Soon after his father joined the staff of University of Missouri women’s basketball coach and sister-in-law Robin Pingeton in 2010, fifth-grader Michael Porter Jr. watched what he remembers as his first college basketball game from the relative rafters of Mizzou Arena.
“I tried to get better tickets, but the 209 section were the only ones available,” said Porter Jr., the University of Missouri basketball program’s anticipated lifeline as he gestured to that site on Friday, the first day of college basketball practice.
It was packed, he remembered, for the likes of Marcus Denmon and Kim English.
“All my favorite dudes; I looked up to them,” said younger brother Jontay, who reclassified to join his brother as an incoming freshman this season.
Jontay’s first memory here was Denmon “killing it” against Kansas from the decidedly closer vantage of Section 105 in a building each has come to know intimately.
Since then, it’s seldom been crackling that way — unless you count when Porter Jr. amassed 31 points and 19 rebounds for Father Tolton Catholic in the 2016 Missouri Class 3 high school championship game.
That’s about to change radically in a setting that for at least the next year might be more aptly called Porter House in the wake of the family’s return to Columbia from Washington — where Porter Jr. was committed before coach Lorenzo Romar lost his job.
Between Michael, the nation’s top prospect, and the promise of heralded Jontay, between sisters Bri and Cierra with the women’s team and Michael Porter Sr. on first-year coach Cuonzo Martin’s staff, the family is at the epicenter of a remarkable revival of spirits, anyway.
At least leading into MU’s Nov. 10 men’s opener against Iowa State, it’s been an amazing transformation in perception from the gloom of 27 wins in three years under Kim Anderson — including just eight last season.
Only months after apathy had rendered attendance an embarrassment, MU as of Friday had sold about 4,000 student season tickets and more than 9,000 of the roughly 9,500 season tickets it makes available to non-students.
Anticipating the rest of the season tickets will be sold out within a couple weeks, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mizzou will have hit capacity on season ticket sales for the first time since the opening season at Mizzou Arena (2004-2005).
“It’s going to be an amazing feeling not having to create your own energy for once,” junior guard Terrence Phillips said, adding that he believes it will be “absolutely incredible” here for the opener.
For his part, Phillips is trying not to look much past just that even as he figures “the troubles” are behind MU.
That’s because the normally upbeat Phillips takes nothing for granted after last season, when amid a 13-game losing streak, he volunteered Friday, he “broke down and cried” in frustration one day as he drove.
“That stays between us,” he joked after.
Still, Phillips is among those saying with a straight face that MU’s goal now is to be the last team standing — as national champions.
“On paper, we have the tools to go all the way, but we have to be able to put it together and work as a team,” he said. “So if we can’t do that, then all this attention is just for nothing.”
If it sounds crazy, well, what’s lost thinking that way?
Especially as MU flails in football and seeks to put the hopeless times in men’s basketball behind, good for the Tigers to be able to visualize such a turnaround.
If the lofty expectations might seem problematic for a new coach, they aren’t a burden for Martin.
For one thing, he doesn’t want to douse any enthusiasm for long-suffering fans.
For another, he insists it’s healthy for his team to think that way as long as it understands the grind that must come with it.
Whether the talk is in any way legitimate will hinge most on Michael Porter Jr., the key reason the incoming recruiting class, that also features Jeremiah Tilmon, C. J. Roberts and Blake Harris, is considered among the top handful in the nation.
It seems understood, for instance, that Porter Jr. will be in Columbia for only one season.
Asked if that was something he’d discussed with him, Martin at his news conference laughed and said, “Sometimes, you just don’t waste time with certain things.”
No wonder Porter Jr. can’t go anywhere in town without being fussed over for pictures or autographs or just a word.
“But it’s part of it,” Porter Jr. said. “It’s part of being good at what you do.”
Porter Jr. radiates a certain confidence that doesn’t come off as cocky, with Phillips suggesting that being surrounded by family has helped him “know who he is” and be able to distinguish between people who want to glom on to him for his game and those who like him for himself.
Still, forgive teammates if maybe they don’t want to hang out with Porter Jr. around town.
“You can’t really walk around with him, to be honest,” grad transfer Kassius Robertson said, smiling. “In public, you’re going to get stopped every two seconds. You’re never going to get where you’re going.”
In the arena, though, the Tigers figure they’re going places they haven’t been for a while … with a boost from someone who remembers what it used to be like.
Former MU coach “Frank Haith offered me (a scholarship) when I was back in seventh grade, and that was my first offer, and I’m just so familiar with his program,” Porter Jr. said. “I’ve been in here for years and years and years.
“And then to finally be able to come out here and be a player on the court with all the Mizzou fans around, it’s going to be a surreal moment, for sure."