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Steve Aschburner

Terry Porter has been out of the league since being fired by the Suns in February 2009.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Porter searching for right fit as NBA itch gains steam

Posted Sep 22 2010 12:53PM

The sting subsides, the itch intensifies and sooner or later, the sensations cross like arrows on some financial guru's graph. From that point forward, for so many NBA coaches who have been through this particular career cycle, the trauma of getting fired gives way to the excitement of getting hired, with an opportunity to resume or improve upon tactics and philosophies that were so abruptly interrupted.

The You're fired! You're hired! rollercoaster is part of the bargain for coaches. Some, like Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, want and are able to get back on right away, going from the postseason with one team to preseason prep with another in one swift summer. Others, like Philadelphia's Doug Collins, go six years (Chicago to Detroit) between rides. Or seven (Washington to the 76ers).

Terry Porter is somewhere in between right now. His arrows only recently crossed. It's been 19 months since the Phoenix Suns fired him in February 2009, using him as fall guy in a season gone sideways. He had been hired the previous June to bring defense and discipline to Phoenix, only to get stuck and spit out in what became the dyspeptic Steve Kerr-Shaquille O'Neal era of Suns basketball.

Most of those involved have moved on from that relative hiccup -- Kerr back to TV, O'Neal to Cleveland and now Boston, the Suns back to their entertaining, no-starch ways -- but Porter has not. Not yet. He wants back in, interviewing for an assistant coaching job with two NBA teams this offseason. But when training camps open this week and next, he'll be watching his sons Franklin and Malcolm play football on school fields outside Portland.

"I was trying to get back in it and I had talked to a couple of different people, went through the process with a couple of teams," Porter said in a telephone interview Monday, "but it just didn't work out."

Porter declined to name the teams, but one was Chicago, where first-year head coach Tom Thibodeau eventually settled on Adrian Griffin and Ed Pinckney for his final staff hires. It wasn't that Porter needed a paycheck -- after a 17-year NBA playing career, he's more than fine financially and, besides, Phoenix still owes him another $2 million or so left from his original three-year contract. Had Porter gone to work for another team this season, the offset clause in his deal would have kept him from earning an extra dime -- he would have been doing the Suns a favor.

But after making a conscious decision a year ago to take 2009-10 off -- his first season away from the NBA since he was drafted in 1985 -- and relocating his family permanently to Portland, Porter wants back in. For reasons all unrelated to the money.

"You miss what made me get into coaching," Porter said. "You miss hanging around with the team and having a goal, fighting for that goal. It's something I enjoy, to lead a group of young men in a special game. My experiences -- and I've had just about all of them [laughing] -- can definitely shed some light for young men who are trying to make this their profession."

In the meantime, Porter is one of those sports rarities: A coach fired with a winning record. The Suns were 28-23 when they dumped him over All-Star Weekend that season, right up there on the unceremonious-defrocking scale with Stan Van Gundy being banished from Miami early in 2005-06.

Porter's Phoenix exit was worse than the one he experienced in Milwaukee in 2005, when his surprising first season (41-41, playoff berth) bloated expectations and made the Bucks' 30-52 injury-marred finish in 2004-05 seem worse.

"Each one has been a learning experience," Porter said. "Neither one of them, based on the records, I don't think was warranted. I don't like to point fingers, I was part of the process. Obviously some things I did didn't work. But one thing I'm disappointed in both of them, I didn't get a chance to finish out my contracts.

"That being said, there are a lot of guys who don't get a chance to do that."

In Milwaukee, there was disappointment in the drop of 11 victories and uncertainty stemming from Porter's lack of an extension. In Phoenix, faced with his agenda to turn a Boxster into a dumpster, there was whining in the locker room, along with ripples related to O'Neal's presence and the speculation on Amar'e Stoudemire's future whereabouts.

