2021 NBA Finals

Legend continues to grow for Bucks fan favorite Bobby Portis

Bobby Portis' teammates and Milwaukee fans alike have grown to appreciate his energy and hard work.

Bobby Portis has provided an emotional spark for the Bucks during The Finals.

Long before it was “Bob-by! Bob-by! Bob-by!” booming through Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum in delight and appreciation for Bucks reserve forward Bobby Portis Jr., there was a whole lot of “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby.”

Only quieter, more exasperated, coming from a lone coach or front-office executive.

As much as Portis ignites Milwaukee’s home fans in this 2021 playoff run, all the way to The Finals, he would sometimes frustrate those charged with fitting his skills and personality into a team’s success.

He runs hot, occasionally boiling over when a cooler, more calm approach might work better. His confidence when he hit the NBA with Chicago as the No. 22 pick in the 2015 draft was unbridled, but in need of reining in every so often. Exuberance is good, but the irrational kind frequently isn’t.

“I know my rep,” Portis said in a recent interview. “I think for a long time I was just seen as that guy who punched his teammate.”

Not just that, a reference to Portis’ ugly run-in with Bulls teammate Nikola Mirotic during a scrimmage in the fall of 2017. Portis also was seen as the guy who in October 2018 turned down a rookie scale contract extension from the Bulls worth somewhere between $40 million and $50 million, a deal that would have locked in generational wealth for him and his family in Little Rock, Ark. Portis got traded after that decision, Chicago preferring not to deal with his restricted free agency the following summer. After a partial season with Washington, Portis accepted a $15 million deal for short-end money with New York in 2019-20.

Based on his play with the Bulls, the Wizards and the Knicks, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward firmed up his reputation for putting up solid numbers — 18 points, 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes through his first five seasons — for shaky teams. So shaky that, when the NBA announced its restart plans for the Orlando bubble last summer, Portis’ Knicks weren’t even invited.

Like so many people during the pandemic, Portis was stuck at home with more time for introspection than he’d ever imagined.

“The bubble did it for me,” Portis told The Athletic last week. “Years before, when my team didn’t make the playoffs, I was able to take my mind off of it. Going on a trip with my family or traveling or flying here and working out there. But last year when my team wasn’t invited to the bubble, I think that’s when I had enough of it because I was at home for … nine months from March to November. No NBA games to play in, just straight working out.”

Portis, whose favorite NBA player growing up was Kevin Garnett, took a bold step: He texted, then talked with Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, vowing he could help Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo pitched the idea to the team’s front office and Portis was signed at a discount, a two-year, $7.5 million contract.

It still was on coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff, along with Portis and his new teammates, to make it work. Remember, the Legend of Bobby Portis Jr., as a fan favorite was months away. His reputation and those “crazy eyes” preceded him. He was tightly wound and Garnett-like without the portfolio.

“I didn’t know what the ‘Legend of Bobby Portis, Jr.’ would be,” Budenholzer said between Games 3 and 4 of The Finals. “But certainly throughout the season there’s been some moments where trying to find that balance of … whether it being keeping your focus, going to the next play, being prepared for a defensive possession or just keeping your mind in a good kind of mental space and focused, but at the same time having that great energy. He brings great energy to our team, to our arena, and he’s let me know that he does that.”

The coach laughed because the conversations and the work have been paying off.

Said Portis of team film sessions that drove home hard lessons: “I feel like I’m the first person on the film all the time. He just stays on me. I think we all need coaches like that to push us.

“They really locked in on me the first couple months of the season. Just on me and on me every day about defense. Some days I was like, ‘Damn, I can’t do nothing right.’ But staying with it, being myself and just trusting these guys has helped me get to this point.”

Bobby Portis reacts to being a fan favorite in Milwaukee.

As tempting as it might be to sub in Portis solely for his energy and crowd-rousing impact, Budenholzer said he sticks to strategy and matchups, particularly with playoff stakes so high. That’s how Portis can play as little as 11 minutes some nights, as much as 36 on others and even stack up three DNP-CDs the way he did in the seven-game East semifinals against Brooklyn.

“This is the NBA. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you,” Portis said. “That’s one thing my vets taught me as a rookie. You play two minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes, have a good game, bad game, it’s next-day mentality. When 12 o’ clock hits on game day, it’s over with. It’s time to focus on [the next game]. I don’t sit and sob or get mad or anything if I’m not playing.”

It helps that Portis can put a charge into his teammates whether he’s on the floor or over by the bench.

“It gives everybody energy,” Bucks wing Khris Middleton said. “Sometimes you need a guy that’s going to scream and yell to get you going. Bobby has been incredible for us. There’s been sometimes when he hasn’t been playing and then he comes in and gives us the spark that we need, and then there’s sometimes where he’s the regular rotation guy for us and it’s causing problems for other teams.”

Middleton on Portis: 'You need a guy that's gonna scream and yell to get you going'

Khris Middleton on Portis: 'You need a guy that's gonna scream and yell to get you going'

All without resentment of his popularity with the fans or worries that Portis, with the hollering and the stomping, might inadvertently fire up the wrong team.

Said Middleton: “I don’t understand why people think it’s a bad thing to yell and scream or flex. Sometimes I feel like that on the inside — I just don’t do it. Some guys have the courage and the confidence to do it. That’s what we love about him: He’s himself at all times.”

Portis has been that way since before he the NBA, before his two seasons at the University of Arkansas. He revealed a little bit of who he is in a piece last week for The Player’s Tribune:

“I look at the score, and I see somewhere I already done been before. And I’m not just talking about basketball.

I see Little Rock, Arkansas.

I see growing up in 18 different houses when I was a kid.

I see how my mom was grinding every day to make the most out of a bad situation.

I can still picture how I used to walk out to the car after practice and find my mama sleep in the driver’s seat. She’d get up at three, four in the morning to go to work, so waiting in the car for me was the only time she could rest, and she’d just be knocked out, man. I felt bad waking her up.

I’d be on the window like tap, tap, tap. “Mama!” Knocking or whatever. And no joke, she’d get up, drive us home, cook some food, help my little brothers with their homework, then finally get like two, three hours of sleep — and then start the same routine over the next day.

So, you wanna talk about down?

Ain’t nothing you can tell me about it because I was born down. All the underdogs out there know what I’m talking about.”

So it’s more than Portis’ hustle plays, his screams, his flashing of biceps or his everyman’s game uniform (headband, T-shirt under the jersey) that connects with Bucks fans. It’s his genuineness that comes through. Let the other guys stay cool and calm. These are exciting times, and Portis has worked long and hard for this.

“That’s probably the toughest thing as a young player coming into the league,” he said. “You don’t really understand the marathon you’re going to run. Everybody’s journey is going to be different. You have to run your own race. And I just had to figure that out at an early age. Once I figured that out, I was content and at peace with myself.”

Nothing peaceful about his game, though.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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