PORTLAND — Overachievement vs. grave disappointment. Enthusiastic young talent vs. disgruntled superstardom.
There are copious ways to describe Terry Porter’s contrasting experiences as a head coach in Milwaukee and Phoenix, but perhaps the testimony of TJ Ford and Amar’e Stoudemire is the most telling.
Ford, a former Bucks point guard, said “I love him,” when asked about Porter last month, and that, “Without him, we don’t go to the playoffs.” However, when Stoudemire, the former Sun, fielded a similar question regarding his old coach, he proffered a “no comment” that made the Knicks’ locker room about 10 degrees cooler.
Neither response surprised Porter.
The 47-year-old Blazer legend-turned-sideline-reporter met with various media members last week to discuss his involvement with rum distiller Captain Morgan’s charitable campaign to get one million people to strike the captain’s pose.
But Porter also veered into his past as an NBA coach, hardly denying that one stint was more desirable than the other.
“They were totally different experiences. In Milwaukee, we had a bunch of young guys out to prove themselves and they were were hungry and really came out and competed. It was great to see a group of guys come together for a mission,” Porter said. “In Phoenix, you had a lot of legends from the standpoint of Amar’e, (Shaquille O’Neal), and Steve Nash, and there was a lot of conflict as far as what the team identity was going to be.”
Porter landed the Bucks gig in August of 2003, moving back to his hometown and inheriting a team suddenly devoid of Sam Cassell and Gary Payton. But despite the personnel turnover, Milwaukee lost just one fewer game than it did the season prior and reached the playoffs.
Ford described Porter as a player’s coach who preached working hard and having fun, adding that “it was a good feeling knowing that your coach has your back.”
Even so, Porter was let go a year later when the Bucks finished 30-52.
Phoenix saw potential in him, though.
Shortly after falling to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2008 playoffs, the Suns hired Porter in hopes that he could decelerate the Suns’ fifth-gear offense and incorporate a defensive mentality.
The task, it turned out, would be like getting Eminem to do country.
His system was never embraced and the Suns plummeted, sitting in ninth place in the Western Conference at 28-23 when Porter was fired in 2009.
“I probably would have done some things different. It was my first time dealing with legendary players. When you find out the players aren’t believing in that identity, you have to make a change. I don’t think I picked up on that quickly enough,” Porter said. “It’s more of a players’ league. It’s all about putting players in positions they feel comfortable night in and night out.”
But Porter also defended his run in Phoenix, explaining that his approach, ultimately, is what the organization asked for and that no team has won a championship with that 100 mph style.
Plus, stepping away from coaching has allowed the Blazers’ all-time leader in assists and 3-point field goals to spend more time with his kids ... not to mention work as a Blazers sideline reporter.
Porter said the biggest adjustment in going from coaching to broadcasting was economizing his words, that a once limitless time frame to express his thoughts and keys to the game must now be condensed to minutes or seconds.
The easy part?
“I don’t have to worry about my hair,” he said.
Blazers radio play-by-play man Brian Wheeler said Porter has dedicated himself to the craft, not banking on his celebrity or basketball acumen to get him by.
“I think he has the attitude that if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it well,” Wheeler said. “He’ll ask for constructive criticism, but he really just does a great job of being himself.”
But is his coaching career done? Is there still a part of him that wants to step back into the hot seat and show that he can do big things?
“Whenever you have failure in something, you want to go back and prove that you're worthy and can do that job,” Porter said. “But I don't let it worry me. I go back to my playing days, me coming from a small school (Wisconsin-Stevens Point), always having to prove myself where people were always questioning me because I didn’t go to that big-time Division I school, so that’s motivation for me. But it's not something that I look at it as a woe-is-me kind of thing. I shake it off and can’t wait for that next opportunity to come, but if it doesn’t, I’m comfortable with what I’ve done in my coaching career.”