The big reveal in the saga of Michael Porter Jr. at Missouri will be unfurled on Friday night at Bridgestone Arena as the Tigers try to win their first NCAA Tournament game in eight years when they take on Florida State.
Much of the meaning of his fleeting MU career will hinge on whether Mizzou prevails to play another day and take advantage of his improbable and at-times puzzling path to return from back surgery.
“Life doesn’t always happen the way you want it to, but we’re here and we have an opportunity to do something special,” he said Thursday from the eye of a media scrum-swarm in the MU locker room. “This is what the whole season was about, so regardless of how the season went, we’re here and we’re ready to go.”
Just how ready remains to be seen.
Nobody on this team has played in the NCAA Tournament, and the Tigers are reduced to seven scholarship players in the wake of the suspension of Jordan Barnett.
And then there’s the unanswerable mystery X-factor of Porter, whom Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton on Thursday called “one of the top four or five players in college basketball” despite the fact he has played just 25 minutes as a collegian.
His return to action last week in a depressing loss to Georgia was anticlimactic even if rust was inevitable for someone who hadn’t played in four months, had barely returned to practice and estimated himself to be at about 65 percent capacity that day.
So he’s a few ticks better now, he’ll tell you, and his conditioning is “a lot, lot better.”
He expects a month from now he’ll feel a lot better still … and that a month from next month he’ll feel better yet … and seems to have no doubt he’ll be better than ever before long.
“I just can’t wait to see myself a few months from now,” he said.
This is the sort of stuff he says innocently, surely with little cognizance of the fact that most figure a few months from now he’ll be an NBA Draft pick instead of a Missouri Tiger.
With the present waiting to be defined and the future looming, Porter and his father lent some compelling insight Thursday into how we got where we are now and what was happening along the way.
Their words don’t shade in all the gaps in the see-saw story that included teases of an earlier return.
But they certainly provide a lens into the family approach and thinking once it was determined MPJ would require back surgery — a microdiscectomyof the L3-L4 spinal discs to remove lower back herniated disc material.
When it came to that, his father said he was “relieved” — because they finally had put a name on back issues that had troubled him off-and-on for a couple years “and it was a fixable situation.”
“I was disappointed only because he was in pain, and you hate to see your kid in pain; I wasn’t disappointed that he had to go through adversity,” said Porter Sr., an assistant to coach Cuonzo Martin who has scarcely spoken to the media before Thursday. “I feel like adversity — especially when it’s not life-threatening, like that wasn’t — it makes you stronger, man.
“The process of working to come back, it’s humbling. You’ve got to serve other people, you’ve got to watch other people have success and learn how to deal with that.”
As far as how the family processed it all, Porter Sr. said that they talked about the implications for his future, looked at the pros and cons of his returning and left it with the son to decide whether he wanted to play once he was cleared medically.
“I was fine with him playing, I was fine with him not playing,” the father said, later adding, “To be honest with you, I (couldn’t) care less about next-level stuff.
“Tomorrow’s not promised, all we’ve got is today, and I want him to make the most of today.”
Thrilled as he is that his son is back, joining brother Jontay, Porter Sr. says that it was the basis for MPJ’s decision that moved him most.
To get to that part of the story, the father first said his son probably was healthy enough to “have played a couple weeks before.”
Except for this caveat.
“He hates not feeling like himself out there on the floor,” he said.
Some will hear that and feel angry or disappointed he didn’t return sooner, but it’s more reasonable to ask how much that would have helped anyone if he was medically cleared but not mentally ready or properly conditioned.
Porter would say how great he felt, but the context most likely was that his back felt great … not that he felt in proper shape.
That dynamic is perhaps a pivot point in some of the disconnection in anticipation of the timing of his return.
Because he was fairly clear about the difference on Thursday.
“When I got injured, I said, ‘I’m only stepping foot back on a playing court when I’m 110 percent,’ ” Porter Jr. said. “And then the time came when I got cleared (medically), and I wasn’t 110 percent.”
His understanding from his doctor was “you’re not going to be (ready to be) a key player on the team, but you can probably pick your spots.’ ”
That prevailing thought made him hesitant for some days until he was struck by the content of a Bible study, both he and his father said.
“ ‘You’re not given talent for yourself,’ ” Porter Jr. remembered hearing that night. “ ‘You’re given talent to give it away.’ ”
In the wake of Cullen VanLeer’s season-ending ACL injury and the season’s end approaching, all the voices in his head simmered down to this:
“The whole sermon was about talent, and it … seemed like he was talking to me.”
And he heard this:
It was time.
“If I’m 65 percent and I play and kind of lose some people’s respect of me as a player, that’s fine,” he said. “In a few months, it’ll be back.”
Still, how much it’ll be back on Friday is an absolute guess from the outside looking in.
Porter isn’t as explosive as he can be, but he feels closer to “normal Mike.”
In practice, anyway, he’s worked to get balance back on his jumper, which suffered against Georgia (five of 17 from the field) by him fading and leaving shots short.
He also expects he can be more in the flow because, well, “I didn’t really know the plays that well yet” against Georgia, explaining that the offense had evolved since he was playing earlier in the season.
So that’s a glimpse behind the haphazard and strange path to this moment on this stage, where the twists of the way here will give way to what it all amounted to … one way or another.