Pass-happy Porter set a record for assists with the Pistons

Detroit point guard Kevin Porter drives around Boston’s Jo Jo White during a game in 1979.

Unselfish is not an adjective that typically exhibits itself in athletes who become stars. Especially in the National Basketball Association.

Usually the greatest players are those who take the team on their shoulders and carry them to victory, who take all the shots in crunch time, who crave the competition at the end of games.

But Kevin Porter liked to make other players look good. He thrived on delivering the basketball to his teammates in spots where they could score. He was in love with the assist. On March 9, 1979, in an otherwise ho-hum season for the Pistons, the point guard set a franchise record when he did something no player had done before (or since). Porter’s 25 assists in that game remain a Detroit franchise record nearly 40 years later, a mark that may never be topped.

But Porter was more than a one-game freak, he was a passing marvel who set an NBA record for assists in a season and put up assists numbers few had ever seen to that point in league history. he led the NBA in assists four times. Yet, he’s one of the most overlooked players in league history, and when great passers are ranked, his name is rarely mentioned, except by old-timers who got to see him in action in the high-flying, afro-wearing, groovy era of 1970s pro basketball.

“The guy was a distributing machine. He could thread passes between every nook and cranny in the building,” broadcaster Mike Wise told SLAM magazine for an article last year.

At one time, Porter held the all-time NBA records for assists in a season (1,099 in 1978-79 for Detroit), game (29 on February 24, 1978 while he was with the New Jersey Nets), and a quarter (13 against the Lakers on November 28, 1978, also with the Pistons).

The five-foot eleven-inch Porter led the NBA in assists four times and helped lead the Bullets to the NBA Finals in 1975, where he showed off his trademark stutter-step move and bounce pass. Yet, Porter was never named to an All-Star team. That slight has more to do with the state of the NBA in that era than anything else.

Porter entered the league in 1972 to 1981, and most of that time the NBA was a distant fourth in popularity to the other three professional sports leagues in the United States. In fact, the North American Soccer League (NASL) even started to carve into the NBA’s popularity in the 1970s, so much so that by 1979 the NBA Finals were broadcast on television via tape-delay. That’s right, if you wanted to watch the NBA Finals live at that time, you had to go to the arena.

The NBA in the 1970s was in an awkward phase, like a 14-year old boy who isn’t quite a teenager, but isn’t a child either. The NBA didn’t know what it was supposed to be yet, and the play on the court reflected that confusion. Big men were dominating, as they always had, but agile, lightning-quick guards were also arriving on the scene. There were also some jumpers in the league, or over in the rival ABA, like Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Coaches weren’t sure what to do with point guards who could not only pass the ball, but shoot jumpers, and drive to the hole. In the 1950s and 1960s, point guards were one-dimensional — deliver the ball to the big guys. Now, players like Porter were redefining the way the position was played by driving to the paint and either scoring or dishing the ball off to a wide-open teammate. This dynamic had an immediate affect on the game as scores zoomed higher and higher.

When Porter accumulated 1,099 assists for Detroit in 1978-79, he didn’t just break the single-season NBA record, he shattered it by 189 assists. His season average of 13.4 assists per game was two assists per game higher than the previous high, set by Tiny Archibald. On March 9 of that season, Porter performed at his brilliant best, he achieved his magnum opus, if you will.

The man on the bench for the Pistons for that game at the Silverdome was Dick Vitale, at that time a relatively unknown basketball junkie from New Jersey. He was years away from becoming the (raspy over-the-top) voice of college basketball. Vitale’s Pistons were on their way to 30-win season, but they were not a boring squad. The center piece was Bob Lanier, the All-Star man in the middle. The big guy averaged more than 23 points and nine rebounds per game. Michael Leon (M.L.) Carr was on the front court providing a scoring threat, and he was joined by rookie Terry Tyler, a Detroit native who averaged 12.9 and eight rebounds per. Porter manned the point and he had capable back court partners to dish to: Chris Ford and John Long averaged 27 points combined from the shooting guard spot. Controlling the floor, Porter scored 15 points per game to go along with his 13+ assists and he also averaged nearly two steals per contest. It was a fun, fast-paced, shooting-happy Detroit team. Of course, they lost a lot of shootouts.

But that game, the one played in Pontiac on that cold March evening against the Celtics, Detroit did not lose. The Pistons poured in 160 points, a new franchise record, on their way to a 160-117 drubbing of the Celtics. Porter assisted on 25 field goals and scored 12 himself, having a part in 37 of the 69 team field goals in the contest. There’s no record of whether or not any of the fans in attendance that night got whiplash watching the Pistons run back and forth on the court. It was a fun, and historic night. Porter scored 30 points in the victory, making NBA history.

Porter is the only player in NBA history to record a 25 point, 25 assist game. Think about that — no one, not Bob Cousy, not Larry Bird, not Magic Johnson, not Isiah, nor John Stockton — has ever went for 25 points while dishing out 25 assists. Current point guard superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook have never done it. In fact, if you combine the best single-game assist totals of Harden (17) and Westbrook (22), you get 39, only ten more than Porter dished out himself in his record-setting game.

There were three things certain for Porter during his NBA career: gaudy assist numbers, change, and injuries. he had far more than his share of the last two.

His first season with the Pistons (1975-76) was halted at 19 games when he tore cartilage in his knee. At the time he was leading the league in assists with more than ten per game.

Porter played for three franchises in his ten-year NBA career, but he was traded four times, including twice each to Detroit and the Bullets. With the Bullets he must have had a closet-full of gear that was unusable, seeing as the team changed its named three times while he was employed by them. They were at various times the “Washington Bullets”, “Capital Bullets”, and “Baltimore Bullets.” He was traded for Detroit star Dave Bing only a few months after he had led the Bullets to the NBA Finals. In a career where he set records, Porter always seemed to be coming or going.

On February 24, 1978, during his stint with the Nets, Porter recorded 29 “dimes” in New Jersey’s 126-112 win over the Rockets. It was a new NBA record. The beneficiaries that night were John Williamson (39 points) and Bernard King (35). The 29 assists would stand as a record for twelve years until broken by Scott Skiles.

“He was just magnificent,” New Jersey coach Kevin Loughery told reporters after the 29-assist game. “I’ve never seen anyone do quite as well as he did tonight.”

In his second stretch with Washington, during training camp preparing for the 1981-82 season, Porter went up for a layup and felt a pop. The 31-year old fell to the hardwood in pain. He’d snapped his Achilles tendon and would miss the entire season. He came back the following year in December but was a shadow of his former self. He appeared in only 11 games before hanging up his sneakers at the age of 32.

“His stutter-step lost most people guarding him in the ’70s. It’s too bad people forgot him,” a teammate said of Porter.

Most Assists in an NBA Game

1. Scott Skiles (Orlando) … 30 … Dec. 30, 1990
2. Kevin Porter (New Jersey) … 29 … Feb. 24, 1978
3. Guy Rodgers (San Francisco) … 28 … Mar. 14, 1963
3. Bob Cousy (Boston) … 28 … Feb. 27, 1959
3. John Stockton (Utah) … 28 … Jan. 15, 1991
6. Geoff Huston (Cleveland) … 27 … Jan. 27, 1982
6. John Stockton (Utah) … 27 … Dec. 19, 1989
8. John Stockton (Utah) … 26 … Apr. 14, 1988
9. Isiah Thomas (Detroit) … 25 … Feb. 13, 1985

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to ‘Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.