PHOTOS BY ALIZA BARAN
Bobby Portis didn’t tear up when the Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA Championship. But he did a year later, when the mayor of his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, declared Bobby Portis Day a new and permanent city holiday.
Portis was back in town holding events for the Bobby Portis Foundation, which he’d started in 2019 to raise money for single mothers in Little Rock. He spent the weekend meeting families across the city, attending the foundation’s gala at the governor’s mansion and revisiting Hall High School, where he was a four-time state basketball champion.
The last event of the weekend was on Sunday afternoon. The Little Rock mayor joined Portis downtown to give out backpacks to elementary school kids. Portis knew that the mayor was going to give him the key to the city afterward, but he was caught completely off guard when the mayor presented him with a framed plaque declaring that from then on, Aug. 15 would be known as Bobby Portis Day in Little Rock.
When Portis took the microphone, he stood silently, and then lowered his head, his hat brim covering his face. His shoulders shook, and he took the next few seconds to compose himself.
“That really brought it out of me,” he says, remembering the event. “I just try to help give back, to make my city the best city possible, to inspire the kids where I’m from. That’s my only driving purpose.”
In 27 years, Portis has managed to overcome tremendous odds, achieve and even exceed incredibly ambitious dreams, and use his success to give back to the community that made him. More than that, he’s won over the people of both Little Rock and Milwaukee – the two cities that he now considers home.
“Everyone in the world loves Giannis, but Milwaukee really rides for Bobby. He’s the people’s player.” – Bucks fan Vicki Pulliam
At this point, it’s almost cliché to call Portis “the mayor of Milwaukee.” Despite only playing on the Bucks for two full seasons, he’s already cemented his position as the “people’s champion.” Sprinting across the court, eyes alarmingly wide, moving with an almost Tasmanian Devil-level of ferocity, Portis was adrenaline personified during the Bucks’ remarkable 2021 championship run. Decked out with a headband and white T-shirt underneath his jersey, he looked something like a working stiff we’d recruited from the YMCA. And he treated every minute of the game like a battle for his life, hustling and hollering, demanding that the crowd get louder, and, yes, drawing the occasional technical foul. He wasn’t putting up all-star numbers like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton, but with his aggression and passion, he was winning over fans in droves. Fiserv Forum echoed with chants of his name: “Bob-by, Bob-by, Bob-by!”
“He’s got that energy that other players don’t have,” says Bucks fan Vicki Pulliam. “He has something special, something different. Everyone in the world loves Giannis, but Milwaukee really rides for Bobby. He’s the people’s player.”
Portis calls himself a “blue-collar player,” someone who “doesn’t care about his stat line. Someone who’s going to go out there every day and give 110%.”
Milwaukee loves that. But if you’re wondering where the unmatched energy came from, where he found the humility and work ethic and drive to win, you have to start with his mother, LaTina Edwards.
BORN IN MISSISSIPPI IN 1995, Bobby Portis Jr. – or as his family and friends call him, BP – was LaTina Edwards’ first son. His namesake father left Edwards to raise him on her own, and after six months, she and baby Bobby moved back to her hometown of Little Rock.
“My mom is the drive behind everything,” Portis says. “My mom never complains. I’ve never seen my mom cry about nothing. My mom never asked nobody for help. She showed me how to work hard, showed me how to be a man.”
Money was a constant struggle. From 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Edwards would work at National Car Rental, then she’d pick up Bobby from school, bring him home for her father to watch, and then from 5-9 p.m., she’d work her second job at UPS. The one day she had completely off was Saturday.
“Saturday was BP day – I made that day all about him because I was working all the time,” Edwards says. Despite her exhausting weeks, she would take Bobby to the movies, usually animated flicks like Cars, buy him popcorn, candy and a soda and talk afterward.
Edwards demanded a lot from her son. She kept him on a disciplined schedule with no room for messing around. After school, he was expected to complete all his homework before anything else. No video games on weekdays. No cell phone at school. And no hanging around at the mall or the local skating rink with kids who could get him into trouble.
“I always wanted different for him, so I set rules,” Edwards says. “Never did he complain. BP’s a homebody. … On Friday nights, he’d be at home doing homework.”
