The seven basketball players seem like giants as they move about
the classroom, young students staring up at them. The children
are 12- and 13-year-olds at Skinner Middle School, a plain brick
building in a rundown section of northwest Denver. Students at
Skinner typically record among the lowest reading levels in the
city, and a large portion of Rose O'Dorisio's eighth-grade class
in language arts is expected to drop out before finishing high
school. Truancy is rampant at Skinner, but attendance is always
high on the days the basketball players come to tutor. "I'm so
grateful to them," says O'Dorisio. "They relate to the kids in a
way that I can't. They walk in, these tall young men who play
basketball for a college, and the kids are rapt."
The college is Regis University, a 120-year-old Jesuit school
with a liberal arts curriculum and a pristine, manicured main
campus three miles from Skinner. It costs close to $24,000 a
year to attend Regis, which has a primarily white student body
of about 8,000. But about 60% of the members of the basketball
team are minorities who would not be able to attend Regis
without financial aid. The NCAA Division II basketball program,
fueled and guided since 1977 by coach Lonnie Porter, is one of
the best in the country.
On this afternoon Regis's senior point guard, 6-foot Antonio
Scott, is helping a slight girl with braces on her teeth
complete the final draft of a research paper. Scott has had his
own academic troubles--his 2.11 GPA suffers in comparison with
the basketball team's overall 2.94--but not for lack of effort.
Porter's rule is, you study rigorously or you don't play ball.
Scott scans the student's report, points out a few grammatical
errors and offers words of encouragement. "Keep trying," he
says, and she goes back to work.
The weekly tutoring is something Porter started five years ago.
All of his players are required to give 16 hours of community
service each year, and they spend most of that time tutoring
low-income students from first grade through middle school. Some
players new to the program grouse about the demands on their
time, but Porter finds that quite often those 16 hours are
voluntarily stretched to more.
This is Porter's 20th year at Regis, and his record there is
341-209, including a 9-4 mark through Jan. 16 this season. His
clubs have gone 132-55 in the 1990s and 25-5 in each of the past
two seasons. Last year the Rangers made it to the Division II
regional playoffs. Porter's contract, which was recently
extended to 2001, requires that 92% of his players graduate, and
the coach wouldn't have it any other way. Of the 82 players who
have completed their eligibility during his tenure, 77 have gone
out diploma in hand. "That's my job," Porter says. "If you're
educated, you have an obligation to help people."
Yet winning games and graduating players at rates most coaches
never approach is not enough for Porter. As a rule his teams are
close-knit and thrive on defense, hustle and disciplined play.
"We go through some of the same experiences by teaching the
kids," says 6'1" junior forward Dwight Berry, of Youngstown,
Ohio. "I think it brings us closer as a team. And it reminds you
never to take playing for Regis and getting a college education
A college education was something that Porter, 53, certainly
didn't take for granted. He was born in Mississippi and moved at
age 5 to Indianapolis. There he attended Crispus Attucks High
for two years before moving to Waterloo, Iowa. His ability as a
point guard got him a scholarship to Adams State in Alamosa,
Colo., where, after earning a bachelor's degree in education and
a master's in secondary education administration, he became a
graduate assistant for the basketball team in 1965-66. He later
moved to Denver to teach phys ed and coach at Manual High. His
'72 team won the Class 3A state title, and the next year Porter
landed an assistant's job at Nebraska. He spent five years there
before returning to Denver for the job at Regis, which he
expects to hold, he says, "until I'm done."
He is six feet tall and as burly as a bulldog, but his chocolate
eyes well up with emotion when he talks about his outreach to
Denver's inner-city children, work that in 1994 earned him a
prestigious Spotlight award from McDonald's Corp. and KWGN-TV in
Denver. No one close to Porter can quite explain why he has such
a bent for helping others, and Porter himself is reluctant to
talk about it. Last summer he realized his dream of having a
summer academy on campus. Every morning for two weeks he got
behind the wheel of a bus, brought 22 kids from poor
neighborhoods to Regis to read, write and play a little ball,
and later got back in the bus and drove them home. "That's just
Lonnie," says his mother, Verdie Mae, who now lives with her son
in Denver. "Just Lonnie doing what he does."
But lest he come across as a pushover--this gentle man who
dispenses hugs as he makes his school rounds--watch him as he
runs practices and games. He often wears combat fatigues or all
black, and he has the temperament of a commanding officer under
attack. One of his favorite drills consists of firing
basketballs from close range at a freshman player. Game time, he
paces the bench area and stamps his foot in anger, his deep eyes
narrowed and fierce, his forehead taut. "C'mon, boy, be a man!"
he screams at forwards who don't rebound. Porter's players, the
same ones he stands with quietly in elementary school
classrooms, passing out free notebooks, fear him on the court.
"I coach like that because that's how life is," says Porter. "A
lot of these guys are minorities from lower-class backgrounds.
The cards are stacked against them. If they want to have a
chance in life, they have to know they can't let up for a minute."
Porter doesn't shy away from players with troubled pasts, and
stories abound of the lives he has turned around. Here's one:
Ricky Munoz, a '96 Regis graduate, is the youngest of four
children raised by a single mother in Los Angeles. One of
Munoz's brothers was shot and killed as a teenager; another went
to jail. Munoz's sister left home, pregnant, at age 15. But
Ricky and his mother moved to Arizona when he was 12, and he
somehow held his life together. He was 22 and struggling to pass
classes at Cochise Community College in Arizona when Porter met
him on a recruiting trip. The two men talked. They liked each
other. Two months later Munoz was arrested for drug trafficking,
but Porter didn't blink. He told Munoz that he had a scholarship
waiting for him, then wrote the district judge on Munoz's behalf
and got at least four months lopped off the player's
12-to-36-month sentence. "He didn't do that because he needed
me," says Munoz. "I wasn't going to be a big star who carried
the team. That's how I knew he cared."
Munoz made it to Regis, started at point guard and, yes, went to
Skinner to tutor. "I'd walk in, and kids would run over and say,
'Ricky, Ricky, help me,'" Munoz recalls. "No one had ever needed
me like that."
Today Munoz has a degree in sociology and works as a counselor
at a Denver school for at-risk youths. "I plan to do this kind
of work forever, and I owe my whole direction to Coach Porter,"
says Munoz. "When I thank him, he just says, 'Thank me by
helping out some young person.' So that's what I'm doing."
On a mid-December night Porter sits in his spare office and
reflects on Regis's 64-63 loss to Mesa State an hour earlier.
The Rangers' go-to star, 6'4" junior guard/forward Marcus
Harris, is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Porter
gazes at the bookshelf before him: war histories, a biography of
Gen. George Patton, another of Muhammad Ali. The top shelf holds
a small copy of Rodin's statue The Thinker.
"It's going to be tough this year," Porter says. "We're going to
struggle more than we usually do. But the players are still
going to get two things from me: discipline and love. Who knows,
maybe we'll be all right."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM R. SALLAZ Porter believes that tough love is the only way to make his players resilient. [Lonnie Porter coaching]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WILLIAM R. SALLAZ Bryan Trombley (above left, tutoring a student) and Brock Trice (14, against Mesa State) strive to meet Porter's standards. [Bryan Trombley and girl; Brock Trice in game]