If you understand the roots of their friendship, as Washington men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar has said more than once during the past seven months, there can be no questioning his motives for hiring Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant coach.
That is Romar’s opinion based on their history. It’s Porter’s opinion, too, and why he says he isn’t bothered by the perception that Romar only brought him on as an assistant to ensure the commitment of his oldest son, Nathan Hale High School senior Michael Porter Jr., the nation’s No. 2-rated recruit and a likely 2018 NBA lottery pick.
“If you don’t know the story, I can see someone thinking that,” Romar said. “There’s no way you could think that if you know the story.”
Indeed, there are layers to this. Not all of them are widely known. What follows is an objective examination of the facts about Michael Porter Sr., his coaching background, his relationship with Romar and the process that brought him to UW as an assistant coach.
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1. Porter and Romar aren’t just friends. Porter credits UW’s coach for changing his life.
Romar was a player-coach in the early 1990s for Athletes in Action, a faith-based traveling basketball program that often played exhibition games against college teams. Porter had just finished his career at the University of New Orleans. Romar saw him play and asked if he wanted to tour with Athletes in Action. Porter said yes, joining the team for five years.
But their relationship went deeper than player-coach. Romar and his wife, Leona, invited Porter to live with them for a few months. Porter describes this as a formative time.
“I mean, I was at a crossroads, and they took me in and let me live with them,” Porter said. “I saw a stable family. I saw a man who was committed to his family, and those were just examples that I needed to see up close and personal at that point in my life.”
Asked to expand upon that crossroads, Porter replied: “Just the kind of guy I was. Lorenzo was one of the first guys to tell me the truth about myself. ‘Porter, man, you’ve always got an excuse for why you don’t do what you’re supposed to do. You’ve always got an excuse for why you’re late.’ Stuff like that.
“That was when I made just a big, humungous shift in my life. I was the guy who always pointed the finger and blamed other people for why things didn’t go right in my life. And during that time, he helped me see that ‘No, man, it’s you. It’s you and your decision making.’ ”
He adds: “There’s other stuff, too, but I don’t want to get into it. But if I hadn’t turned it around at that point, I wouldn’t have the family that I have now. There’s no way my wife would have been interested in a guy like me, the way I was before.”
2. Porter met his wife, Lisa, while playing for Athletes in Action. She played for the women’s team. They have eight children.
Michael Sr. says he “literally bumped into” his future wife as he was leaving an Athletes in Action practice in a town just outside Cincinnati. Lisa was walking into the gym with the Athletes in Action women’s coach. The coach introduced the two, and, Porter says, “through a long process, the rest is history.”
He was 24 or 25 when they met. He was 27 when they got married. Romar was in the wedding.
Their life since has been devoted to their Christian faith, basketball, and their children. Everyone knows about Michael Porter Jr., the UW signee with the certain NBA future. And they likely know, too, about Jontay Porter, a junior forward at Nathan Hale who, like his brother, is committed to Washington.
The two oldest children, daughters Bri and Cierra, both play for Missouri, where Michael Sr. spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach, and the three prior seasons as director of basketball operations.
Then there is son Coban, a freshman at Nathan Hale; son Jevon, whom Michael Sr. cannot believe is already 13; son Izaak, who is 11; and daughter Jayda, age 8, the youngest of the eight children.
They all play basketball. They are all homeschooled. Michael Sr. trained the older ones, he said, and Romar offers this as partial proof of his coaching chops.
“He knows something about player development,” Romar said. “So this is not a lawyer we’re trying to convert to become a basketball coach. He knows what he’s doing.”
3. Porter approached Romar about 12 years ago and told him he wanted to get into coaching. Romar told him he would hire him — if he got some experience.
Michael Sr. coached his oldest daughters at the AAU level when they were younger. It made him want to coach at a higher level. He told Romar this, and Romar recalls telling him: “Mike, I’d hire you here. I think you’d be terrific. But right now you don’t have enough experience, so you need to go do that.”
He had volunteered with Romar while the two were living in Cincinnati, when Romar was still coaching Athletes in Action. His time working with disadvantaged youth led him to a career as a Christian hip-hop artist. (He went on international tours under the stage name Rahlo, according to a 2015 story in the Columbia Missourian.) He later coached at the AAU level and with Upward Basketball of the Upward Sports League, which describes itself as “the world’s largest Christian youth sports provider.”
Eventually, Porter was hired as the director of basketball operations for the University of Missouri women’s team. He spent three seasons in that role, then three seasons as an assistant coach under head coach Robin Pingeton.
“If he had been a painter for the last 20 years, that’s a little different story,” Romar said. “And five years ago, I wouldn’t have hired him. Now he’s more experienced in what he’s doing to where he’s going to be fine. Even when he was on the women’s side, it’s still coaching. He still is great with people. He’s still going to be a very good recruiter.”