Portis estimates that they moved at least 16 or 17 times over his childhood, a number of those being evictions. “I was coming home and seeing all our shit get taken out of our house in big U-Haul trucks,” he says. “I call my mom and say, ‘What’s going on?’ My mom don’t really want to tell me what’s going on. We got evicted. It’s not our shit no more.”
“I didn’t want to ask for help,” Edwards says. “I never wanted anyone to know I was struggling. I didn’t want anybody to look down on me. … So I just worked every day to provide for my kids.”
By the time Bobby was 11, he had three younger brothers, all under 5 years old. His mom was also running a bread route, waking at 3 a.m. to deliver loaves around Little Rock. While she was working long hours, Bobby helped around the house, changing diapers and putting his brothers to bed.
“You don’t really know what’s going on when you 6 or 7 years old, but when you get older, it’s like, ‘Shit, we poor,’” Portis says. “[At] 11 or 12, you start to realize, ‘I gotta do something to change my family’s life.’”
WHEN PORTIS STEPS onto the street near Yankee Hill, a woman leaps out of a nearby restaurant to scream his name. When he’s walking through Fiserv Forum, a distant group of visitors stop and stare, whispering and grinning. When he’s hanging out on a blacktop court, shooting around with local kids, people wander off the sidewalk, hoping to get a chance to talk with him.
The experience may not seem that different from most NBA players, but it is. The people who approach Portis clearly think of him differently than, say, Giannis. There’s admiration and awe, but there’s also camaraderie. They see Portis as one of them – something his former coach and mentor Marcus McCarroll attributes to his scrappiness and hustle.
“Milwaukee – people work there,” McCarroll says. “They pay their hard-earned money to come to those games, and they want to see somebody playing as hard as they worked that day. When they see No. 9 play, they’re proud because they know he gave his best. He worked hard.”
Fans like Damion Burkett echo that sentiment. “Hard-working, dedication, giving 100% every play, emotional – Bobby embodies that,” he says. “That’s the type of attitude most Milwaukeeans have.”
Portis dominates a room the same way he dominates the court – with unmatched energy. At 6-foot-11, he’s an undeniable presence, with a loud, bass voice and an intense stare. “Bobby’s a unique guy,” says Pat Connaughton, his Bucks teammate since 2020. “I think the cool part about him is that look he has, those wide eyes, that intensity, his voice. There’s some intimidation that comes with that. But when you talk to him, when you get to know him as a person … he’s one of the most down-to-earth, nice, harmless guys you’ll ever meet.”
“His teammates love him, the coaches love him, the whole city loves him,” says Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer.
When people approach him in public – sometimes with much more familiarity than is polite – he’s unflappable, personable and pleasant. “On the court, he’s going to show his aggression,” Edwards says. “But if you’re ever around BP outside of that 94 feet, he’s different. He’s lovable, he’s all smiles, he cares.”
After spending some time with him, it feels like there’s little, if any, separation between the scrappy, down-to-earth Portis we see in public and the private man. “You can’t fake the funk,” he says. “I’ve been an open book. When I started being me and trusting who I was as a person, that’s when a whole lot of good started to happen.”
IN GRADE SCHOOL, Bobby played football, both as a defensive end and tight end. “Everybody thought I was going to be a professional football player,” he says.
Then in fourth grade, Edwards asked Bobby if he wanted to play basketball. He told her that he did, and she took him to the Boys & Girls Club to practice. “From then on, we just took it and ran with it,” Portis says. He joined his school’s team and started looking for more opportunities to play.
That summer, at age 12, Bobby joined an Arkansas Amateur Athletic Union team and met Coach McCarroll. “He was a winner,” McCarroll says. “He always wanted to win so bad – to the point that he would be angry.”
Bobby would get emotional, foul other players, and leave games furious and heartbroken after losing. Sometimes it would get so intense that other kids didn’t want to be on the court with him. “I told him, we gotta take your anger and channel it to something positive on the basketball floor,” McCarroll says. “He was a great team player, but he was never the best [player]. If we picked an all-star team of 10, if he got picked, he would be nine or 10.”
McCarroll coached Bobby’s AAU team through middle school and high school, but he didn’t envision an NBA future for the young man. Neither did Edwards, who kept her focus on his homework – making sure Bobby’s grades never slipped lower than a B. “I thought he could have some potential to play college ball, but I never thought he could be an NBA player in his high school years,” Edwards says.
