By: DAN JENKINS, MEN’S BASKETBALL BEAT REPORTER
In the spring of 2010, the University of Michigan-Dearborn men’s basketball program, and campus as a whole, was struck by tragedy. First season Assistant Coach Kenneth Alston collapsed and passed away in the Fieldhouse following a routine basketball practice.
Newly transferred from Oakland Community College, sophomore Julius Porter, was one of the last people to be with Alston on that tragic day. Porter attributes his passion and commitment to Wolves basketball to Coach Alston’s teachings and friendship.
“I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play basketball here,” Porter said. “I met Coach Alston and I got really close with him. That’s really the main reason why I’m here. I didn’t have many friends here at the time, so he was like my best friend. I was the last person with him and I promised him and myself that I would finish my career here.”
Teammate Graham Nash, being the only other player on this year’s team that played under Alston, reflected on the impact that Alston had on Julius and himself after a game at this past season.
“He was probably one of the best leaders that I’ve ever played for,” Nash said. “He was the most humble person that I’ve ever met; it was all about the team for him. When he passed, it was devastating. We had lost our leader.”
We’re the only two guys on the team that played for him. He always preached about the ‘Michigan’ name and that it was something to be proud of.”
Alston’s influence on Porter is one of the reasons that he not only stuck with the UM-D basketball program, but how he became a leader on a young team, being the only senior to play this season. Second year Head Coach John Mackson took over for long-time Wolves coach Vince Turner at the start of the 2011-2012 season and knew that Porter had the ability to be an on and off the court leader.
After stints in three different college basketball programs, Alma College, OCC, and UM-D under Coach Turner, the transition for Julius to play for Mackson was not easy at first, but came along over the course of the last two seasons.
“He was used to the routine of high school basketball and with him bouncing around through different programs, I think it was difficult for him to trust our staff at first,” Mackson explained. “He was starting to build up a wall so we had to beat it back and get to the core of who he is.”
At first, Porter had trouble accepting responsibility for Mackson’s team. Porter played at Clarkston High School for highly acclaimed coach Dan Fife, in which he advanced to the MHAA Regional Finals in all four years of high school.
However, coming from such a successful prep program had not prepared Julius to be the go-to player on his team.
“A loss was rare,” Porter said of his days playing at Clarkston. “It was a hometown thing; everyone was there for football and basketball.” Julius and the Clarkston Wolves would play in front of crowd of over 5000, a drastic difference from an average attendance of just over 100 for UM-D home games.
“He wanted to know why his expectations were bigger than the guys’ next to him,” Mackson said. “We had to explain to him, ‘you are the leader, you are the most talented player, and you’re going to be held to a different standard.’
I don’t know that he was ever in that position in high school. He had other people around him so he was more of a role player. Then, he was thrust into a position that he was the team’s best player, and that’s not easy.”
After one season under the direction of Coach Mackson and his staff, Julius opened up and began to accept his role on the team, leading the Wolves in scoring in both his junior and senior seasons and led the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference (WHAC) in steals in 2012-2013.
“Whether he wanted to be or not, he was going to be the leader of this team,” Mackson chuckled. “As he began to accept that, he started to realize that it really was his team. Everyone, from day one, looked to him for leadership this season, and that allowed him to be more comfortable with added support from the players and the coaches.”
Even as the Wolves struggled to a 7-23 record this season and missed out on a chance at the WHAC Tournament, Porter’s leadership became apparent in the locker room this season.
“Last year he would take a towel, go to his locker, go to the bus, and not say much,” Mackson explained. “This year he spoke up and had a totally different approach, a really positive approach.”
On Senior Night in February, Porter reached a heralded career milestone by scoring his 1000th career point, who dedicated his senior season to Coach Alston.
“Its was tough, it was really a hard time for me,” Porter said of Alston’s passing. “For the guys and the Alumni that graduated from basketball, we all got really close and we all stuck together.
“When I look at the big picture, it really made me commit to something. It made me mature a little bit and say ‘I’ve only got one life to live so I need to live it up.”