The national perception of Arkansans isn’t great right now. Over the weekend, I watched a package CNN aired on anti-vaxers in the western part of the state. There were several sound bites from folks that lent credence to the stereotype that Arkansans are ignorant hillbillies.
Pretty embarrassing and disappointing on so many levels for many of us that call Arkansas home. Viewers nationwide see our COVID-19 numbers skyrocket and our vaccination numbers stay under 40 percent and then watch this broadcast and understand why.
And then there is the positive ray of light that is Bobby Portis. The proud Little Rock native and former University of Arkansas star has told anybody who would listen that he is from Little Rock and proud of it. And the people of Milwaukee embraced him like a native son as he became a surprising key cog in the Bucks NBA title run this summer.
“I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Portis told Yahoo Sports. “This is like an everyday thing. No matter if I am making shots or missing shots, they love the fact that I play hard and give my all to the team. I go after 50-50 balls and do all the things necessary to impact winning. This is a blue-collar city. The people of Milwaukee work hard as they can for their families. I think us winning and the way we play has brought the city together. My style of play just connects with the fan base, and I think they appreciate that.”
This season, Bucks fans embraced Portis, 26, as a favorite at the Fiserv Forum and began a chant of “Bobby! Bobby! Bobby!” Never was that chant louder than when Portis stepped up in Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks. Portis started in place of NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was injured. Portis pumped in 22 points helping the Bucks to a 3-2 series lead and giving him cult status in the Midwestern city.
By the time the NBA Finals rolled around, Portis saw fans wearing T-shirts with his face plastered on them in the arena parking lot as he drove in and scattered about the crowd.
“It’s a blue-collar city,” Portis told the media. “And I’m a blue-collar player.”
The success and adulation is even more satisfying for Portis, who struggled to forge an identity on three bad teams (Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and New York Knicks) his first five years in the NBA.
Playing for the Knicks last year and not being invited to the bubble portion of the NBA slate following the COVID-19 shutdown was a low point for Portis. He headed back to Little Rock to spend time with his mom and work on his game. A call to Antetokounmpo greased the wheels for his transition to the Bucks.
“When you first come to the NBA, you don’t really understand the journey,” Portis said.” You just came from college. I was the best player on my team. [SEC] Player of the Year, All-American, All-American high school, so when I first got to the league, I wasn’t playing a lot. Didn’t really understand it and lost myself a little bit, but I fought my way in.”
But Portis hasn’t just ingratiated himself to teammates and fans with his play; he’s just a good guy. Most of his motivation to play pro basketball was to provide for his mother, who was a victim of domestic violence. Since his high school days at Hall High School, he’s been known as a person who has a big heart and values the people around him. There’s a reason one of the NBA’s biggest stars took his phone call, and his play was only a part of it.
Not long after he began his NBA career he planned a charity weekend in Little Rock in the summer stuffing backpacks for needy kids and hosting a charity basketball game and other events. After the pandemic, those activities will once again return to Little Rock in August.
Now, after appearing on ESPN and other national media after the Finals win, fans in places other than Milwaukee see that Portis represents Arkansas in a good way and destroys stereotypes.
We need more people like Portis in this world. He’s passionate about his craft and getting better, and using his celebrity to help people. Those are qualities that everyone can appreciate.
“I finally found peace, man,” Portis said. “I’m at peace with myself and at peace in my life and at peace with everything going on around. I was just always trying to find it again, and really couldn’t find it. But having great teammates and great coaches. And the pandemic, like I said, really helped me find out more about myself more than anything.”