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Finally, Bobby Portis is at peace in his NBA career

After a turbulent start as a professional, from struggles with losing to suspension for fighting, the Bucks forward is having fun in Milwaukee

You might not see it in his face — or eyes — but Bobby Portis is at peace.

The 27-year-old Milwaukee Bucks forward is best known (OK, maybe second-best, given his propensity to give a hard foul) for his ever-expressive face, most noticeably the eyes that seem to bulge out of his sockets like a Looney Tunes character.

Portis wears his emotions for all to see, which could give the impression that he’s playing with an uncontrollable edge that could easily teeter into what Reddit has chronicled as “Bobby Portis’ History of Cheap Shots.”

Through his seven-year NBA career, the man dubbed “Crazy Eyes” has either aggressively fouled or gotten into a tiff with a collection of NBA players: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, fellow country cousin Montrezl Harrell, future teammate Tomas Satoransky, former teammates Lauri Markkanen and Nikola Mirotic, and Bojan Bogdanovic. And has been whistled, fined and suspended for his actions.

But that was Portis then. Now? After a pandemic brought him, literally and figuratively, back home to Arkansas? After an NBA championship?

For a player who seemed to be — and, behind the scenes, was — the opposite of tranquility for so long, Portis’ past two seasons in Milwaukee have made him more grateful, more blessed.

“I’m just at peace with everything that’s going around with me,” Portis told Andscape. “Just being at peace with the situation I’m in, peace in life in general.”

Portis, selected 22nd overall out of Arkansas in the 2015 NBA draft to the Chicago Bulls, identifies three moments as pivotal to a career path that has led him to one NBA title and is possibly on course for another.

The first was not playing much during his first season in Chicago. He started 70 games during his two years at Arkansas and averaged nearly 30 minutes during his final season. Still, that first year in the league, he had to compete for minutes behind other forwards who were either nearing the end of their careers (Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah), less skilled than Portis (Taj Gibson) or just as new to the league (Mirotic, more on him later).

Portis started just four of 62 games as the Bulls (42-40) missed the playoffs. The next season, he played even less (15.6 minutes versus 17.8 his first year), as the Bulls (41-41) made the postseason but were dispatched in the first round by the Boston Celtics.

For someone who won most of his life, losing and not playing were a reluctant adjustment.

“It was a different atmosphere for me … and I kind of got sucked into it, not caring anymore, like, ‘It’s just a game,’ ” Portis said.

The next moment was what can generously be called the “incident.”

Ahead of the 2017-18 season, Portis punched Mirotic in the face during a team practice, causing facial fractures and a concussion. Portis was suspended for eight games and carried the stigma for years, believing, as he told NBA.com last summer, he “was just seen as that guy who punched his teammate.” It’s reminiscent of Portis’ time playing AAU, when referees would warn his coaches to keep the young, emotional kid in check.

“I got the wrong image pinned on me,” Portis said of the punch. “Anybody who knows me … they’ll tell you, ‘Bobby will run through the wall for anybody.’

“The media can make you someone that you’re not, and they made me that for years, but coming to the Bucks really helped me out and cleaned that up for me.”

(Portis later apologized for the punch, though then-Bulls teammate Robin Lopez said the team felt “there’s blame on both sides.”)

“I got the wrong image pinned on me. Anybody who knows me … they’ll tell you, ‘Bobby will run through the wall for anybody.’ “

— Bobby Portis on punching former Chicago Bulls teammate Nikola Mirotic in 2017

The last pivotal moment was on March 11, 2020, when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the entire NBA season to an immediate halt. While 22 teams were eventually invited to Walt Disney World for the bubble, the other eight teams’ seasons were over and wouldn’t resume until December 2020, including Portis’ New York Knicks. (Portis was traded to Washington in February 2019 and signed with New York the summer before the 2019-20 season.)

It was tough being away from the game for so long, likely the longest break he’s ever taken from playing organized basketball.

“Of course some guys didn’t want to go to the bubble, but picture being home for eight, nine months straight, not being able to play in NBA games,” he said. “You get anxious.”

But the break made him “hungry and humble,” and allowed Portis to return to his roots.

The coronavirus pandemic allowed Bobby Portis to reset himself in Little Rock, Arkansas. “When the pandemic started, that really helped me just go back home and love home again,” he said.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Throughout his career, Portis, born in Little Rock, Arkansas, would spend his offseason training in places such as Miami and Los Angeles, i.e., not Little Rock. But with most of the world shut down, he went back home, a place he has always put on for.

Most of his friends are people he met long ago in Little Rock. He has the city’s skyline tattooed across his back. He mentions the city whenever he’s asked a question (“I’m a genuine guy from Little Rock, Arkansas,” he told me, unprompted). He reconnected so much with home during the pandemic that he even bought a house.

“When the pandemic started, that really helped me just go back home and love home again,” he said.

