Littlest star is one gigantic trap for UF

The palace door is blocked by his body. His shadow looms over the entrance as a warning to all who dare to approach.

Published March 25, 2007

ST. LOUIS - The palace door is blocked by his body. His shadow looms over the entrance as a warning to all who dare to approach.

In other words, if the Florida Gators want to get back to the Final Four, by golly, they're going to have to get past Tajuan Porter.

In case you are interested, it may be tougher than a first glance would indicate.

Porter is 66 inches tall, about the size of the guy on a large trophy. If you weigh him after a large meal, perhaps he can muster up the 160 pounds that he is listed at on the Oregon roster. Al Horford's forearm is as big. Joakim Noah's ponytail is as big.

Don't sell him short, however.

Porter is a monster.

Watch him dash across the court, and suddenly, Porter gains stature. He dashes by an opponent, and his game is 6-6. He puts up an impossible shot, his body crashing to the floor before the ball snaps through the net, and it grows to 7 feet. For the Gators, the littlest Duckling is the biggest threat imaginable.

Porter is a virus. He is a poisonous spider. He is a cyanide tablet. He is one of those small, deadly creatures who can kill a season. And if the Gators plan on reaching another Final Four, they will first have to control him.

It's a shame, really, when a program finds itself playing the role of Goliath. The rest of the nation is busy falling in love with Porter, the dazzling guard who keeps embarrassing the defenders who can't guard him and the coaches who didn't recruit him. That's what the NCAA Tournament is, really. It's a chance for the little man to compete with the big man, and that's as true of players as it is of programs.

There is a charm to watching a player such as Porter, the 5-6 freshman guard from Oregon. It's the same charm that Spud Webb or Muggsy Bogues or Monte Towe used to bring to the game. Put it this way: If the Gators weren't playing against Porter today, they would get a kick out of him, too. Instead, they will want desperately for someone to catch him.

"I think America loves a hero," Oregon coach Ernie Kent said. "Everybody is cheering for the little guy. And he's a little guy who plays with a big, big heart.

"The thing I've told him, he's a great example for parents who have that little kid in the family that everybody looks at and says, 'You'll never be a basketball player, play soccer.' Well, that's not true. You can be whatever you want to be. I think Tajuan proves that."

In other words, Porter is sports' latest example that a player doesn't have to be big, he has to be good. Watch him walk into the arena, and you figure that Porter is someone's little brother. Maybe you elbow the guy next to you and suggest that Porter may be the first college player ever to declare early for the Kentucky Derby.

Then the ball goes up, and Porter takes over the game. Against UNLV on Friday night, he scored 33, and by the end of it, no one was comparing him to Snow White's little buddies. Especially not Bashful.

Not bad, considering that a few months ago, no one wanted him. He was like a kid considered too short for the roller-coaster.

Yeah, it bothered him. Coming out of Detroit's Renaissance High School, he would have loved to have gone to Michigan. Maybe Florida, which had sent him a couple of letters.

Oregon? "I didn't even know Oregon was a state," Porter said.

The result was a chip on his shoulder about as large as he was, a chip that continues to motivate him. "I want to prove everyone wrong who said I was too small," Porter said. "I never had any doubts I could play. I just wanted the opportunity."

For a 5-6 guard, that's always the toughest shot. Porter found his with Oregon, which he admits, "wanted me more than I wanted them."

Size disadvantage? What disadvantage? Don't the bigger guys have to keep up with him? About the only challenge Porter admits to is making sure his dates aren't any taller than he is. "I don't want a girl to have to pick me up to kiss me," he said.

For Florida, Porter seems to be the biggest threat to a second straight trip to the Final Four. Both Purdue and Butler tested the Gators by shooting well from the 3-point line. Against Butler, the larger Gator players helped turn the game around by coming out to guard the perimeter. That may be more difficult considering Porter's quickness. It's like trying to defend Mighty Mouse.

"He's terrific," said coach Billy Donovan, who said the Gators didn't recruit Porter harder because of the number of guards on scholarship. "I just think he's a ballplayer. You put him out there and he can just go play."

As for Porter, he says he's happy with his size. Why not? College basketball is filled with 6-6 players spit out of a photo copier.

Cult heroes are harder to come by.

Harder to get past, too.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.