.
"I coach like that because that's how life is," says Porter. "A lot of these guys are minorities from lower-class backgrounds. The cards are stacked against them. If they want to have a chance in life, they have to know they can't let up for a minute."