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Larry Stone: Washington basketball coach’s pursuit of prep star raises eyebrows

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar is skating on thin ice with his recruitment of Michael Porter Jr. (Don Ryan / Associated Press)
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar is skating on thin ice with his recruitment of Michael Porter Jr. (Don Ryan / Associated Press)
Larry Stone,Seattle Times

Michael Porter Jr. sounds like a great kid-polite and well-spoken, with a strong support system at home. He’s a 4.0 student, home schooled until the eighth grade (like his seven siblings), and a vegetarian.

He has worked for the past few years at the family’s shave ice stand, which according to a Kansas City Star article from July 2015, his mom, Lisa Porter, bought to give her kids a summer job and lessons in responsibility.

Porter is also 6 feet 9 and one of the top senior-to-be high-school basketball players in the country, pursued by every top program in the land and the particular target of the Washington’s Lorenzo Romar.

The tentacles of that pursuit have led in some eye-opening directions and caused some to wonder if Romar, always regarded as a paragon of integrity, has succumbed just a bit to the untoward realities of college basketball.

Romar, after all, is under tremendous pressure to win, having missed the NCAA tournament for the past five years despite having five first-round draft picks in that time. Just last week, he was called the worst college coach in the country by national radio host Colin Cowherd-a vast overstatement but a painful accusation nonetheless.

Here’s a brief summary of interwoven events:

  • On Aug. 2, 2015, Jontay Porter, Michael’s talented 6-9 younger brother, who will be a junior next season, verbally committed to Washington. Jontay and Michael would go on to lead Tolton Catholic in Columbia, Miss., to the Class 3 state title last season.
  • On May 6, Romar announced that Michael Porter Sr. – the dad of Michael and Jontay – was hired as one of his assistant coaches at Washington. Porter had been an assistant for the women’s team at the University of Missouri, where the head coach is Robin Pingeton, Lisa Porter’s sister. Two of the daughters of Michael Sr. and Lisa Porter, 6-3 Bri and 6-4 Cierra, play for the Tigers, who won 22 games last year and earned their first NCAA tournament win since 2001.
  • Last week, Brandon Roy, the former Husky and NBA star, was named the head coach at Nathan Hale High School, a previous basketball wasteland in the powerful Metro League. And at the same time, it was revealed that the Porter kids – Michael Jr., Jontay and freshman Coban – would attend Hale, thus transforming them from a doormat to instant state title contender.

Now, the cynically inclined would say this is a page out of the Larry Brown handbook-hire the dad and get the superstar kid (or kids) in the package. Brown did it at Kansas with Ed Manning, helping land Danny Manning, who led the Jayhawks to the 1988 national title.

Other examples abound of hiring high-school or AAU coaches or confidants of players to aid in the recruiting process. In 2006, for instance, Arizona State hired Scott Pera as their director of basketball operations. Pera happened to be the high-school coach of James Harden, who shortly after committed to Arizona State and became a star. The Huskies, incidentally, went hard after Harden, and Romar has called it one of the toughest recruiting losses of his career.

The NCAA eventually passed legislation to limit so-called “package deals,” forbidding schools from hiring any individual associated with a prospective athlete in a noncoaching staff position for two years before and after their enrollment.

But the non-cynically inclined will counter that Romar and Porter Sr. are long-time friends who played together on Athletes in Action in the 1980s, were in each other’s weddings, and have been described as “like brothers.” Michael Porter Jr. is Romar’s godson. It stands to reason they would want to work together.

And as for the marriage of Roy and the Porters at Hale, interpreted by some as a way for the Huskies to keep the virtues of Washington constantly in Michael’s ear, the kids had to go to school somewhere, right? And isn’t it admirable that they chose a public school at a time when, as Sports Illustrated chronicled recently, more and more high-school stars are going to so-called “pop-up schools” that are little more than AAU programs in the winter with dubious academic components.

For what it’s worth, Michael Porter Jr. says in his USA Today blog that it’s far from a done deal he’ll go to Washington. He wrote on May 18 that “Washington has always been one of the top schools on my list and of course that doesn’t hurt that he’s there,” referring to his father’s hiring at UW.

But then he added: “A lot of people think that my recruitment is over now because my dad is there and everyone knows that Coach (Lorenzo) Romar is my godfather, but I’m definitely far from making up my mind about college. I’m definitely still looking at some schools very seriously and my dad told me he wants me to do what’s best for me.”

We’ll see what happens. Porter Jr. has also said frequently that he and his AAU teammate and close friend, Trae Young, one of the top three point guards in the Class of 2017, would like to go to the same school, so it could be a real coup for Romar if he lands both.

There are unfortunate aspects to all this. The hiring of Porter meant that Brad Jackson had to be eased out of an assistant’s job into the position of “special assistant to the head coach,” perceived as a demotion. And there are mutterings in the prep coaching world that interested coaches who had paid their dues and would covet even a lackluster job like Hale’s had been pre-Porters, were passed over for someone with no experience – albeit an NBA all-star.

But there’s a counter to that, too. Roy is at a transition in his life, and if he wants to segue into coaching, well, is there a school in the state that wouldn’t jump to hire a person of his character and basketball pedigree? Sure, he might not have considered Hale if he didn’t get the Porters in the bargain, but what coach is going to turn down a trifecta like that? And who can fault parents for seeking the best possible situation for their kids?

These are treacherous times in college basketball (aren’t they all, though?), with shoe companies increasingly influential in where blue-chip prospects land. Romar is a high-character coach in a sport where sleazy is commonplace.

Many frustrated Husky fans will welcome the fact that Romar is willing to play hardball. Desperate times, as they say. This Porter situation might bump into the boundaries of dubious tactics – but I don’t see it as going over the edge.

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