The unshakable bond between Bobby Portis and his mother

ByNick Friedell ESPN logo
Sunday, May 13, 2018

CHICAGO -- Tina Edwards didn't think much of the missed phone call. She had just arrived home from her job running a local bread company in Arkansas and went to her bedroom to lie down. About 650 miles away in Illinois, her son,Bobby Portis,was in serious trouble and desperately trying to reach her.

"The first thing [is] you freak out like something happened to your son," Edwards said. "So I FaceTimed him back, and he was like, 'Mom, I punched Niko.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'I hit Niko.' I'm like, 'No way.' I said, 'Bobby, what happened?'"

Portis handed the phone to teammate Antonio Blakeney, who then relayed the story that was soon to be the talk of the league: After a physical practice on Oct. 17, 2017, one that got particularly heated between Portis and thenChicago Bullsteammate Nikola Mirotic, Portis punched Mirotic in the face and knocked him out cold. Mirotic suffered multiple facial fractures and a concussion.

Edwards, understandably, was focused only on her son's well-being.

"Everything's running through me on what's going to happen," Edwards said. "Is he going to be in the league? Is he not going to be in the league? What they're going to do, what the punishment [will be]? Everything."

Edwards, who has been Portis' rock throughout his entire career, had one message for the third-year forward, who was shaken by the biggest mistake he'd made in his professional life.

"I think it was more so bothering him because [he thought], 'This is my job,'" Edwards said. "I don't care what type of job you have, nobody wants to lose their job. And then, that's Bobby's first job and that's his first love ... so me and him talked about it throughout the day, throughout the night, the next morning. I texted him: 'Keep your head up,' and he was like, 'Mom, how can I when I don't know what's going to happen to me?'"

Basketball was always destined to be a big part of Bobby Portis' life, thanks to his mother.

"She likes basketball a lot," Portis said. "That was her first love, and I feel like she's living her dream through me."

Edwards played at Hinds Community College in Mississippi and accepted a scholarship to Jackson State University before getting pregnant with Portis.

"I showed him some newspaper clippings of myself and what I did in junior college," Edwards said. "I think he pushed himself -- 'Hey, I can do the same stuff my mom did.'"

Edwards ended her playing career when she had Portis, the oldest of her four sons, saying she "chose motherhood over basketball when that time came." But she didn't leave sports behind entirely.

"I did everything with Bobby," she said. "From birth to being in the front yard throwing the ball because I thought he was going to be a baseball player. I used to toss the ball, he used to hit the ball over the fence. It was just like everything we did, we did together. I'd just work and then put all my focus to him."

As the years have passed, Edwards remains appreciative of the winding road it took for Portis to reach this stage.

"It was just him and I from right at a year of his life, because his dad left us when he was 10 months," Edwards said. "I was fortunate because a lot of kids are being raised [in] single-parent [homes] and both of my parents are in my life. When Bobby's dad left us and went on the way and did what he was going to do, it kind of did something to me because I didn't want to have a child with no father in his life."

Edwards did her best to fill both parental roles in Portis' life while also introducing him to the game she once played. She showed her son moves before games and enjoyed watching him play. But as he got older, his emotions began getting the best of him on the court.

"It was his seventh-grade year," Edwards said. "I remember Corliss Williamson being at that game. Bobby was so emotional. He was a wreck all over the court. He probably got a technical foul. After the game, I just told him face-to-face, 'Hey, I would rather see any other kid on the floor playing than you.'"

Williamson has a son who is the same age as Portis, and he played a big role in Portis' development during his teen years. However, the former 12-year NBA vet, who remains a beloved figure in his home state after leading Arkansas to a national title in 1994, credits Edwards for the influence he was able to have on Portis.

"The one thing I commend Ms. Tina on is that she was old-school in her thinking as far as coaching and parenting," Williamson said. "And she told me, 'Treat him like he's your son. If he's getting out of line, do what you would do with your son.' And just developing that relationship, to me it was a natural thing the way it happened. It wasn't anything special that I tried to do, but he was a sponge when it came to basketball. He wanted to learn, he wanted to get better, and I think he saw that I was genuine in how I felt about him and how I treated him."

To this day, Portis says he can hear his mother's voice when he's on the court.

"I feel like every time I'm out there, I feel like my mom's like, she's right there with me," Portis said. "I can just hear her voice like, 'You got to go harder, go harder.' That's why I just play as hard as I can no matter what every time I'm out there. If I'm 1-for-7, you're still going to see me going hard, down on the floor, trying to get the crowd into it, flexing my arms or something, trying to get us going."

