Rich Hofmann | Do you know this man?

BACK IN 1971, EVERYONE KNEW HOWARD PORTER

Posted: May 22, 2007

THE MEMORIES are of cold nights and weak lights that were the curse of every news photographer in town.

Matthew Brady couldn't have gotten a good shot of anybody in that old barn, but these guys somehow did. Whatever illumination there was shone only on the court itself. The seats, all hard benches, lay in darkness.

A bad back was your destiny after too many nights on those benches. But it was exquisite agony. They were the greatest nights, all sweat and sound and Big Al up in his TV perch, and the newspaper guys typing like madmen behind the visiting bench as deadlines slipped away, and these epic, bruising, bewitching doubleheaders that ended with the big, heavy doors throwing open and 9,208 spent fighters being flung out into the frosty night.

I never saw Howard Porter play in the Palestra, but I can close my eyes and see him. You know what I mean?

Porter is in a Minnesota hospital today after having been beaten nearly to death. He is perhaps the greatest basketball player in modern Villanova history but he was missing for hours over the weekend, found only after his picture was broadcast on television, after police sought the help of the public.

Do you know this man? My God.

In March of 1971, everybody knew Howard Porter. Time is relentless and the decades are unforgiving and we all know that - but this is stunning. Do you know this man? Everybody knew Howard Porter - everybody here, everybody in the country after that 1971 NCAA Tournament was over.

Porter's story is like all Philadelphia sports stories; that is to say, it is complicated. It turns and it turns: glory before the fall, despair before the dignified redemption. He was the Most Outstanding Player of the 1971 Final Four, where Villanova lost in the championship game to storied UCLA. He never received the trophy after it was determined that he signed an American Basketball Association contract in December of his senior season.

The wins by Villanova were forfeited, the accomplishments of the team and the man "vacated." Splendid term, that - as if a memory could be erased by a word, as if the $15,000 that Porter took, that any poor kid would have taken in the liars' bazaar that was the bidding war between the ABA and the NBA back then, could somehow mean more than the 25 points and eight rebounds that Porter put up against UCLA, more than the seven points and nine rebounds to which Porter held the Bruins' great Sidney Wicks.

Vacated. Just beautiful. The NCAA got Jim McDaniels, of Western Kentucky, too, another Final Four team that season. But as the New York Times would ask in a headline during those murky, murky times, "Why Villanova? Basketball Fans Wonder When and If N.C.A.A. Will Quiz Other Schools."

Why Villanova? Why Porter? What followed were a pedestrian NBA career and then a downspiral into substance abuse. From what Porter said, from what others said, that single moment in time hung over everything in his life, hung there for years like a never-lifting fog.

People tried. Ten years after, the Big 5 inducted Porter into its Hall of Fame. Porter came, accepted the trophy and the waves of adulation, and walked out into the night without taking the microphone. As for his teammates, they never left him. They always understood. They never blamed him. But, well, it still hung there.

As it turned out, a stay at a drug-treatment facility in Minnesota saved Porter. A career as a probation officer followed.

Eventually, he would recognize that the arms at Villanova were always open, even through everything. Beginning in the '90s, Porter would visit games, visit campus again. And no one was happier when the Wildcats' great tournament run in 2006 took them to Minneapolis, no one was more obviously thrilled, than coach Jay Wright.

"Tradition never graduates," Wright says, and he is right. But time really is hell sometimes.

Do you know this man?

At 6-8 and 200-plus pounds, Porter was this fierce power forward during the Big 5's greatest era. La Salle's Ken Durrett is viewed by most as the greatest of the great, and Porter was right there with him. Durrett has been gone for years. Now, this.

Do you know this man?

In Minnesota, the location of the hospital where Howard Porter lies today remains undisclosed as police search for his attacker. *

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.

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