While growing up in Little Rock, Portis adopted the “underdog” identity, which has evolved into a clothing line. It’s not “underdog” in the cliché sports sense, as who would be stupid enough to doubt the kid who would grow to be 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. But more so that people who look like him and come from the same type of place as him aren’t normally multimillionaires.

Portis seems sincere in putting on for those who don’t get these sorts of opportunities due to circumstances: of being born Black. In a poor state. To a single mother. While battling poverty, domestic violence and evictions.

His mother, Tina Edwards, worked multiple jobs and still found time to keep up with her son’s active sports schedule, even if it meant sleeping in the car outside of the gym.

His determination and resolve come from her.

“I’ll always have that mentality, no matter how good I do,” he said. “I don’t need no recognition, I don’t need no credit or anything. I just know my own worth.”

After the bubble season ended in October, Portis signed a two-year, prove-it deal (the second year being an option) with Milwaukee, where he’s become a dependable role player for the defending champions.

His 41.8 3-point percentage the past two years led the team. In Game 5 of the first-round series against Chicago, the Bulls cut a 29-point deficit down to 11. Portis then made back-to-back 3-pointers in the third quarter to put Milwaukee up by 17.

As has become custom during his time with Milwaukee, “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby” chants rang out from the sold-out crowd after every triple.

When watching a clip of “Bobby” chants from Game 3 of last year’s Finals against the Phoenix Suns for the Bucks Film Room video series earlier this season, Portis became visibly emotional, saying the chants gave him chills.

“He’s got so much passion and fire and energy, and anytime he gets it from the crowd, [he] maybe even goes to another level,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It’s just they play off each other and I think it helps our team.”

Before winning the NBA championship in 2021, Bobby Portis (center), pictured hugging teammate Pat Connaughton after beating the Phoenix Suns, had not been part of a title-contending team.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

When Portis signed with the Bucks in November 2020, he joined a team that had won a combined 116 regular-season games the two previous seasons. It meant he was joining a winner, something Portis hadn’t experienced since being drafted in 2015.

Portis’ Hall High School in Little Rock won the state championship all four years he played. Arkansas won 49 games during Portis’ two collegiate seasons, at that point the best two-year stretch in school history since the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons.

But the NBA was a different atmosphere. Where there were once easy wins, were now blowout losses. Five consecutive wins turned into five-game losing streaks. Money, it seems, doesn’t buy you happiness when your team loses 136 games in your first three years.

For a fiery competitor like Portis who’s prone to sports-speak (giving “110%,” doing “whatever it takes to win”), losing was an unfamiliar feeling, especially for someone who, as he says, wears his emotions on his sleeves.

Young Portis used to get visibly upset while playing basketball, whether it be after a loss or a questionable call from a referee; he was inclined to cry even after losing at basketball video games. The Bulls’ culture seemed to shrug off failure as if it were inevitable.

“You get to the league, guys have their kids, their wives, their girlfriends, whatever they do,” he said. “And after the game, you lose, some guys don’t even care that they lost.”

But in Milwaukee, he’s learned how to be a winner and what impact simply being in a good environment can have on your emotions.

“When Bobby Portis is having fun, Bobby Portis is a hard player to stop.”

— Milwaukee Bucks guard Pat Connaughton

Happiness is a subjective term, but you know it when you see or feel it. It can be accomplishing a goal. It can be finding satisfaction in what you do. Sometimes the appearance of happiness can cloud pain, but there’s a certain joy or gratitude in being in a good place, whether it be a relationship or a positive NBA locker room.

“Winning,” he said. “That does a big thing for me, mentally and emotionally.”

Portis seems to be in that good place for the first time in years. Now, when he appears worked up — howling after 3s, after blocks, after punking (his words) the opponent for a steal — it’s coming from genuine happiness, rather than the harbinger of a flagrant foul.

“He’s getting the crowd involved, he’s getting himself involved, he’s talking a little bit, he’s talking to us, he’s yelling, he’s screaming,” said Bucks guard Pat Connaughton. “He’s having fun.

“And when Bobby Portis is having fun, Bobby Portis is a hard player to stop.”

Speaking of fun, Portis has seen all your “Crazy Eyes” Twitter jokes.

“I do have big eyes, and my eyes can do all types of things when I play basketball,” he said. “I don’t know what they do, I’m just locked in.”

He also recently incorporated the Harlem Shake (the real one, not that viral sensation) after hitting clutch shots, and after catching an elbow to the eye from Bulls forward Tristan Thompson, he now proudly rocks protective goggles, aka “Bobby Bifocals.”

“When I’m on the basketball court, that’s my time to escape all of the problems that I go through off the court,” he said. “I get to the basketball court and I’m in heaven, I’m at peace. That’s where I get all the stress off that I’m going through.

“When I do little antics — when I’m screaming and yelling or clapping or doing whatever it is — that’s not for show. That’s just me playing with heart and having fun.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"