Basketball can change Bobby Portis' life

Bobby Portis has always been a Razorback.

The Little Rock, Arkansas, native was inspired by Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell," the scheme that anchored Arkansas' 1994 national title run. As a kid, Portis created himself and starred for Arkansas whenever he played college basketball video games.

Portis, a former McDonald's All-American, took one official visit -- to Fayetteville.

He was even mentored and coached by former Arkansas star Corliss "Big Nasty" Williamson on the AAU circuit.

"He meant a lot to me growing up," Portis said. "I continued to get better just because he had pushed me every summer to get better."

But before Portis could grow as a player and a young man, he had to conquer his emotions. Marcus McCarroll, another former AAU coach and mentor, noticed that Portis would react to minor issues. Referees at tournaments did too, and they would warn McCarroll to keep Portis in line.

"He was angry," McCarroll said. "The officials would tell us before the game, 'You'd better get him.'"

Why was Portis so mad?

Well, you've heard this story before. So let's skim through most of the details.

Inner-city kid (Portis) fights through poverty and its offspring (instability, violence, substandard living conditions) in a major metropolitan area that is often judged by its challenges (HBO produced a popular documentary about Little Rock's gang culture in the '90s and revamped it a decade later). That kid plays basketball and is good at it. An AAU coach embraces him and helps him develop. Soon, the kid gets this idea that, maybe one day, he can pull his family into a better situation if he can make it to the NBA, which might demand a shortened stint at the collegiate level.

But do you know how it feels?

What would you do if you were 15 years old and a grown man's fist was coming toward you and your mother?

He was a teenager when his mother's boyfriend got drunk again and things got scary again. Portis tried to ignore it, again, and focus on his schoolwork, again, but he couldn't. Not this time.

"Bobby was 15 at that point and time," said Tina Edwards, Portis' mother. "I guess he'd had enough of his mom being talked to real bad."

Portis approached the man as his mother grabbed their belongings and told her four boys -- Portis has three younger brothers -- that they were leaving.

"I stopped it, actually," Portis said. "Somehow he got mad about something. I don't know what he got mad at. My mom, she ran out of the room, and he came out, trying to hit her. Then I stood up and [said], 'No, don't do this.' He tried to hit me, but I grabbed his hand in the act of hitting me."

Would that make you mad?

Do you know what it's like to come home from school and see your family's possessions on the front lawn because you've been kicked out of your apartment again?

That happened to Portis multiple times. Edwards, Portis and his brothers encountered financial challenges that sent them to the homes of family members and friends. He even slept on the floor in a two-bedroom spot that housed nine people.

He couldn't worry about tomorrow. Today was hard enough.

Would that make you mad?

"Bobby has a hunger," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said of his 6-foot-11 sophomore forward who is averaging 17.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game this season. "Bobby won't back down from anybody. He has a motor that no one else has. He doesn't get caught up in the hype. He wants to be good, not only for himself, but for everybody in his family."

It all bothered Portis. The moving. The drama. But he swallowed it. He never told his mother how difficult that period was for him. He never opened up.

Until last spring, when he and his mother talked about that chapter of their lives, on an intimate level, for the first time.

"I'm on the phone with him and I was crying," she said. "He said, 'Mom, if it wasn't for Coach [Williamson], I don't know what I would have done. Coach took me under his wing. It's like he gave me love."

Edwards is more stable now. She switched jobs to attain more flexible hours that would allow her to drive two-plus hours from Little Rock to see her son's home games. Sometimes, she sleeps only 30 minutes. But it's all worth it, she said.

The 10-2 Razorbacks are arguably the SEC's No. 2 team. They have the talent to earn the program's first NCAA tournament bid since 2008 -- although a February matchup at No. 1 Kentucky is their only legitimate shot at a signature win in league play. Portis is leading that resurgence.

"Most kids that are highly recruited in Arkansas never come here, so I feel as though for me to come here, it's big," he said. "This was always my dream school, always growing up."

Portis, who grew two inches last summer, is No. 28 on Chad Ford's Big Board. He might be a pro as early as next summer.

That would allow him to provide more financial stability for his family. Edwards, who works seven days a week as an independent saleswoman, said she doesn't want that. She said she tells her son to focus on his season and his studies. But ...

"That [domestic violence] propelled me," Portis said, "to want to do something with this basketball stuff to get my mom out of that situation."

The NBA is not his top priority, though. He will be ready when those opportunities arrive.

For now, he's just locked onto his current tasks and goals at Arkansas, and he's happy that life isn't as tough as it used to be.

"Being a young kid, being the man of the house, it makes you grow up," he said, "and protect your mom."

Added Edwards: "I'm very proud. ... I am one proud mom."