Edwards knew her son would be suspended after punching Mirotic but hadn't anticipated the length. Portis was banned for eight games, meaning he'd miss the first three weeks of the regular season. Edwards just kept telling her son to stay positive and forwarded him a favorite Bible verse centered on a simple message: "This too shall pass."

She also told her son to stay off social media, but he struggled to do so as the vitriol piled up.

"Once I finally logged back into it, it was crazy," Portis said. "I've never had that many people coming at me."

It was difficult for Edwards to see the things people were saying about her son.

"If that's how you see my son, that's how you see him, but I know he's not that way," she said. "Because I tell you one thing, out of 22 years, because it happened when he was 22, my son had never put his hands on anybody. I don't even think he had a childhood fight. I don't think he ever got into it."

Portis admits now that dealing with the criticism from fans and the media in the immediate aftermath of the altercation and suspension was difficult at times, but no outsider could possibly be as hard on him as the one person closest to him: his mother.

"She's my hardest critic, but at the same time, I feel like that's a blessing because at least I have a mom that watches the game -- even when we were down in Indy," he said. "We were down 40 points, she was still telling me, 'I don't think you went hard enough. You could have helped the team better.' She always criticizes me, but at the same time, I think it's a blessing in disguise."

Portis was allowed to practice with the team during his eight-game suspension, but he leaned on the support of his mother even more when the actual game action was taken away from him.

"I talked to her every day because it's kind of hard being away from not just the team, but being away from playing in this arena, traveling with the team," he said. "It's kind of hard being away from it."

After staying away from the team facility for the first few weeks of his recovery, Mirotic eventually started working out again at The Advocate Center as a cloud of awkwardness and uncertainty hung over the organization. In his first public comments to reporters days after the altercation, Portis said he called and texted Mirotic to apologize, but Mirotic didn't respond.

Once Mirotic got closer to returning, he had to watch from an exercise machine above the Bulls' practice court as Portis continued working out with his teammates in between games. The iciness between the two teammates took a toll on everyone within the organization.

"I know everyone says I'm the bad guy, I hit him," Portis said. "But it was hard for me personally because I couldn't play basketball, I had to stay away, I couldn't come in the gym certain hours because Niko had to come in the gym. It was just a difficult situation all around because I feel like I was isolated, too."

While multiple teammates publicly acknowledged that Portis shouldn't have hit Mirotic, they, along with coach Fred Hoiberg and executive vice president John Paxson, stood behind Portis in saying he was a good teammate who had made a mistake.

"The thing with Bobby was we had to find a way to move on, to get past it," Hoiberg said. "It was tough. I know how bad he felt after the incident. Was it a little awkward when everybody got back in the gym? Yeah, it was a little bit. But again, they found a way to put it behind them, and Niko deserves a ton of credit for handling everything the way he did and finding a way to come out and play the best basketball of his career, and Bobby, as well."

Throughout his career, Portis has had only one thought in his mind as he steps on the basketball floor -- one that was reinforced as he tried to bounce back from his suspension: Don't let Mom down.

"I saw her grind it out each and every day to provide," Portis said. "That started making me want to work hard to be somebody. I'm one of those guys, so everybody in my state looks up to me because of the work ethic that I put in, because of my mom because she instilled that in me as a kid."

Williamson, who also helped shape Portis' work ethic as a younger player, was hopeful his protégé would emerge from the ugly national headlines with a mentality to let his game do the talking.

"Don't let that one moment define you," Williamson told Portis. "I said, 'We all make mistakes in life.' The biggest thing with him is to try and put it behind him and go out there and play his heart out."

All the lessons Edwards, Williamson and another former AAU coach, Marcus McCarroll, taught were on display every night. Portis knew opponents and fans would try to get under his skin, but he had grown used to that over the years.

"I remember arguing with some of the referees, sometimes they wanted to give him a tech or tell me, 'Take him out of the game,' because he was emotional at the time," Williamson said. "And I'm like, 'No, he's fine. He's going to be all right. He has to learn how to play through that stuff.' He did it as a kid, and now you see him doing it as an adult."

As Edwards watches from a distance, she beams with pride not only about how Portis was able to get his career back on track, but how her son has carved out a niche for himself in the face of difficult circumstances growing up.

"I'm ecstatic, everything," Edwards says. "Even though this is Year 3, when I just see him on TV ... I'm still shocked and amazed that three years ago, he was in college. Now, just to see him on the pro level, to see him [as] one of the 60 that got drafted, one of the 60 that's still there right now, that's succeeding, and he's looking well."