Then, when Bobby was in 10th grade, Hall High School went to the playoffs – and his coach cut his playing time to next to nothing. During the championship game, Bobby rode the bench, only playing about three minutes. Hall won, but while his teammates were celebrating, he was miserable. “He was hurt,” McCarroll says. “He felt like he didn’t help his team win, like he wasn’t a part of it.”
After the game, McCarroll remembers Edwards asking her son what was wrong. Bobby told her he didn’t understand why his coach hadn’t put him in.
“Are you working as hard as you can?” Edwards asked him.
“I probably could work harder,” he admitted.
“Well then, work harder and go get what you want,” she said.
The next morning, Bobby called McCarroll and asked him if he could come to the gym and work out with him. McCarroll said yes, and from then on, Bobby was at the gym almost every day running drills.
“I never had a father figure in my life,” Portis says. “Marcus was the guy I could look up to, teaching me how to be a man and just how to be the best Bobby.”
Edwards went out of her way to keep her son on schedule, often dropping him off at practices two hours early so he could put in more work. McCarroll recalls finding her asleep in her car in the parking lot, waiting to pick her son up, exhausted from her long hours and countless responsibilities.
“She’s a strong lady,” McCarroll says. “She took her time and she worked hard and took care of her kids. … She trusted Bobby with me.”
He asked Bobby to make a list of goals. Bobby wrote down about a dozen accolades and achievements: Gatorade Player of the Year, joining the Jordan Brand Classic national high school team, playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game, etc.
“I looked at the list, and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s a big list, man. Shoot.’” McCarroll says. “I was kind of stunned. It’s like a kid coming out saying, ‘I want a Mercedes’ instead of a Pinto. I said it was going to take some work. He said, ‘I can do it.’”
Bobby’s attitude was dialed in that summer after his sophomore year, but something else changed, too. He grew from 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-9. With those extra 6 inches, those goals didn’t seem quite so far away. The summer before his senior year, he secured a spot as a Razorback at the flagship University of Arkansas. At the end of that season, he and McCarroll looked back on the list they’d made two years before. Bobby had checked off every item on it.
PORTIS HAS AN INTENSE and aggressive competitive streak. It’s a healthier route for all the emotion McCarroll helped him control as a kid. It’s most obvious on the court, but it extends to everything he does. Connaughton remembers him and Portis watching broadcasts of Giannis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo playing in the EuroBasket competition during the summer of 2022. While Connaughton also wanted his Greek teammates to win, Portis took the intensity to another level, getting almost absurdly fired up over every play.
“He’s talking his talk,” Connaughton says. “He takes everything as a competition, but I would say that in the best way possible.”
That includes bowling.
“You can’t fake the funk.” – Bobby Portis
“I don’t think people know this,” says Patrick Frazier, Portis’ business manager. “Bobby considers himself the best bowler in the NBA.”
He started playing the sport in middle and high school, betting pushups with friends at Little Rock bowling alleys. Now, you might catch him at JB’s on 41, where he’ll pop in on random nights off to bowl a few frames. In fact, he’s technically on the roster of around five different teams – although his schedule makes him only a sporadic participant. Sometimes he just shows up and competes with whoever’s willing to take him on.
And he is not messing around. “When you get to the bowling alley, everybody wants to beat you. They want to say they beat you,” Portis says. “They not worried about getting no picture. They worried about getting a video of them beating your butt. You gotta lock in all the time or you will get embarrassed out here.”
PORTIS’ TWO YEARS at the University of Arkansas were a rousing success. His nascent talent started showing up on the floor. In his sophomore 2014-15 season, he was named SEC player of the year and finalist for the John R. Wooden Award for best college player in the country.
“I’ve always been like a jack of all trades – I can dribble, shoot, score, pass,” Portis says. “The one thing I was always great at was bringing energy to the game, bringing positive energy to the people around me. I think that is my biggest trait as a basketball player.”
He declared for the NBA draft in 2015 – but Edwards recalls something else that made her just as proud that spring. “He went to class every day,” she says. “Most kids, when they enter the draft, they stop going to school.”
She still remembers that during the flurry of cross-country flights to visit various teams before the draft, Portis booked a flight back to Fayetteville to take his final exams.
Portis had a near-miss with Milwaukee that year. The Bucks were seriously considering drafting him, and he even came to the city for a workout. But when draft day came, the Bucks used their No. 17 pick on Rashad Vaughn instead, and Portis was selected at No. 22 by the Chicago Bulls.