"The Phoenix situation was a very difficult time to try to make some adjustments. I thought we were making strides," Porter said. "When they first got Shaq, the whole premise was trying to get in position to beat San Antonio and not worry about double-teaming Timmy [Duncan]. You look at that [2008 first-round] series, they did do what they got him for. But I don't think it was a fit for the rest of the personnel."

Porter, at least in the estimation of his bosses at the time, wasn't the right fit, either. Twice. Beyond the teaching and the fun stuff, that's why he is eager to find a door back into this.

"Anybody who has a situation that doesn't play out the way they would have liked, they want to prove they're definitely capable of doing the job," Porter said. "If you feel you haven't been given a fair shake, you'd like to prove it. Like the posters say, it's the unsuccessful opportunities that really make you grow and learn and get better."

Ten of the league's 30 head coaches begin the 2010-11 season with fewer victories than Porter's 99 with the Bucks and the Suns. That includes three newcomers: Thibodeau in Chicago, Larry Drew in Atlanta and Monty Williams in New Orleans. There are other head coaches-in-waiting sitting on benches throughout the NBA -- Porter just wants to join them.

"When you sit out, a lot of times it's out of sight, out of mind," said Washington's Flip Saunders, who had Porter on his staff in Detroit. "I had approached him when I got the job in D.C. a year ago, but he just wasn't ready to make that jump. So I think it's had more to do where he became not as visible. The other thing is, when you've been in situations where you've had some success, your next job whether it's a head coach or an assistant, you want to make sure it's the right job."

Porter, 47, has no idea where the next opportunity will come -- with the threat of a lockout next summer, a team that fires a coach this season could be inclined to just move an assistant into an interim position. But he has beaten the odds before, from his days as an afterthought recruit out of Milwaukee to the smallish NAIA school, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, to his hometown Bucks passing him up at No. 22 in 1985 (they took Jerry Reynolds instead).

Even as a two-time All-Star and the point guard on Trail Blazers teams that made it to two NBA Finals, Porter had people writing him off before he was done. Curiously, he played for four franchises in 17 years without ever getting traded or leaving a team that wanted to re-sign him.

"At the end of contracts, I wouldn't get signed back," he said. "It was always, 'We think your better years are behind you. You can no longer contribute to a team.' So I always went out and found a team I could contribute to."

While Porter does that again, he will make the most of his time in the Pacific Northwest with wife Susie and the boys (daughter Brianna, after having her dad around as a high school senior, is a student at Michigan now). Like so many interested ex-players who don't have coaching jobs, Porter might do some broadcast work for the Blazers.

He also has been active in former teammate Chris Dudley's campaign for governor of Oregon, helping with fundraising through a role with Dudley's financial committee. "I like his strategy," Porter said. "More important, I think he's an honest person. He showed on the teams I played on and also during the lockout year that he has leadership qualities. I think he'd be a great leader for this state going forward."

Dudley, according to a recent SurveyUSA poll, was leading Democrat John Kitzhaber by 49 percent to 43 percent with the November election six weeks away. "Chris is running as a Republican -- I've never even voted for a Republican -- but he's not so single-minded," Porter said. "He's going to try to get the best and the brightest on both sides of the aisle."

For Kitzhaber, this is a comeback attempt; he was Oregon's governor from 1995 to 2003 before yielding to fellow Democrat Ted Kulongoski. As Porter sees it, it's time for more than just a change. A departure is more like it.

"The numbers haven't been good," he said. "Our state is ranked low in a lot of key areas. Our unemployment is higher than the national rate. We're losing corporations. The state has not been very open to businesss that could be based here.

"When someone has had eight years of an opportunity and it hasn't improved... If you want a repeat of what's happened, try the same guys. If you want something new, try somebody with a new philosophy, a new energy, new leadership."

Funny that Terry Porter, twice removed from jobs, would be talking about people given eight long years to rise or fall.

Porter laughed. "Man, we get about eight months," he said. "I think that was my average anyway, about eight months."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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