Monday, May 27, 2024

How Michael Porter Jr.’s work with a psychotherapist is helping fuel his success

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As the Denver Nuggets battle the Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA playoffs, Michael Porter Jr. took time between games to talk about how he copes with challenges in his life.

“Oh, snap,’’ said the Nuggets starting forward, who then told USA TODAY Sports his brother was calling from jail.

A recent eight-day period involving three of Porter’s younger brothers demonstrates some of the moments of stress he has faced.

Jontay Porter, 24, was banned from the NBA for disclosing confidential information to sports bettors; Coban Porter, 22, was sentenced to six years in prison after pleading guilty to charges in a drunken driving crash that killed a woman; and Jevon Porter, 20, was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

“It’s tough,” Michael Porter said after taking the call from Coban Porter and resuming the phone interview with USA TODAY Sports last weekend. “It’s not like you don’t still feel grief or feel stressful about it or anything like that.”

Dealing with his emotions, Porter said, not only is part of how he copes these days but also a key factor in conquering something he once thought was impossible.

Porter, who has undergone three back surgeries and missed more than 100 games during his first five NBA seasons, says he has been healed of chronic back pain. Now in his sixth year, he has missed only one game this season − not because of injury, but because he brought the wrong shoes on a trip.

Porter said playing injury-free stems from his work with Nicole Sachs, a licensed clinical social worker, in uncovering repressed emotions they say are responsible for chronic back pain.

“To not miss a game all season (due to injury) after multiple seasons of missing games, having surgeries and things like that, I just think it’s a pretty amazing story and a testament to this kind of work,” Porter said.

Still wearing a brace on his left leg as a result of his back problems, Porter has been the Nuggets’ third-leading scorer with 16.7 points per game during the regular season and 17.4 points during the playoffs. He was the team’s second-leading rebounder during the regular season with 7.0 per game and is its third-leading rebounder in the playoffs with 6.7.

“I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said earlier this season. “… If you’re really going to understand and look at what he’s doing, from a medical standpoint, the brace he wears every night and for him to go out and do what he’s doing − if you just take a step back, it’s incredible.”

Michael Porter Jr. impacted by brothers’ tribulations

On April 19, Michael Porter was in a courtroom instead of at practice with his teammates so he could speak on behalf of Coban at the sentencing hearing.

“It has not been easy for him,” Malone told reporters the next night after Porter had 19 points and eight rebounds in Denver’s 114-103 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the first-round series. “That’s why I give him credit, because he’s carrying so much in his heart and on his mind. For him to go out there and do the job that he’s doing, it speaks to how much strength that young man has.”

Porter’s parents declined to comment for this story, according to Mark Bartelstein, who is Porter’s agent and said he is representing the Porter family.

Explaining his success in the face of off-the-court and on-court pressure, Porter said he now deals with the emotions from which he once ran. He said he’s learned his mental and emotional state matter.

“I give those things the credit they deserve and the time they deserve,” he said, “whether that’s through journaling or whether it’s through praying or whether that’s through meditating or just thinking about some of these problems. And then I can kind of just go about my life normally.

“Not that I don’t think about my brothers. But I brought (his emotions) to the surface, I gave them the time they deserved and now I can shift my focus to other things when my focus needs to be shifted.”

Expectations remain high.

Selected by the Nuggets with the No. 14 pick in the 2018 draft, Porter in 2021 signed a five-year extension worth up to $207 million, according to ESPN.

Why Michael Porter Jr. cites social media as factor in wellness

Medscape, which bills itself as the leading online destination for physicians and healthcare professionals, wrote in 2023 that the fundamental theory behind mind-body work for back pain “has met skepticism from the mainstream community, but glowing testimonies from patients who say they benefitted from…strategies fill the internet.”

Porter has not been afraid to challenge the mainstream.

In 2020, for example, Porter was roundly criticized after saying on Snapchat, “Personally, I think that the coronavirus is being used obviously for a bigger agenda. It’s being used for population control in just terms of being able to control the masses of people.’’

While talking about how emotions can create physical pain, Porter said, “Sometimes it’s just your emotions get too piled up, your mental gets too piled up and that can put you in a place where your body’s experiencing more inflammation.”

He added that social media and the criticism it generates have increased the injury rate among NBA players. There’s no data backing his claim.

“Players back in the day before the social media era, before the criticism era and the way it is now, guys weren’t having as many injuries, as many chronic pains, as many surgeries,’’ Porter said. “And I (attribute) that to the fact that we live in this culture now where everything is so criticized and for athletes, people that comment on us and criticize us … can contribute to this emotional restlessness.’’

NBA injury rates fluctuated between 2010 and 2017, when the use of social media was surging, but generally were lower than the NBA injury rates today, according to NBA data the league says is from third-party experts. Injury rates have been “pretty stable” since the 2017-18 season, according to the league.

The NBA still is attempting to identify the cause of the shifts in injury rates, according to the league. Possibilities include the increased speed and pace of the game and youth basketball players logging more games, according to the NBA.

What others say about mind-body work

Sachs, the psychotherapist and mind-body clinician who has been working with Porter since last summer, said chronic pain results from a dysregulated nervous system triggered by repressed emotions and stored trauma. When the trauma is uncovered and processed, Sachs said, the signals of pain stop firing.

“This is not hippy dippy therapy talk,’’ Sachs said. “This is literally about brain science.’’  

Sachs and other practitioners cite a body of research that includes: “The anatomy of pain and suffering in the brain and its clinical implications,” a 2021 research paper that was published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

A 2022 review published in The BMJ, a medical journal, shows the benefits of using psychological interventions and physical therapy to treat lower back pain. Porter indicated he has continued to use weight training to keep his back strong and healthy.

“But as dedicated as I am to keeping my body right, that never was really enough,’’ he said. “I still was dealing with spasms that would come on randomly.”

Pain propelled Michael Porter Jr. after 2023 NBA championship

Eight months ago, not long after meeting Sachs, Porter interviewed her on his podcast and shared part of their story.

Weeks after the Nuggets won the 2023 NBA championship, Porter said, he was all but immobilized by recurring back pain. Desperate for a solution, the hunt began.

Porter found the work of John Sarno, author of “The Mindbody Prescription’’ and “Healing Back Pain.’’ Sarno, who died in 2017, was a physician and professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University who claimed back pain is psychosomatic.

The books led Porter to seek out Sachs, a disciple of Sarno. Porter’s initial homework: journal 20 minutes a day uninterrupted. It led him to connect his back pain to the pressure related to basketball, which he began playing at age 3.

“Because growing up that’s how I felt loved,” he said of his basketball success.

His back pain began to dissipate as he continued to journal and talk to Sachs.

“I believe this is the cure,’’ Porter told her on the podcast.

Last month, while in Los Angeles, Porter joined Sachs on her podcast. It was the day before the Nuggets played the Lakers in Game 4 of their playoff series.

Porter declared himself free of chronic back pain.

“Every single day I’m pushing my body to the limits, and that’s after three back surgeries and after all this stuff,’’ he said. “… Whether it is anger, guilt, shame, I think the more that I’ve learned about myself, uncovering those emotions that took away the pain but then using that information to actually change my life has also been highly beneficial.’’

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