Distracting and deflating as the loss of the hysterically hyped Michael Porter Jr. to back surgery might have been, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin had no time or sympathy for the jarring loss beyond merely wanting Porter to get well for Porter’s own sake.
He did not indulge, for instance, the notion of MU sports curses.
“I don’t get caught up in all that,” the first-year coach said during a recent Mizzou practice. “For me, I believe in God. I don’t get consumed with anything else.”
He did not entertain a mourning period for his team, which may or may not yet have a Festivus Miracle in store with the return of Porter before anyone might have expected.
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“Of course you’d like to have him out there; everybody wants that level of talent out there on the floor,” Martin said. “But if a family member loses a job, somebody gets sick, that’s life.
“So we continue to move forward, we make the adjustment and we deal with it. We feel the pain, but we still have to push forward because there will be a tomorrow.”
All of which helps explain how MU has essentially shrugged off wobbly efforts at Utah and against Emporia State as Porter’s mysterious absence was about to be clarified — with the news that the would-be program savior would likely be out three to four months and miss the only season he seemed assured of playing here before leaving for the NBA.
All of which also helps explain why Martin surely won’t spend any time making plans for a return of Porter Jr. just because of a public hint the player gave that he could make his way back sooner, or even less because of outside speculation — most recently on Tuesday by an accomplished St. Louis orthopedic physician whose view we’ll get to shortly.
Right here, right now is what Martin is preaching and teaching.
Now, certainly, the Tigers (8-2) have a mighty long way to go before they accomplish something substantial.
But the fact they matched last season’s victory total with their 100-77 victory Saturday over Wisconsin-Green Bay is a marker for progress as they head into the final stretch of non-conference play before their Southeastern Conference opener Jan. 3 at South Carolina.
Mizzou has been swaggering more than sagging since the loss of Porter, whose teammates may be motivated to demonstrate that this was never going to be a one-man band.
“Everybody plays a vital role in what we’re doing,” said Martin, noting how veteran presences helped stabilize the team, and making an important distinction about how any given player can contribute. “Mike’s a talented player, but Kevin Puryear has as much value. Jontay (Porter) has as much value. Jeremiah Tillmon has just as much value. …
“It’s what we do in our program. I’ve never been one to get caught up in what a guy’s status is on the surface.”
Which brings us to what’s behind the surface:
Much has been shrouded to the public — and perhaps even to Mizzou — about Porter, whose father, Michael Sr., is an MU assistant who has declined interviews.
Every so often, though, a curtain gets peeled back and we see … something.
Days after MU announced on Nov. 21 that Porter Jr. would undergo a microdiscectomy procedure in Dallas that had a projected recovery time of three to four months, Porter Jr. posted a cryptic message on Instagram.
“Just letting y’all know whoever said it was gonna take 3-4 months to recover lied,” he wrote, garnishing it with two wink-smile emojis.
Then, speaking on St. Louis radio 590 on Tuesday, orthopedic surgeon Rick Lehman told host Frank Cusumano that based on 30 years of seeing such injuries he’d expect the recovery time to be more like six to eight weeks.
Just a few weeks from now, in other words.
Talk about Feats of Strength.
Lehman isn’t just a guy. He’s in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and has treated the likes of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
As it happens, I go back decades with him, having interviewed him in the past in his capacity as team physician for the St. Louis Blues and working with Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
So … I called him up after seeing Tuesday’s report.
After noting that he was not treating Porter but saying he had information he could not elaborate on that helped support his contention, he expanded on his point.
Calling the injury “pretty common” and adding that there had been no fusion or implanting of an artificial disc, Lehman said all indications are that the recovery should be consistent with what he’s seen repeatedly over decades: six to eight weeks after this surgery.
“I don’t think fairy dust came in my eyes … I’ve just never seen anyone take three months to come back from this,” Lehman said. “I think he’s going to play this year, and I think he’s going to be a meaningful part of the team. I really believe he’s going to be able to contribute to the level he would have been able to contribute absent the back surgery.”
Asked why there could be such a difference in anticipated timelines, Lehman said doctors — including himself — almost always present worst-case scenario recovery periods.
He also offered a few caveats about his own projection, including how Porter responds to rehabilitation and what the family is thinking.
“The family might say … ‘Why let him get hurt playing college basketball when there’s a big payday in his future?’ And I can understand that,” he said. “And there might be some politics at Mizzou that I don’t know about. I can understand that.”
For any number of reasons, MU doesn’t want to talk much about this possibility.
That may reflect a complicated dynamic developing between the family and the program.
At least from the outside looking in, something seems funny about the lines of communication, and unclear about how much the Porters keep Mizzou in the loop.
But it certainly reflects this: Martin is about coaching the known knowns and being in the precious present.
There is no point now in speculating about possibilities, because it would only distract and detract — much like it did when the team first started wondering if it would be without Porter in the loss to Utah and narrow victory over Emporia State.
“Not taking anything away from (those teams), but it seemed like we were a step slow, weren’t locked in and just weren’t as engaged as we normally are in practice and in games,” Martin said.
Since then, the team has understood it has to continue to move forward, and has come to understand it has its own value … with or without Porter.
Because no one knows what tomorrow brings, just that it will come, and that this fresh beginning has never been only about building a monument to Porter Jr.
“We’re building a program,” Martin said, “but I think we’re off to a solid start.”