clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Michael Porter Jr. Finds Meaning After Almost Losing Basketball

Three back surgeries in five years changed everything for Porter Jr. and put his NBA career in jeopardy. But what the former phenom lost in athleticism, he gained in perspective, molding him into the Nuggets’ biggest X factor in pursuit of a ring. “It’s letting go of ego,” Porter Jr. says, “but that’s our whole team.”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Michael Porter Jr. lay on a bed in a patient room, staring up at the ceiling, left alone with his doubts and fears.

Not again, he thought. Not again.

He felt as if he were in a dream. A terrible, agonizing nightmare. And he felt intense déjà vu. For good reason: He had indeed been in this exact room, in this exact bed, inside this exact Dallas medical facility—not once, but twice before.

On this afternoon in December 2021, the then 23-year-old had just awakened from an unthinkable third back surgery in five years. The first surgery occurred during his freshman year at Missouri in 2017, in which he played just 53 minutes in three games; the second occurred before the start of his rookie year with the Denver Nuggets in 2018, causing him to miss the entire season. He had barely played basketball for two years. Now he was facing a prolonged absence again. The game he so brilliantly dominated felt like it had been stolen from him, and all he could do was helplessly wonder why.

“Why?” he asked, lying on that bed a year and a half ago. “Why is this happening to me again?”

It was an incomprehensible fate to grasp for someone who was once ranked as the no. 1 recruit in the country. Back then, the 6-foot-10 forward was praised as the future of basketball, a surefire top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. Known for his astounding athleticism and wingspan, he could shoot or dunk over anyone. Leaping was almost like breathing: unconscious, effortless, easy. Basketball had always come so easy to him.

And now he faced the most difficult part of his young career: wondering if it was truly over just as it was taking off. It had taken every fiber of his being just to recover from his previous two surgeries and then miraculously play well enough with the Nuggets to earn a five-year, $207 million max extension in 2021.

But after his third surgery later that year, a similar microdiscectomy procedure to the one he had previously undergone two times, he couldn’t fathom how hard it would be to attempt yet another comeback. If, that is, it was even physically possible—especially for someone whose game relied so heavily on athleticism. He was devastated. “For a lot of guys, that’s career-ending, one of those surgeries,” Porter Jr. says. “This is after two of them.

“I thought I had kind of gotten over everything, and now I have to get a third one? I don’t know if anyone’s ever played—especially at my young age—after three back surgeries.

“I was just over it,” he says.

The surgeries posed a unique and difficult challenge due to the intricate nature of the back and the fact that they involved different nerves in his body. When a nerve gets pinched, compressed, or irritated, it can cause distress to a number of areas around the body, including the leg, as was the case for Porter Jr.

It’s a tricky surgery because of how delicate nerves are. If anything in the surrounding area compresses or irritates a nerve, it can significantly impact or even completely shut off power to whatever function that nerve serves. In severe cases, one could lose the ability to use a particular extremity.

Due to the complex nature of his injury, Porter Jr. required extensive rehab not just for his back, but also for his left leg, including his quad, his hamstring, and his glute.

Lisa, his mother, walked into the patient room that December day and prayed over him alongside Nicodemus Christopher, Porter Jr.’s close friend, performance coach, and manager. After the surgery, they helped him into a wheelchair and steered him out of the facility.

In the coming months, Porter Jr. wasn’t allowed to drive. He couldn’t perform basic movements such as bending down and tying his shoes. If he dropped a pen, he couldn’t reach down and retrieve it. He couldn’t even sit up on his own at first. He had to relearn dozens of mundane movements he once took for granted. “It wasn’t even about getting back to those athletic moves,” Christopher says. “It was learning to operate in life again.”

Bridging the distance between where Porter Jr. was and where he yearned to be—playing at the highest level of basketball, sprinting, cutting, jumping at full speed—seemed inconceivable.

Emotionally, coping with his third procedure weighed on him. “There was a lot of sad feelings and there was a lot of really, honestly, depression and anxiety,” Porter Jr. says, “not knowing if you’re able to fulfill what you thought for your life.”

When Porter Jr. was lying alone with his thoughts, there was another voice inside him. It urged him to keep going. To not give in. That driven, resilient part of him told him that he wasn’t going to quit, no matter how arduous rehab would be. Day after day, he worked and worked, pushing himself further.

Now, about a year and a half after that December day, Porter Jr. has emerged triumphantly as a starter for a Nuggets team playing in the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. The Nuggets will play the Miami Heat in Game 1 on Thursday.

Porter Jr. isn’t his team’s best player, as people might have envisioned when he came out of high school, but he might be the team’s biggest X factor in pursuit of a ring. He’s played magnificently throughout the playoffs, averaging 14.6 points and eight rebounds per game, and he’s flourishing on the perimeter, shooting 40.8 percent on nearly seven 3-point attempts per game.

