It took a while, but Little Rock native Bobby Portis is right back to what he was doing for Hall High School eight years ago — playing for a championship.
Back then, it was state championships. Four in a row, to be precise.
This time, however, it’s on a much bigger stage.
Bobby Portis, the former Arkansas basketball great, is a key bench player in the Milwaukee Bucks’ quest for their first NBA World Championship since 1971.
“You know how some players say like, ‘Man, my teachers used to laugh at me when I said I was going to the league,'” Portis wrote for the Players Tribune.
“Mannn, listen, my teachers used to laugh they ass off. They never pictured me hooping up here on this stage, at this level.”
Last Sunday night in Game 3 of an NBA Finals in which the Phoenix Suns were the sport betting favorite, he leveled up for the Bucks in a big way, just as he had in the Eastern Conference Finals.
With 4:49 left in the 3rd quarter, the Bucks were trying to fend off a surging Suns squad that had closed a big lead to 77-70 when Portis stepped in. The 6’10” dynamo immediately made his presence known, collecting two offensive rebounds on the the next two Bucks possession.
Portis’ efforts sparked a chant of “Bobby! Bobby!” from the Milwaukee crowd (for the second time in the game) as he let loose a first team All-NBA caliber yell to show how much the game meant to him:
With Portis putting up 11 points and 8 rebounds in only 18 minutes, the Bucks won 120-100 to narrow the series to 2-1. Although Portis didn’t do as much offensively in Game 4, he still provided key defensive energy, helping the Bucks tie the series at 2 apiece heading into Saturday night’s pivotal Bucks vs Suns Game 5.
Bobby Portis and the Bucks
Bobby Portis is deep along the path of finishing up a career season as a valuable, steady bench presence on a title team — just like his mentor Corliss Williamson did for the Pistons during Detroit’s 2004 championship run.
After shooting 47% from three point range in the regular season, Portis came up clutch in the last round against Atlanta, when he delivered two huge performances to help make up for the loss of then-injured Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In Game 5 against the Hawks, Portis had a playoff career-high 22 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and three steals in Game 5.
Then, in Game 6, he delivered a near double-double (12 points, 9 rebounds) to clinch the series.
Those huge performances, all the more surprising considering Portis barely played in the previous playoff series, cemented Portis’ status as essentially a folk hero among Bucks fans.
They already loved his tenacity and protective nature, as shown in his body guarding of Antetokounmpo earlier in the playoffs here:
In that Bucks-Hawks series, though, they had plenty more to chant “Bobby, Bobby!” about.
“His teammates love him. The fans love him. He brings that passion for the game, for life,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
“He’s fun to be around. I think the crowd can feel that. His teammates can feel that. Coaches can feel it.”
“He’s a worker, too. It’s a little bit of everything, but passion to me is the thing he brings to the game.”
Bobby Portis added: “Milwaukee’s a tough city.”
“Some people at the start of the season — they were telling us all about the city and how tough it is to live here and things like that, and you know, the city goes through a lot.
“So, when they see somebody that gives his all and works hard, because it’s a blue-collar city and I’m a blue-collar player, I’m going to make the shots whether they are going in or not.”
“I still give my all to the team 100%, for the name in front of the jersey and they love players like that.”
This is far from his first time that “Crazy Eyes” Bobby Portis has become a fan favorite.
It happened in spurts in previous stints in Chicago and Washington, but nowhere else was Bobby-mania more obvious than in Arkansas.
Bobby Portis and Arkansas Basketball
In the two seasons he played for the Arkansas Razorbacks, Portis became one of the program’s all-time greats.
In terms of statistical efficiency, Portis put together a sophomore season that was as good as any big man in Arkansas basketball history. He won SEC Player of the Year in 2015 for good reason.
Although the Razorbacks were ousted early on in the 2015 NCAA Tournament by North Carolina, Portis had forever endeared him to Arkansas basketball fans as the shining exception among native Arkansan 5-star caliber players (e.g Archie Goodwin and Malik Monk) who in that era chose to leave the state instead of staying home and playing for Mike Anderson.
“When I step on the basketball court, I know I’m not playing for myself and just not my family,” Portis said in the excellent documentary below.
“I’m playing for the entire state of Arkansas.”
It took Portis a while to adjust to life in the pros.
First of all, he was playing for mostly sorry teams in Chicago, Washington and New York.
“When you’re on a losing team, you’re always just banging the hammer, banging the hammer, banging the hammer, trying to get something to work,” Portis told Alex Kennedy.
“You don’t practice a lot, you don’t do all the things to build a winning culture. You don’t do all the right things to help your culture be the best culture that it can be.”
Plus, for the first few years in the pros, Portis felt he should still be a star, just as he had been at Arkansas. But he eventually realized that his role was as an energy guy off the bench.
Once he embraced that, Portis has mostly flourished.
“It’s been a fun year, man. Being able to catch the ball on the block, knowing that I’m playing at my own pace and I know that the guys aren’t going to come try to [double] me because we have shooters all of the floor.”
Best yet, Portis is playing in a true team environment — different from any other team he’s ever been on.
“Coach Bud knows what players needs, he kind of caters to our bodies and things like that. It’s more mental than even physical,” he told Kennedy.
“Physically, we were going to go out there, we already knew like, ‘Okay, we have to do this. We have to play basketball. We have to share the ball. We have to give our bodies up to the team’, but here it’s more mental. He gives us a certain amount of days off for our bodies, this and that.”
In Milwaukee, “it’s a lot more than just basketball.”
Bobby Portis and Bucks Fans
Arkansas will always hold a special place in Portis’ heart, but in Milwaukee he sees some of the same chippiness mixed with pride from the fans.
“In small towns like Milwaukee, these are the real deal sports fanatics,” he told Kennedy.
“They real deal love the Packers, they’re passionate about the Bucks. You have people that has vintage clothing and stuff like that from 1950s and 60s that they still have, that they still wear. It’s cool — the basketball and sports culture here is tremendous.”
If in the next couple of weeks Antetokounmpo can keep shooting foul shots well, Holiday keep sinking his three-point shots and Portis keep going commando on the boards like he did in Game 3, then the Bucks may be coming home with their first NBA title in half a century.
If that’s the case, look for many more songs to be produced in Portis’ honor than this one:
Just in case any fans are unsure of how hard Portis will play in Game 4 come Wednesday night, let this Players Tribune passage be a preview:
“There was no way in hell I was going to go out there and let my team down, let my family down, let the organization down, my state down, and big fella Giannis, because I know how hard he works,” Portis wrote.
“Knowing how bad he wants this, how much the fans want this…. I wasn’t trying to be nothing or create a moment. I just wanted to play my role to the best of my ability. I wanted to be myself.”
“I wanted to show up for Milwaukee. I wanted to bring y’all that KG energy.”
“And y’all gave me that energy right back.”
Suns vs Bucks NBA Finals Game 5
- Date: Saturday, July 17 |
- Time: 9 p.m. CT
- Location: Phoenix Suns Arena — Phoenix, Arizona
- TV: ABC |
- Live stream: fuboTV (Try for free)