Over the next four years, he made roughly $8 million playing basketball, a life-changing sum for him and his family. Edwards was able to quit her bread route, and on Mother’s Day 2018, Portis surprised her and his three younger brothers with a new house just north of Little Rock. “Growing up, we never really had a set house that was ours,” Portis says. “That was important to me – to give my mom something I felt she deserved. … Without all her heart and dedication, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
While Portis looks back fondly on much of his stint with the Bulls, not everything was positive. In 2017, Portis’ teammate Nikola Mirotic reportedly charged at him twice during an altercation at practice, and after the second time Portis punched him in the face. The hit sent Mirotic to the hospital with a concussion and two broken bones, and the Bulls suspended Portis for eight games. He apologized, but the incident left him with a reputation. For a few months, it was almost like he was once again the aggressive kid other players wanted to avoid.
“I felt like I was the most hated. No one was really showing love,” Portis says about his time in Chicago.
In 2019, Portis was “blindsided” when the Bulls traded him to the Washington Wizards. He spent less than a full season in D.C. before signing a $31 million deal to play two seasons with the New York Knicks – more than four times what he made under his four-year rookie contract.
“That was a great opportunity for Bobby,” Frazier says. “He’s all about supporting his family, his mother and his brothers, and that was a chance to do that. … But it didn’t work out.”
Bobby would later call his one season on the Knicks “the most miserable year of [his] career.” His team stumbled to a 21-45 record, 12th in the Eastern Conference and so far out of contention that they didn’t even get an invitation to finish their final six games when the season resumed in “the Bubble” after the COVID pause. The kid who used to be overwhelmed with fury after losing a middle school basketball game, who remained desperate to win in everything he ever did, had just spent a year doing just about nothing but losing.
The end of that season, April 2020, was Portis’ low point. With nothing else to do, he went home.
He returned to Little Rock, to the house he had bought his mother, and spent the next eight months there. It was the longest Portis had gone without playing basketball in over a decade, and the separation was painful. But at the same time, it gave him the chance to reassess. “Sometimes when you get to the NBA, you can get sidetracked,” Portis says. “I got a chance to go home and be around my mom and my little brothers. … It made me feel like Bobby again.”
“My mom is the drive behind everything. … She showed me how to work hard, showed me how to be a man.” – Bobby Portis
Portis and McCarroll got back in the gym, working out every day and talking about his future. The Knicks had a $15.8 million club option to bring Bobby back for another year, but based on the abysmal season they had just finished, that seemed unlikely. Portis spent hours in front of the television, watching the winning teams that had made it to the Bubble. He saw the Bucks fighting through the conference semifinals, before ultimately losing to the Boston Celtics. But he and McCarroll saw something in the team. Not just the strength of the lineup, with players like Giannis and Brook Lopez – they saw a role Portis could fill.
“They had nobody on the team…” Portis says, then stops himself. “No disrespect, but I just felt like my energy was something that was needed.”
“We sat down and talked about where he can be the best,” McCarroll says. “Milwaukee was it.”
Portis’ mother was less enthusiastic. “I thought, ‘Milwaukee? Another cold city?’ Why would he want to go there?’” she says.
On Nov. 19, the Knicks officially declined his option and Portis became a free agent. He called Giannis. The two had never spoken before. Portis told him that he could help the Bucks win a championship. A day later, Portis was in talks with Coach Budenholzer.
“We had a ton of interest in him,” Budenholzer says. “I don’t think he’d won as much before getting here, and it was clear that he wanted to prioritize winning. Anytime you can find a player who knows that’s the most important thing, you want that.”
The Bucks offered him $3.6 million for one year.
“I had offers way larger than the Bucks’. … I had $20 million offers for two years,” Portis says. “My agent thought I was crazy, like ‘What are you doing?’”
He told his mother that he was thinking of taking the Bucks’ lowball. “I told him, money ain’t everything,” Edwards says. “‘You have to go for your happiness because you’ve been unhappy for two years. Do you think you’ll be happy in Milwaukee?’ He was like, ‘I’ll be playing with Giannis. Why wouldn’t I be happy?’”
Portis signed with the Bucks on Nov. 21. Eight months later, he was an NBA champion.
PORTIS SAYS THE first time Milwaukee started to feel like a second home was when his mother came to visit in early 2021.