But his impact has been felt far beyond scoring. He’s been a relentless rebounder, grabbing double-digit boards in seven games. He’s also been an improved defender and shot blocker, taking pride in his assignments. Instead of dwelling on aspects of his game he felt he had lost due to his injuries, such as his athleticism, Porter Jr. focused on what he could gain and how he could add to his arsenal.

As a result, he’s morphed into a more all-around player, making selfless plays that contribute to winning basketball. It helps, too, that he is playing with one of the most dominant centers ever: two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. “Being able to play with Nikola has been awesome for me,” Porter Jr. says, adding that Jokic embodies the selflessness that the Nuggets have embraced. “You have to be kind of like that if you want everyone, the whole team, to be like that.”

Denver coach Michael Malone praised Porter Jr. after the Game 1 win over the Lakers for his hustle in diving for a loose ball late in the fourth quarter, leading to a two-handed Aaron Gordon dunk. “It’s a game-winning type of play,” Malone said.

“He came up to me during the Phoenix series [in Round 2] and says, ‘Listen, man, if you want to get Bruce [Brown] in at the end of the game, whatever you think is gonna help us win the game. I just want to win.’”

He has learned to thrive within his role, sacrificing for the greater good of his team. It wasn’t always easy. For most of his life, he was a go-to scorer, but he has learned how to complement the stars around him, including Jokic, Gordon, and Jamal Murray. “It’s letting go of ego,” Porter Jr. says, “but that’s our whole team. Our whole team is about that. A lot of guys are sacrificing.”

Porter Jr. finally feels he’s in the right place. When he’s playing, he feels he’s back in his element. The pressure to perform well has dissipated and been replaced with sheer joy to be on the floor at all. To have a chance to win a ring on the biggest stage of basketball.

These days, Porter Jr. practices gratitude. For him, gratitude isn’t a fleeting emotion, but an intentional state of mind: “Being grateful is an attitude.”

He often journals, writing down things he’s grateful for. Not just his body, but his mind, his resilience. “I could’ve easily quit,” he says.

But he isn’t satisfied. It’s still difficult for him to reconcile what’s happened to his body at such a young age. He still watches his old high school highlights and games on YouTube, as if he can somehow, even just for a moment, return to that time, when he could move much more freely and jump high with either leg, unencumbered by pain.

He is still driven to get back there. “Before my injuries, I could have been one of the best players to ever play. That was my goal. … I truly think that God-given ability was in me,” he says. “I don’t feel content. I don’t feel fully, fully myself until I’m back there.”

But he also knows that he can’t go backward, only forward. He is, in many respects, a different player. He had always been known for his scoring. And while he’s undoubtedly blossomed into an elite shooter, he’s also grown leaps in terms of developing into a more complete player on both ends of the floor. And as painful as these last few years have been, he knows he is better for them. “If I had never been hurt,” he says, “I don’t know who I would really be as a person.

“Growing up, [basketball] was easy for me,” he continues. “It’s like going up the elevator. It’s easy for you. Then, I fell all the way down. Now, this time, I’m having to climb the stairs slowly. … It’s like I’m walking in my purpose through this, more than if everything would have just been smooth for me.”

It took time to see that, to shift his mentality from sadness to acceptance. Even though his path looked different, he realized, it could still be meaningful.

He is reminded of that before every game, when he slips on a brace over his left foot, tucking it underneath his sock. He can’t play without the brace, given how his injuries have impacted his left leg.

“I’m still not fully pain free,” he says. The brace, also known as an ankle foot orthosis, or AFO, was specifically designed for older people in recovery from strokes or other nerve damage. Porter Jr. is wearing it while chasing after some of the best athletes in the world. He believes he is the first NBA player to wear such a brace.

It isn’t easy to play with, as it severely restricts his natural movement, making the way he’s able to defend quick forwards even more impressive. But it helps stabilize him, preventing injury and essentially allowing him to have more normal flexion and extension of his foot. If he didn’t have it, he’d literally trip over himself because he wouldn’t be able to pull his foot up when running. The AFO is critical in aiding that particular movement, also known as dorsiflexion.

He used to dread putting on the brace when he first started wearing it. It wasn’t just because it limited his freedom on the court, but also because it reminded him of what he had lost. But now, before each game, he thanks God that such an apparatus exists, because without it: “My career would’ve been over.”

He’s felt that sense of gratitude during the Nuggets’ playoff run. During Game 2 against the Lakers in Denver, Murray hit a 3 to put the Nuggets up nine late in the fourth quarter. Then, the next time down, Porter Jr. took a handoff from Jokic, nailing a momentum-shifting 3 of his own to widen the lead to 12 and forcing the Lakers to call a timeout.

