How Michael Porter's stressful night at the NBA draft became the 'best of my life'

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – The clock was approaching 9 p.m. or about 90 minutes later than Michael Porter Jr. once thought his NBA draft would last. On the longest day of the year, the most talented player available was having the longest night of his life.

Deandre Ayton went first. Marvin Bagley III went second. Luka Doncic went third. Jaren Jackson Jr. went fourth.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver kept walking out on stage and naming names. None of them were Michael Porter Jr., who, until a series of injuries, ruled the competition, mock drafts and draft-night dreams. Now he was seen as more risk than reward.

Porter shifted in his seat. He sent the guys picked ahead of him congratulatory texts. He knew cameras were probably focused on him, just begging for some sign of disappointment or frustration to sweep across his face.

So, he tried to look calm. It was an act.

“It was tense,” Michael said. “I was down.”

Across the table, his mother Lisa looked at her boy and wasn’t fooled. Moms know. Moms always know.

Nothing bad was happening, she reminded herself. At some point Michael would be drafted and become an NBA player. He was blessed. The family was blessed. It was all God’s plan.

Still, no mother wants to witness disappointment in their child’s face. They want their child’s big night to be as big as can be.

“My only heaviness of heart was I knew how he was feeling,” Lisa told Yahoo Sports later. “He had worked so hard all his life [to be first overall]. It was such a drive for him. I had such peace, though. I wish I could have shared with him and transferred that over to him.”

She could have gotten up and given him a hug. That’s what mothers instinctively do. She, too, knew cameras were everywhere, that this was a television show and the image of mom hugging her grown-man son would have gone viral in a humiliating instant.

She had to sit and deal with it, faking her own smile as she watched her son fake his.

Trae Young went fifth. Mo Bamba went sixth. Wendell Carter Jr. went seventh. Collin Sexton went eighth.

Michael Porter Jr. sat through 13 NBA draft picks ahead of him before being taken by the Denver Nuggets. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

Throughout his years of high school and AAU basketball, Michael had established himself as the best player in the Class of 2017, the same class that was, for the most part, making up the lottery selections here Thursday. He is the rarest of talents, a combination of size (6-foot-10), speed and a church-music-soft shooting touch. Scouts say he could be the next Kevin Durant. A year ago, he was projected to go No. 1 overall. At various points in various games, he’d smoked almost all these guys getting drafted ahead of him.

Then, last fall, just minutes into his first game as a freshman at the University of Missouri, he injured his hip. That soon was diagnosed as multiple herniated disks in his back. He returned at the end of the year but his college career was limited to just three games.

He was believed to be healed and back near the top of the lottery. His potential made scouts drool. Then just last week he suffered hip spasms and had to cancel a second pro day.

Suddenly everyone was concerned. His agent tried damage control. Some teams pored through his medical records. Others just moved on. This is a business and Michael Porter Jr. the can’t-miss-prospect was now deemed a can’t-draft prospect.

“The teams at the very, very top of the draft told me last week I was their guy, they were going to take me,” Michael said. “… Sacramento … Memphis, Dallas, they were all really, really interested … Then the hip episode happened, and then doctors got involved and they got scared. So once one team gets scared, a lot of them get scared.”

The New York Knicks had the ninth pick and once they were on the clock, their fans in attendance began to cheer and chant.

“Mi-chael Port-er,” they sang. “Mi-chael Port-er.”

Michael could only smile and shake his head. He waved as they kept going and going, as the Knicks’ allotted five minutes passed. He appreciated being wanted but Michael knew, via his agent, Mark Bartelstein, who was seated next to him, what the fans didn’t. He wasn’t going to be a Knick.

Kevin Knox was.

When Knox was announced, Knicks fans booed. Knicks fans almost always boo their pick, but this time it was because they wanted Porter and didn’t get Porter. That hurt Michael. Not because he didn’t get picked, he said, but because the booing ruined the moment for Kevin Knox, who did nothing wrong. His heart sank.

“I was feeling bad,” Michael said. “When a kid gets drafted, I’m looking at them and I’m feeling joy, too, because their dreams are coming true, too.”

Meanwhile, Lisa Porter just tried to read her son’s expressions. She could sense his mood, sense his discomfort with the chants and the boos.

This entire thing, though, the hip and the back and the lost college season and the spasms and the uncertainty and even every last minute of this painfully slow roller coaster of a draft night had revealed a new side to her son.

No, none of this was fun.

“You don’t want to see your kid go through it,” Lisa said.

You do want to see how they respond, though.

“What I have noticed is as he has gone through adversity is that his insight into what is really important in life, his perspective, his character, all those things are being strengthened,” Lisa said. “That has been the overriding joy to see as a mom.”

Mikal Bridges went 10th. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went 11th. Miles Bridges went 12th. Jerome Robinson went 13th.

At this point, it was uncomfortable. It’s one thing to get passed over for Ayton or Bagley. They are great players, almost certain stars. But Jerome Robinson, guard from Boston College? No offense to Jerome Robinson but probably not even Jerome Robinson would have dreamt of being picked ahead of Michael Porter Jr.

Did anyone want Michael? Anyone? His hip, he said, feels fine. How long could this go on?

“When you’re sitting there at your table and another pick goes by and another pick goes by and you start seeing all your friends going, you start getting a little anxious,” Michael said.

It was more than “a little.”

“I was stressed out,” Michael said.

Finally, a camera set up shop directly in front of the Porter’s table. Then another. Then a still photographer showed up. Bartelstein, the agent, was trying to confirm what the Denver Nuggets, who picked next, were going to do, but the confirmation was right in front of them.

“They do that camera thing,” Lisa said.

“It’s the cameras,” Michael said. “The cameras gave it off even before Mark knew.”

Lisa turned her head from the cameras and at the very same moment broke into a smile and began to tear up. She kept dabbing her eyes and watching her son. Michael tried to stay stone-faced. He didn’t want to jinx anything. Even when Bartelstein reported that it would be Denver, Michael didn’t react.

“I waited until I heard Adam Silver say it,” Michael said with a laugh.

Adam Silver said it. The table erupted. Michael hugged his father. He hugged his mother. His parents hugged each other. Michael made his way up to the stage.

“This isn’t how I envisioned this night going,” Michael said. “But it’s still the best night of my life.”

Back at the table, a mother’s weight was lifted. She sat back in her chair and beamed.

“I was just so relieved for him,” Lisa said. “I know healthy, Michael probably would have gone higher, but I think it’s not how high you go, it’s what you do when you get there.”

Shed no tears for the Porters, she noted.

“It’s perspective,” Lisa said. “It’s a blessing. It’s such a blessing.”

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