4. Porter is the highest-paid assistant to coach under Romar despite this being his first job on the men’s side. And Romar had to demote Brad Jackson from assistant coach to ‘special assistant to the head coach’ to make room for Porter on staff.
Romar and UW athletic director Jen Cohen both told the News Tribune that Porter had at least one competitive offer from another Power Five program – one that, Romar said, “could offer more than we were” – which created a steeper market for his services.
So UW signed Porter to a two-year contract with an annual base salary of $300,000, plus a monthly housing allowance of $5,000 and a $15,000 annual airfare budget for family travel – an agreement that Cohen said accounts for the size of Porter’s family in a “creative” way. Porter’s base salary is more than double what he earned in his final year at Missouri ($144,200), and it makes Porter the highest-paid assistant on UW’s staff by nearly $100,000 per year.
Cohen said that in a perfect world, all of UW’s assistants would be paid more – Raphael Chillious earns an annual salary of $203,016, and Will Conroy’s base salary is $144,000 – and that the program’s salary pool, as it compares to other Pac-12 teams, is not where she would like it to be. But the athletic department projected a deficit of nearly $15 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year, so resources aren’t exactly easy to free up.
“It’s something that we’re working through,” Romar said.
Romar said in May that it was a difficult decision to demote Jackson, who is still on staff but can no longer coach players during practice.
“But Coach Jackson is a great team guy,” Romar said. “He wants us to do well. He had always said if Coach Porter could come on, it would be great.”
5. Michael Porter Jr. might have picked Washington even if his dad hadn’t been hired as an assistant coach. But there’s no way he would have picked Washington if Romar were not the head coach.
Michael Sr. called Romar a couple weeks after his oldest son was born. He asked Romar and his wife to be the boy’s godparents. They agreed, of course, and so their relationship with Michael Jr. began before the boy could speak or walk.
The Romars gave Michael Jr. his first teddy bear, and, too, his first children’s bible. So it is not surprising that he gave UW strong consideration well before Romar ever offered his dad a job.
“That relationship is deep, man,” Michael Sr. said. “It really is.”
Michael Jr. signed his binding national letter of intent in November, and is set to attend UW as part of a five-player recruiting class rated as the best in school history.
Yet there is an elephant in this room: Washington has not made the NCAA tournament in five years. The Huskies are 5-5 this season and do not look like a postseason contender. Romar’s job status is more tenuous than it has been at any point during his 15-year UW tenure. It is not inconceivable that someone else could be coaching the Huskies next season.
Would Michael Jr. still want come to UW if that happened?
“I can honestly say I don’t know,” Michael Sr. said. “But I will say this – Michael’s relationship with Coach Romar was a humungous factor in choosing Washington. So if Coach Romar isn’t here … I don’t know what he would decide to do.
“But I do know this – if Romar had not been here when he was making his decision, (I’m) not sure Washington would have gotten a look.”
6. The Porters considered Seattle Prep, O’Dea and Garfield before choosing to send their kids to Nathan Hale.
They bought a house in the Nathan Hale district, Michael Sr. said, so it made the most sense to send his three high-school-aged children there. But Michael Jr. and Jontay lobbied at first for Garfield, the Seattle powerhouse where fellow UW signees Jaylen Nowell and Daejon Davis play.
As Michael Sr. explains it, he learned after conversations with the WIAA that his boys would have to “appear before some board” to be eligible to play at Garfield. They didn’t want to risk that, so their focus shifted to the private schools. But they ultimately opted for the simplicity of Nathan Hale, the closest school to their new home (though after the first week or two of the school year, Michael Sr. said the family decided to continue homeschooling their kids, so their presence on campus is limited mostly to basketball games and practices).
Ex-UW and NBA star Brandon Roy was eventually named Nathan Hale’s coach, which, Michael Sr. said, prompted more rumors.
“People have formed plenty of assumptions about that whole deal,” Michael Sr. said. “I’ve heard everything from, we picked Nathan Hale because Brandon was going to be the coach. … I’ve heard all manner of things. But there was no coach there when we decided that’s where we were going to go.”
7. Porter enjoyed coaching women, but has always felt he belonged in men’s college basketball.
He actually turned Romar down during the offseason of 2015, when UW had a staff opening following the departure of T.J. Otzelberger to Iowa State. Porter’s daughter Cierra was just beginning her college career, and Michael Sr. didn’t want to leave Columbia just yet.
A year later, it was still a tough decision. But the timing felt right.
“At the end of the day,” Michael Sr. said, “it was just my ongoing relationship with Coach Romar that tipped the scales.”
He describes UW as “an easy staff to join. All of them are great guys. They eat, drink, and sleep ball.” He helps coach the guards, helps coach transition defense and otherwise tries to preach details to UW’s players.
“Being able to be here and help them through learning how to manage yourself when you’re a college student, I love that,” Porter said. “I love helping them gain a different perspective on hard practices and lack of playing time, or ‘my shot’s not falling’ type of stuff.
“I feel like this is my niche.”