“Milwaukee’s the first city I have really enjoyed myself in,” Edwards says. “I fell in love with Milwaukee. I could see him on no other team but the Bucks.”
Portis grew to love Milwaukee more for the people than anything else. In Chicago, he felt like the fans turned against him, especially if the Bulls were losing. In Milwaukee, even after a bad game, he felt the city’s appreciation. “Look at my stats my whole career,” he says. “That year one in Milwaukee, I was playing well, but my averages weren’t like they were in years before. And I got more love being here. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”
Milwaukee also reminded him of Little Rock – that small-market, underdog mentality that he was missing in Chicago and New York.
“Really the only time [Milwaukee or Little Rock] get attention is if their team won a championship or there’s a shooting,” Portis says. “I feel for the people here. I can relate to them. I’m from the inner city too. … They take pride in their sports, love their beer. It’s a fun town to play in. Especially when you win.”
“Milwaukee embraced him,” Frazier says, “and Bobby is giving that embrace back.”
“Everyone sees how great of a basketball player Bobby Portis has become. But who he is off the floor, I think, is as good if not better than who he is on the floor.” – Pat Connaughton, Bucks Player
Portis still remembers the first time he heard his name chanted at Fiserv Forum. During Game 6 of the Bucks’ grinding June 2021 playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, he hadn’t played a single minute. He heard a voice – one man somewhere in the stands yelling. “Bob-by! Bob-by! Bob-by! We want Bobby! Put Bobby in!”
The chant picked up steam among the fans, though Budenholzer did not heed it; Portis didn’t play in the Bucks’ Game 7 win, either.
“The next game against the Hawks at home, I played,” he says. “I took advantage of it.” After not seeing the court for the last three games of the Nets series, Portis averaged nearly 20 minutes and 8 points per game for the rest of the championship run. The chant became a staple at home games.
“It’s a blessing,” he says. “I know how short your career can be. Some guys never get a chance to feel what that feels like to get their name called. … I don’t take it lightly.”
Before every game, Portis took a moment to pause and pray. “I haven’t been to church in years, to be honest, but I pray every day,” he says. “God talks to everybody in a different way.”
On July 20, 2021, Portis saw his gamble on Milwaukee pay off. In the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns, the Bucks won in six (for the culture). Portis came off the bench to put up 16 points that game, while his mother and McCarroll watched from the Fiserv Forum stands. “Knowing where I came from, to be traded, to be suspended … the sacrifices you make for the betterment of the team – when you finally win and you pop champagne, it’s like all that pain is let out,” Portis says.
The next week, Portis stood on the back of the bus while the Bucks paraded through the streets of Milwaukee. When asked about the feeling, Portis, his mother and McCarroll all have nearly an identical response: “It’s like something out of a storybook.”
IN THE PAST FEW YEARS, Portis has expanded his influence outside of basketball. The Bobby Portis Foundation has grown, providing more resources for single mothers in Little Rock, and it is launching programming in Milwaukee early next year.
“When he speaks about it, you can tell he believes in it,” Connaughton says. “It’s truly coming from his heart. It’s truly coming from his past. And it’s truly trying to be an inspiration to that next generation. Everyone sees how great of a basketball player Bobby Portis has become. But who he is off the floor, I think, is as good if not better than who he is on the floor.”
Even beyond his foundation, Portis has been busy. He hosts youth basketball camps in Little Rock and Milwaukee, most recently in September on the UW-Milwaukee campus. This year, he partnered with Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin to become a brand partner promoting their work providing meals for Wisconsinites in need. He joined Visit Milwaukee as an ambassador promoting tourism to the city. He’s launching a podcast, “Keep it a Buck,” where he’ll talk with teammates, among others, and he continues to run his clothing line UNDERDOG.
“His teammates love him, the coaches love him, the whole city loves him.” – Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer
“I’ve grown and I’ve become a better person, a better man, a better basketball player,” Portis says.
In June, Portis briefly terrified fans by opting out of his player option and becoming a free agent. They didn’t need to worry. Within a day, he had signed with the Bucks again, this time to a four-year, $49 million deal. He says that he never really had any intention of leaving Milwaukee – and he’s got his eyes on another ring.
“I just try to follow my heart,” he says. “And my heart is in Milwaukee, right here playing for the Bucks.”