The home crowd roared. Porter Jr. lost himself in the noise, joy coursing through his bones. He let out a smile.

His parents, Lisa and Michael Porter Sr., and Christopher, who were sitting in the stands, exchanged glances. They hadn’t seen Porter Jr. smile like that in a long, long time. Some nights, they weren’t sure if they ever would again.

The first time Porter Jr. felt any back pain was in high school, during the beginning of his junior year. He had fallen on the court from high in the air after attempting to dunk over an opponent in a game.

He saw several chiropractors and specialists, but the pain intensified as he began his freshman year at Missouri. One chiropractor twisted him in a “weird” way, he says. “The pain went from my back to down my leg, and I didn’t know what that meant.”

He soon found out he had a pinched nerve in his back. The pain was worsening, but the first game of the 2017-18 season against Iowa State was quickly approaching. It would be broadcast on national TV, with everyone clamoring for a glimpse of the Naismith Prep Player of the Year.

As Porter Jr. warmed up, going through layup lines, he suddenly realized he no longer could jump off his left leg. He walked over to tell his father, an assistant coach on the team. The coaching staff decided that Porter Jr. would start the game, given the national broadcast, but sub out at the first timeout.

Shortly thereafter, he would learn that he needed surgery. His future suddenly seemed in peril. “That was obviously very traumatizing,” Porter Jr. says.

He sat for much of that freshman season, recovering from his back surgery. But as someone who wanted to meet the gargantuan expectations placed on him, he pushed himself to return sooner than the recommended five-to-six-month timeline: “I tried to get it done in like three or four months so I could make it back for the [NCAA] tournament.”

He wasn’t fully healed but decided to come back for the SEC tournament. After a one-and-done performance, he then played “terribly” in an NCAA tournament loss. “I’m at 40 or 50 percent of myself,” he says. He didn’t want to let his teammates down, and he was tired of hearing critics accuse him of faking his injury, sitting out to protect his draft stock.

He wanted nothing more than to play. But, in pushing himself to do so, he ended up aggravating his back further.

“I came back too early,” he says. “I probably didn’t let it heal fully enough.”

He declared for the NBA draft, as was his original plan. He flew to Chicago for predraft workouts. “I was just dealing with a lot of pain,” he says. “We were trying to mask it.”

He managed to play well enough to impress a few teams. His agent, Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports & Entertainment, organized a private workout for him in front of 10 teams.

But the day before the workout, Porter Jr. woke up to the same agonizing pain that he had felt in college, when the pain traveled from his back down his leg. “Now I’m terrified again,” Porter Jr. says.

Bartelstein had to cancel the workout. There were many rumors flying around about Porter Jr.’s condition, so Bartelstein invited all the teams to fly in their medical personnel to evaluate his client in person. It was a surreal scene, Porter Jr. again lying on a table, a horde of doctors evaluating him as he waited to learn his fate.

There were a variety of opinions among the doctors, including about whether Porter Jr. would be able to compete at an NBA level. There were concerns about whether he’d ever play again and, if he did, how long he might last.

“A lot of teams were very much scared away,” Bartelstein says.

It was mind-blowing for Porter Jr. to even contemplate. In a matter of months, he went from the projected no. 1 pick to a total question mark. “There were a lot of teams that just would not touch him,” Bartelstein says. “I was told by a number of teams, ‘He won’t play in the NBA.’”

Porter Jr. was fearful, lying in his bed in the coming weeks, unable to move because he was in so much pain. His sisters would bring him ice, comforting him.

He prayed.

Porter Jr. breathed a sigh of relief when the Nuggets eventually selected him with the 14th overall pick. “Tim Connelly [former Denver president of basketball operations] and the Nuggets were willing to take a chance on me,” Porter Jr. says.

Soon thereafter, around July 2018, it was determined that Porter Jr. would require a second back surgery. It was difficult for Porter Jr. to miss his rookie campaign while recovering from the procedure. He diligently followed his rehab plan, motivated to come back stronger. He returned to play the following season, in 2019-20, but he only played about 16 minutes a game.

He kept working. He was able to rehab more during the season break before the 2020 bubble. He was one of the first Nuggets to arrive in Florida. And because some of the starters arrived later than him, he jumped into the starting lineup, which he says likely wouldn’t have happened if everyone had arrived at the same time.

Porter Jr. didn’t disappoint in the chance opportunity, exploding for a career-high 37 points in an overtime win against the Thunder in his third start, largely seen as his breakout game. He also helped Denver rally from a 3-1 playoff deficit twice that postseason, against the Jazz and the Clippers. He earned second-team All-Bubble honors.