When Mirotic was finally ready to play in games again almost two months after the fight occurred, he told the assembled media he had accepted Portis' apology -- but it remained unclear whether the pair had ever actually discussed the altercation. They still weren't speaking off the floor as Hoiberg and his staff made sure the duo was playing together in practice, not on opposing teams. With losses piling up and the season at a breaking point, people both inside and outside the organization wondered how the pair would coexist again on the court. The answer came quickly: The Bulls rattled off seven consecutive victories in December as Portis and Mirotic became one of the most productive bench duos in the game.

"I think probably after what happened, we kind of felt that we got to do better," Mirotic said shortly after the streak was snapped. "I think that was the only chance probably to have good communication, was on the floor. That's what we were trying [to do]. Finding each other, trying to relax a little bit. It was impossible to be normal, but try to look normal out there playing."

Teammates and coaches praised both men for handling themselves like professionals.

"It's a credit to them for finding a way to not let it affect the team," Hoiberg said. "Every team I was on, there was a fight, and just you didn't have the end result that happened with this one. At the end of the day, you try to move past it as best you can. The chemistry of those two guys showed from day one when they were out there on the floor together I think was very admirable."

Edwards was hoping to get a chance to speak to Mirotic during a moms trip the Bulls organized during a road trip to New York City in January, but the pair never crossed paths.

"I would have loved to talk to him," Edwards said. "Because me, personally, I've been in situations -- I don't hold grudges, and I hope he never holds a grudge against BP or any aspect of whatever stuff happened."

Ultimately, Mirotic was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for a package that included a future first-round pick for the Bulls. Paxson acknowledged after the trade's completion that Mirotic's representatives had been asking for a deal for weeks after the incident with Portis. Despite the ending, Portis and Mirotic's ability to get over their issues and play together helped lift significant pressure off the Bulls during a stretch in which they played their best basketball of the season.

"I think I learned patience," Portis said of what he took from the situation before Mirotic's departure. "I've learned how to handle a hard situation, try to make it into something positive."

The other thing Portis will carry with him is his ability to block out all the noise around him.

"I had to play through all the negative comments," Portis said. "Negative things I heard in the crowd. Now, I don't ever hear it anymore. I just let my game do the talking. That's the beauty of basketball. If you go out there and play and show that you're productive each and every night, then nobody really has nothing really to say."

When Edwards watched games this season, she saw her son more relaxed on the floor than he had been in several years. She still finds herself yelling at the television screen sometimes as her son races up and down the floor. She wishes she could get to more of Portis' games, but she still has her job to take care of and a household to run.

"I'm everything," said Edwards of her emotions while watching Portis play. "Even my boys here, they're like, 'Why are you always smiling?' I'll be talking to the TV when he's playing and something like that. They're like, 'He can't even hear you.' I'm like, 'I know that!' but it's just me. Because he's doing something that I love. I love the game of basketball."

There's a lot to love while watching Portis these days. He averaged career highs in points (13.2) and rebounds (6.8) during his breakout third season. Portis recommitted himself to getting into great shape before the season, going from 12.3 percent to 7.3 percent body fat. He says he has added 10 pounds of muscle, going from 242 to 252, since the end of the 2016-17 season.

"When his energy is high," Bulls point guard Kris Dunn said, "it resonates through the team."

Portis also demonstrated an ability to knock down 3-pointers on a more consistent basis this season, shooting a career-high 35.9 percent on 3.1 attempts per game -- more than double his average from the previous season. In his first two seasons in the league, Portis took 22.8 percent of his shots from 16 to 24 feet, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. This season, that number dropped to 13.3 percent.

"It's been great," Portis said of his season. "From where it started off real rocky to where it got now. It's a smooth-sailing sea right now. It's been fun for me because I got to showcase my abilities, what I can do. I got to show I can shoot the ball, handle the ball, and I can show that I'm an NBA player now. There was probably questions before, but I think I've answered all those now."

Heading into the final season of his rookie contract, Portis has the opportunity to sign an extension with the Bulls before the 2018-19 campaign begins. He has embraced the city of Chicago and is hopeful he can stay here for years to come.

"This is the city that drafted me, the city that I wanted to play for from the jump," he said. "It's fun because they've seen me grow over time, seen me grow into a good player. It's always good that they want me here, and that's the beauty of you working for something and working for something, and it finally comes."

In the meantime, Portis knows his biggest fan will be cheering him on no matter what happens.

"Sometimes, as parents and kids, you don't always see eye to eye with things," he said. "But me and Mom, we're going to talk every day no matter what."