Ex-Villanova star Howard Porter in grave condition

Posted: May 22, 2007

HERE WHERE HIS jersey hangs from the Villanova rafters and his name still resonates more than 30 years later, it is almost impossible to imagine.

Howard Porter, arguably the greatest basketball player to wear a Villanova uniform, lay in a Minnesota hospital bed over the weekend, listed as a John Doe. His identification documents taken during a brutal assault, he went unidentified until television reports posted his picture as a missing person.

And now he might not ever leave that hospital alive.

A source told the Daily News that Porter, 58, has severe brain damage and might not survive.

Family members were at his bedside last night, and a vigil was held for him at a Methodist church in St. Paul, according to the Star Tribune, of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Porter, who lives in St. Paul, has been a probation officer for Ramsey County since 1995.

Chris Crutchfield, the Ramsey County deputy director of community corrections, called Porter's condition "very, very serious." He said he could not disclose more information or the name of the hospital, as it could jeopardize an open police investigation.

Whitey Rigsby, director of Villanova's V Club and the point man for much of the basketball team's alumni functions, spoke yesterday with Porter's wife, Theresa. She told him her husband's condition is grave.

Rigsby, via Theresa, offered a detailed description of what happened to Porter. Rigsby said Theresa did not wish to comment directly.

He offered the information, he said, because he worried that people who knew of Porter's cocaine addiction in the 1980s would jump to the wrong conclusion.

"I don't want people to think this was a relapse," Rigsby said. "I know a lot of people will think that, and this absolutely has nothing to do with that. This was a good, good man."

Rigsby said Theresa told him that on Friday evening she left for a business trip, and kissed her husband of more than 15 years goodbye. She called later that night when she got to her destination about 3 hours from their home, but she couldn't reach Porter. She called again Saturday morning, hoping she could coerce him to join her for breakfast. When he didn't return her calls, Theresa sent someone over to the house.

"The door was locked and his newspaper was in the driveway," Rigsby said, "and this is a guy who reads the paper every day at the crack of dawn."

Alarmed, Theresa drove home and called the police. Police located Porter's Cadillac 2 miles from his home with blood in the trunk, Rigsby said Theresa told him. They then called several area hospitals but did not find Porter.

On Sunday, the police filed a missing-persons report.

"Given the way he went missing, the circumstances of him having gone missing, we are gravely concerned for his well-being," St. Paul police spokesman Tom Walsh said Sunday. Walsh did not return a phone message from the Daily News yesterday.

Police gave media outlets Porter's photograph in hopes of prodding the public for more information. Shortly after, he was reported found and though police wouldn't say where or how, Crutchfield and Rigsby both said Porter already was in the hospital.

Rigsby said Theresa told him that Porter was found 20 miles from home, covered in dried blood. No one knew how long he had been outside, but his body temperature had dropped to 92 degrees. The Star Tribune said he was found in an alley in north Minneapolis.

A source told the Daily News that the police were keeping things close to the vest because Porter was in protective custody as police investigate whether he was abducted and beaten in relation to one of his probation cases.

News of the attack on Porter hit the Villanova basketball community hard. More than just billing themselves as a family, ex-Wildcats get together at games all across the country and return to the year-end banquet in droves to share stories, present awards and connect with the new breed of Wildcat.

Porter often was among them.

Assistant coach Ed Pinckney yesterday was working the phones early, trying to get information. He had touched base with Doug West, who had become friendly with Porter when West spent the first nine seasons of his NBA career in Minnesota.

"We're all just trying to find out information," Pinckney said.

Rigsby spent all day contacting as many of Porter's teammates as he could.

One of them, former Sixers coach Chris Ford, was clearly shaken when told of the news. He said he had talked to Porter a few months ago.

"We've all stayed close," Ford said. "I'm going to call out there and see what I can find out and call my teammates as well."

Despite a checkered past - it was reported Porter had signed with the ABA's Pittsburgh franchise during his senior season, forfeiting the Wildcats' storied 1971 run to the national championship game, and later battled the cocaine addiction - he long ago had been welcomed back into the Villanova fold.

Rigsby said a few years ago, Porter returned to campus with Theresa. With Rigsby, they walked to practice and quietly stood off to the side.

"Jay [Wright] stopped practice, gathered the guys, pointed to Howard and said, 'That right there is Howard Porter, the greatest Villanova basketball player of all time,' and he told them to come and say hello," Rigsby said. "I got goose bumps because there were people who wanted Howard blackballed and this was Jay saying, 'Welcome home.' He had no idea what that meant to Howard, but to do that in front of his wife, it was just a beautiful thing."

The university retired his jersey in 1997 and Porter has been a frequent campus visitor since then. Whenever he stopped by, he took time to meet with the current crop of Wildcats, regaling them with stories of his own storied career while also coaching them on what makes a team a team.

"Mr. Porter," they call him.

"I probably talked to him five times this season and he came to two or three of my games, including the one at Orlando," said former Wildcat Randy Foye, who played for Porter's hometown Minnesota Timberwolves, and was stunned by the news of Porter's condition. "He always came to talk to me. He's just a great, great guy."

Two years ago, a giddy Porter hosted the Villanova reunion when the top-seeded Wildcats played in his town in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional.

"This is just a heckuva thing to happen," Porter said at the time. "I saw Minneapolis [on Selection Sunday] and I was just thrilled."

Voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player in 1971 when he almost single-handedly led Villanova to an upset of four-time defending champion UCLA in the title game - many still argue that a critical goaltending call that went against Porter was a clean blocked shot - Porter was considered one of the nation's best players after a senior season when he averaged 23.5 points and 14.9 rebounds per game. A three-time All-America, he stands fifth on the Wildcats' all-time scoring list with 2,026 points. He is first in rebounds, with 1,317.

After an up-and-down, 7-year NBA career with Chicago, New York, Detroit and New Jersey, Porter struggled with a cocaine addiction. Arrested for violating terms of his probation, he spent 6 months in jail before heading to Minnesota's Hazelden Clinic for rehab in 1989.

When he completed his rehab, Porter remained in Minnesota and decided to turn the tables on his own misfortune, choosing to help others who were just like him.

"I finished the rehab in 28 days and they offered me a chance to go to a halfway house," Porter told Sports Illustrated in 1996. "I was at the halfway house and they offered me a job with the treatment program. Just like that. I took it and told myself I wasn't going to go back to [his native] Florida, even for a visit, for 2 more years. When I went back, I was going to be the man I wanted to be."

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