Bill Lyon | Tragedy, triumph in a well-worn life

Posted: June 05, 2007

His special genius was fashioned out of scavenged junk: The backboard was a cracked plank of plywood, the basket was a rusted bicycle tire rim, and the ball, thrown out with someone else's garbage, had been dribbled until the seams were worn smooth.

And by the light of the Florida sun and of the silvery moon, night and day, day and night, the sweat running off him in little rivers, he honed his jump shot to silky perfection.

He would grow to 6 feet 8, with cannonball shoulders, and he moved with a feline grace, cheetah-sleek. His childhood was one of grinding hopelessness, of fatherless impoverishment, his future a certain dead end. The only way out was through the Oscar Robertson instructional basketball booklet his mother bought, and then a million jump shots followed by 10 million more.

Howard Porter scuffled his way out of despair and that certain dead end, all the way to the Main Line. From 1967 through 1971, he played 89 games for Villanova, scored 2,006 points, grabbed 1,317 rebounds, and blocked shots with such looming fury that cowed opponents became gun-shy. His game was equal parts suppleness and strength, and he made all-America three straight seasons. The man known as "Geezer," likable and cordial, also made hundreds of friends.

In the middle of his senior season, he succumbed to temptation. An agent offered him a signing bonus of $15,000 to put his name on an ABA contract, that league then in competition with the NBA and desperate for talent. If you've never had 15 dollars in your whole life, what must 15 thousand look like?

Porter drove 'Nova all the way to the Final Four in 1971 and into the championship game against John Wooden's UCLA dynasty. 'Nova lost, barely, and Porter was named the most outstanding player. The balloting wasn't even close.

His transgression was soon discovered, his name replaced in the record books by vacated - a cold and unforgiving word. And in those same record books, national runner-up Villanova was labeled with an asterisk that has remained as permanent as a tattoo. From a distance of 36 years, and in the context of all that goes on today, his transgression seems almost benign.

But not then. Then, forgiveness was not immediately forthcoming.

Howard Porter's anguish was bone-deep. It would last a long, bitter time, and it would, ultimately, drive him to ruin. Shamed, he distanced himself from his school. His pro career lasted seven mostly undistinguished seasons, truncated by injury. His marriage splintered. He turned for solace to white powder, the stuff of enchanted dreams and wretched reality.

He became a cocaine addict and a drifter, pawning his Final Four watch and any other trinkets that would buy the next fix and that short-lived, make-the-world-go-away escape. Arrest and imprisonment seemed inevitable, and soon enough became fact.

In one of those quotes that raise the hairs on the nape of your neck, in an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he described his descent into devastation this way:

"I took a ride with the devil. And the devil picked me up and rolled me for a while. But I always knew, deep down inside, I felt God wasn't through with me yet."

He was right. He went into rehab in Minnesota and emerged in 1989 clean and sober. He was redemption waiting to happen, a determined example of the fierce, indomitable, unbending human spirit. His first step was to throw off that crushing weight of recrimination that had haunted him for so long.

In a 1996 interview with Sports Illustrated, Howard Porter said: "I waited all those years for someone to forgive me, but no one ever did. Finally, I decided just to forgive myself."

His metamorphosis was striking, awe-inspiring. He went back to school and earned his degree from Villanova, in English and psychology. Besides the degree, he earned forgiveness. All those broken fences were mended. In 1997, his No. 54 was retired and raised to the Pavilion rafters.

He found an angel, named Theresa Neal. He became a parole and probation officer in Minnesota, and what sweet irony that was - the man who had made so many mistakes now trying to keep others from all those same misjudgments, trying to get them to save themselves from themselves.

He became mentor, counselor, confessor, a source of hope and inspiration for the troubled and the tormented.

The sinner had turned into savior.

Is there a greater victory?

And then, suddenly, violently, he was gone, found savagely beaten in an alley, then dead eight days later.

It made no sense. A 33-year-old St. Paul woman was arrested Sunday night, according to St. Paul police. But no answers are yet forthcoming. Nor maybe ever will be. Such a bizarre end to such an inspiring story.

His impact was so far-reaching that memorial services are being held in three states: Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Florida. Visitation is from 5 to 7 p.m. today at St. Thomas of Villanova Church, with a memorial liturgy to follow.

Howard Porter crammed a dozen lifetimes into his 58 years, from soaring heights to crushing depths, and back again. He leaves a legacy of a man most mortal, flawed but redeemed, a man who succumbed and toppled, and then arose in glorious triumph.

His spirit burned as fierce as a flame.


Bill Lyon |

A woman is arrested in the Howard Porter beating. C6.
Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer columnist.

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