He continued to shine in 2020-21, averaging 19 points while shooting 44.5 percent from beyond the arc, culminating in a max contract. Finally, it seemed like things were brightening. He felt the worst was behind him. The surgeries, the setbacks, the doubts.

And then, nine games into 2021-22, that gnawing, traveling pain returned.

Not again.

He remembered tweaking his back in the offseason, but it didn’t feel significant until it worsened in the coming months. One play, running the fast break with a wide-open layup in front of him, he tried to jump off his left leg, but he was unable to accelerate up due to his pinched nerve, and he blew the layup. Critics mocked him relentlessly on social media, though it was clear Porter Jr. could barely walk.

It bothered him when strangers criticized him after completing his third surgery later that year, as if he wasn’t doing everything humanly possible to heal, starting from ground zero yet again: “They would dog me, like, ‘This dude can’t do this. This dude can’t do this.’ I’m like, ‘You don’t even realize what it took to even try to attempt to play.’”

His joy was dwindling. “I definitely lost it,” he says. He had to think about every little movement he was making. He envied his younger self, the one who didn’t have to think, only react. He just … flowed. Rose higher and higher to the rim. “The worst part,” he says, “is knowing how much you have in you and not being able to actually go express that. Go do it.”

He began to draw strength from listening to stories from people who had gone through much worse than he had, such as people who had lost limbs or had been paralyzed. Nearly every hour of the day was spent in the weight room, rehabbing his body. “Hunger” is the only way Christopher can describe it.

He thought about what really mattered to him in the grand scheme of things. It wasn’t about money; it wasn’t about glory. He realized how hollow those things were, because the same people that praised him in high school were the same people that said he was faking his injury, that he didn’t deserve his max contract, and that he was forever a liability on the court.

His worth as a human being had been tied for so long to what he accomplished in hoops. The way he felt love as a kid was through people clapping for him when he made a good play. And as an adult, when that adulation would cease as soon as his body couldn’t do what it had promised, he had to separate his worth from his profession.

“A lot of people like to visualize success,” Porter Jr. says, “but through this whole process, I learned to visualize, ‘OK, what if it doesn’t go my way? What if I do my rehab as hard as I can and it doesn’t work out? Now what?’”

Confronting that possibility was, in a sense, liberating. Motivating. After mastering basic movements, he’d respond to more “controlled chaos” thrown into his training environment, as Christopher calls it: meaning, slowly reintegrating competitive elements.

The close attention to detail and the hours of strength training caused him to focus on different areas of his body, which in turn improved his defense and rebounding this season, two areas he may not have focused on without his setbacks.

“There’s so many more things that I’m doing now that I would not have done,” he says.

Even though Porter Jr. is the healthiest he’s been in years, his rehab is an ongoing commitment. It’s grueling work. He points to a hyperbaric chamber in his home, a device that delivers pure oxygen to stimulate recovery at a higher rate.

“All the extra work that most guys have to put in, which is a lot, I’m having to do three times that much just to be able to play,” Porter Jr. says, adding later: “Basically, my whole life revolves around just trying to be able to stay healthy.”

He’s also working to try to return to his peak form, no. 1 ranked player Michael Porter Jr., which he believes he can be. He’s still only 24, and his back injuries are not degenerative; in theory, he can get back to 100 percent. And while this offseason will be shorter than normal due to the Nuggets’ run, it’ll be the first NBA summer Porter Jr. isn’t predominantly focused on rehab. In many ways, he’s still growing. His game is still evolving.

Porter Jr. thinks a lot about what success actually is. The sacrifices one has to make to achieve it. The singular focus and work ethic required to sustain it. He wondered: What does it mean to be successful, anyway? What is truly enough? What if he never retrieves the athleticism stolen from him?

“A lot of the most successful people in the world really, truly are the most unhappy,” he says. He doesn’t want to live his life that way. “I want to keep striving, but also realizing success shouldn’t be defined by me being better than everyone else or me being the no. 1 player. It should be defined by: I pushed myself to reach my potential,” he says.

“And my potential may look different now that I’ve had these injuries. Maybe my potential now isn’t the best player in the NBA. Maybe it is. I don’t know,” he says. “But as long as I can truly say, ‘With what I had, I gave it my all,’ that’s all the success should be defined by.”

And then it hits him, with force: Maybe success is that he didn’t quit. Success is that he’s still here. Success is that his team needs him. Success is that he’s playing for an NBA championship.

The Ringer's NBA Draft Show

Izan Almansa on Joining the G League and Growing His Game

Off Guard With Austin Rivers

Austin Responds to Latest Drama and Hands Out Preseason Awards

The Bill Simmons Podcast

A 2023 NFL Redraft, Deion’s Next School, the 76ers Soap Opera, and Week 3 Picks With Danny Kelly, Van Lathan, and Howard Beck

View all stories in NBA