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Jontay Porter probe puts spotlight on sports gambling

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Over the course of a dismal Toronto Raptors season spiralling to its inevitable conclusion, watching Jontay Porter regain some momentum in a young basketball career beset with injuries had emerged as a welcome and heart-warming story. 

The peak likely came two weeks ago when the 24-year-old big man took the floor in Denver where his older brother, Michael Porter Jr., stars for the Nuggets. 

The two were inseparable growing up and played on the same team wherever possible: Jontay as the high-skill role player supporting his higher-profile brother. It was that basketball intelligence and firm understanding of how to support high-level talent that made him an appealing NBA prospect at the University of Missouri before he tore his ACL and MCL prior to his sophomore season and then reinjured his knee again five months later. He went undrafted in 2019 and struggled with further issues early in his professional career. 

But after a long road back and thanks in part to his older brother talking him out of retiring, Porter was healthy and finally found some traction when the Raptors signed him to a two-way contract in December. With the Raptors injury situation, Porter was able to get some steady minutes for the first time in the NBA and showed on multiple occasions how his skill set was a nice fit with head coach Darko Rajakovic’s preference for floor spacing, cutting and ball movement. 

It all came together in Denver, with the Porter family on hand to see the two brothers reunited on the floor. Jontay scored 14 points and dished five assists in 22 minutes off the bench in a game where the undermanned Raptors pushed the defending champions Nuggets to the limit. 

Jerseys were exchanged at mid-court post-game and warm hugs and smiles with family were all part of the scene in the arena hallways afterward as the Porter family got to see a moment that looked unlikely when Jontay’s career seemed over before it started. 

It was beautiful stuff. Porter comes across as a bright, modest, intelligent person who plays a smart, unselfish brand of basketball. Easy to root for, in other words. In a long season, it was great to see him and those who supported him on his journey so happy. 

If that was the peak, exactly where the bottom will be is hard to tell, but there’s a very real possibility that it’s coming fast and it’s not inconceivable that the end of Jontay Porter’s basketball career will be the result. 

The basics: The Raptors big man, who will earn $415,000 this season, is being investigated by the NBA for manipulating his on-court performance for bettors who could benefit financially from knowing he would do so. 

It’s exactly the kind of scenario that is all too easy to conjure up in an era when legalized sports betting is ubiquitous and fans and players alike can place almost any manner of bets via an app on their phone. It is a not-so-small step for a player to participate in a plan that could benefit him or those in his orbit financially. 

Raptors teammates, head coach react to Porter gambling probe

Everyone loves a so-called sure thing. 

But the fact that it’s actually happened (allegedly) and involving a teammate, that’s another matter.

“I’m surprised, but at the end of the day nothing has been proven yet,” said Raptors veteran Garrett Temple, who is also a vice-president of the NBPA Executive Committee. “It’s an investigation and he’s a member of our team, a member of our organization, but also a member of the 450 [union members]. So, my position is that we’re backing [him] and hope that it’s not what has been implied.”

As first reported by ESPN.com, just before the Raptors hosted the visiting Brooklyn Nets, Porter — who was officially listed out due to personal reasons — “is under investigation by the NBA following multiple instances of betting irregularities over the past several months.”

The ESPN report cited two instances where Porter left a game early and didn’t hit the thresholds required to surpass the betting line for his points, rebounds and assists totals in what is known as a ‘prop’ bet.

On Jan. 26th against the LA Clippers, Porter played just four minutes before leaving the game when he re-aggravated an eye injury he’d suffered four games earlier. The line for his totals were — per ESPN — set at 5.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists. If you bet the ‘over’ and Porter had a line of at least 6/5/2, you win. If you bet the ‘under’ and he doesn’t reach those totals in each category, you win. There was also an over/under for Porter’s made 3-pointers, which was 0.5.

Having left the game early Porter didn’t score against the Clippers and had just three rebounds, one assist and didn’t attempt a three. Those who bet the under would have won all their bets. 

According to ESPN, DraftKings Sportsbook — one of the NBA’s four gambling-related sponsors — reported that the under on Porter’s 3-pointers was the biggest money winner for bettors of any NBA player props from games that evening.

In last Wednesday’s game against the Sacramento Kings, Porter left the game after three minutes due to illness without scoring and grabbing only two rebounds. His over/unders were set at 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds. On Thursday, ESPN reports, DraftKings SportsBooks told its users that Porter’s prop bets were the No. 1 money maker from the night in the NBA.

Porter played 21 minutes Friday, scoring seven points, dishing out eight assists and grabbing two rebounds in Toronto’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder before missing Saturday and Monday’s games due to personal reasons. 

It could all be a coincidence. However, it’s somewhat unlikely that big money was bet on a fringe player’s prop bets in the same games when he left them after playing minimal minutes, giving him no opportunity to reach the lines set by the bookmakers. 

Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic said he knew nothing about the situation until he was informed earlier Monday, but noticed nothing unusual about the games when Porter pulled himself out in the early going.

“From my perspective as a coach, I never doubt injuries, I never doubt the honesty of players,” said Rajakovic. “Obviously, I never had a situation like this before.”

Porter’s NBA career now in jeopardy

Players are allowed to bet on sports, per NBA rules, but betting on NBA, G League or WNBA games is a violation of league policy and is punishable by suspensions, fines or termination. 

But if Porter knowingly altered his on-court performance so that he and or others could profit through gambling, it is a black eye for him, quite possibly the end of his career and another sign that professional sports’ rush to profit from alliances with legalized gambling could threaten the integrity of its core product: a level playing field.

Toronto Raptors center Jontay Porter (34) and Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, March 11, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“It’s definitely awkward … I like that term,” said Temple, acknowledging that along with some of the problems sports gambling may foster, its presence has generated a significant amount of new revenue that the league shares with players. “You watch a game, and you may see FanDuel or DraftKings as a big-time sponsor for a team, but obviously it’s illegal for us to [bet on] any type of professional basketball … we understand that.

“[But] sports betting has always been around, it just obviously is even more available,” he said. “But as players, you don’t really think about it. As a veteran, I don’t really think about it as much because [not betting on basketball] has always been a rule. It’s not as if a rule change happened. So it is awkward but at the same time, like I say, we understand what we’re getting ourselves into.”

The idea of a player fixing his own prop bet seems like hanging fruit for someone trying to play an angle, it must be said.

Fixing the outcome of a game or the point differential in a game is a complicated thing involving, most likely, multiple actors or a player of significant enough standing to shape the outcome of a game to cooperate. 

But having a relatively minor player simply not try very hard or  — as Porter is being investigated for — feigning an injury and leaving a game early so as to not hit his totals and affect a single prop bet? 

It seems almost too easy. 

Meanwhile, fandom has shifted from supporting teams and stars to — very often — fans being invested in their betting outcomes over everything.

Indiana Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton said last week that he’s all too aware of where some fans’ allegiances lie, telling The Athletic: “To half the world, I’m just helping them make money on DraftKings or whatever. I’m a prop.”

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he’s been threatened by gamblers telling reporters last week: “They got my telephone number and were sending me crazy messages about where I live and my kids and all that stuff. So it is a dangerous game and a fine line that we’re walking for sure.” 

As news broke about the reason Porter was absent for Monday’s game, his teammates said they didn’t know any details — “I know what you know,” said Raptors forward Jordan Nwora. 

But they acknowledge that the fervour around gambling and sports betting is hard to ignore. Turns out a lot of fans wish a player would cooperate and help them win their prop bet and are only too happy to tell players that, in person and online. 

“(It’s) non-stop. You get messages,” said Nwora. “You hear it on the sideline. You see guys talking about it all the time. I forget what the term is… Tyrese just said it that day … yeah, a prop, yeah. It is what it is. It comes with being in the NBA. People bet on silly things on a daily basis … Just tune it out or just don’t look at your messages.”

Gambling on sports is hardly new and match-fixing and other improprieties date back to the 1919 Black Sox Scandal where organized crime figures attempted to fix the outcome of the World Series. But legalized sports betting is a relatively recent development — it was only legalized in Canada in 2021 and remains illegal in 12 U.S. states — and the ramifications of the change are still being felt, the case involving the Raptors’ Porter the most recent, but perhaps not the last. 

 “(Hearing from fans) has been a part of it for probably the past two or three years,” said Raptors wing Ochai Agbaji. “And fans, you know, slamming you for not hitting their bet, that’s an every night thing for every single one of us in this locker room. 

“… It’s all over the place. It’s the wild, wild west right now…”

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