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Michael Porter Jr.: ‘Don’t let nobody put you in a box’

The Denver Nuggets rookie on his experiences growing up with racism

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Too Black for some white people. Not Black enough for some Black people. For much of Michael Porter Jr.’s life, that’s how he felt being biracial.

With his growing platform in the NBA, the Denver Nuggets’ promising rookie now hopes to bring attention to the struggles that biracial people face.

“Don’t let nobody put you in a box,” Porter told The Undefeated. “People might try to say you too white for your Black friends, too Black for your white friends. So, it can be tough for a light-skinned kid “But you don’t ever have to conform to what they want you to be.”

During the NBA’s restart at ESPN Wide World of Sports, Porter has chosen to wear the message “Stand Up” on the back of his jersey. At 22, he has grown more confident in who he is as a person.

Michael Porter Jr. of the Denver Nuggets looks on during Game 1 of their first-round series against the Utah Jazz on Aug. 17 in Orlando, Florida, at HP Field House.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

“Just stand up for what you believe in, man,” said Porter, whose Nuggets are down 3-1 to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the NBA playoffs. “And there’s a lot of issues going on in our world right now. Black Lives Matter is a huge one. But there’s a lot of things going on in the world right now that people need to start standing up for it.

“And the people with influence need to start using their voice and help create change.”

Porter is one of eight children. His father, Michael Porter Sr., is Black and his mother, Lisa Porter, is white.

Porter recalls his father telling him stories about experiencing racism growing up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as well as the racism Porter’s parents experienced as a married couple.

As a child, Porter also remembers how his family was treated differently.

“For us growing up, people look at us funny sometimes,” Porter said. “And there was a lot of things that have happened. Just little things, subtle things, but it’s real. And the fact that everyone in the world is getting to see that it’s real, that Black people have to go through this on a daily basis? I think it’s huge.”

The former Missouri forward said he has been called the N-word on social media, while also being called “soft” because he’s light-skinned.

“The thing of not knowing what people think is definitely a real thing for a light-skinned kid,” Porter said.

Porter is one of many biracial players who have made a name for themselves in the NBA. Other current players include Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson, Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young, Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, Houston Rockets guard Austin Rivers, Minnesota Timberwolves forward Karl-Anthony Towns and Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet.

“Being biracial is a different experience for sure,” VanVleet told The Undefeated. “I would just say to be authentic to who you are at your core and follow that. If you rub people the wrong way, that is just what it is. You have to stand on that.

“The way I was raised was the 1% rule. If you’re Black enough to be called the N-word, if you’re Black enough to be discriminated against, you’re Black. That is just how it goes and that is how I was raised.”

Porter Sr. recalls having conversations with his family after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, about an hour and a half from where the Porters lived.

“I did have to have conversations with them and say, ‘You guys say that you’re mixed, but in this country, you’re Black,’ ” Porter Sr. said. “And that brings with it a whole other level of a mentality that you have to have. …

“Michael was just starting to learn how to drive at that point. And I remember several times I was having a conversation just about, hey, man, you get pulled over, this is how you act. No smarting off, no talking back, nothing. Just do what they ask. And if you got to reach somewhere to get something, you ask first if it’s OK for you to reach, you know, those kinds of things.”

Porter’s experiences have motivated him to speak up. Growing up in a Christian household has helped guide him.

After the death of George Floyd in May while in police custody, Porter said on Twitter that the incident was heartbreaking and brought tears to his eyes. He added: “As much as you pray for George’s family, you also pray for the police officer[s] who were involved in this evil. As hard as it is, pray for them instead of hate them … Pray that God changes their hearts.”

Porter received strong backlash on social media after the latter tweet, including from former NBA forward Stephen Jackson, who was a close friend of Floyd’s.

“Man go sit yo young Privileged a– down,” Jackson said on Instagram. “Either u with us or against us. @MPJr not now bruh f** dat. Rest Easy Twin I don’t have a prob with u Youngin ain’t no time for that. Easy to say that nobody is dying close to you. Pick a side.”

Porter also showed support on social media for Magic forward Jonathan Isaac, an African American player who opted to stand instead of kneel during the playing of the national anthem, citing his Christian beliefs.

“A lot of people don’t know that I base my whole perception, that message, on the fact that I’m a Christ follower,” Porter said. “So, I try to see things through his perspective. So, a lot of people that don’t understand that side of me wouldn’t understand where I’m coming from. … The way he shows justice sometimes is through mercy.

“And that is not to say that none of these guys doing all this stuff shouldn’t be punished. Obviously, they should. But at the same time, like my tweet got a lot of hate, but forgiveness is the way. That is a real thing. But people would never know that if they didn’t understand that it comes from a place of faith. And that’s what I try to view everything from.”

Porter’s faith has played a major role in helping him mentally overcome his biggest opponent in basketball: injuries.

Porter was once projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft before he suited up for Missouri. But a serious lower back injury that required surgery limited him to just three games during his freshman year. With his health in question, Porter slipped to the 14th pick that year when he was selected by the Nuggets.

Porter sat out the entire 2018-19 season to recover from another back surgery. Then, when he had finally recovered, he missed summer league after spraining his knee during practice.

“I was hurt [mentally],” Porter said. “I was ready to go in summer league feeling good. And then I think it was the day before we left that I messed up. Just like tweaking my knee a little bit and they wanted to keep me out. So I was hurt. I ain’t going to lie.”

Porter finally made his NBA debut in October. Before the season was postponed in March due to the pandemic, the 6-foot-10 forward was averaging 7.4 points and 4.1 rebounds in 14 minutes per game, primarily off the bench.

Michael Porter Jr. (center) of the Denver Nuggets drives to the basket against the San Antonio Spurs on Aug. 5 at Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Since the NBA restart on July 30, however, he has had a few breakthrough performances. Porter averaged 22 points during seven seeding games, including two games scoring 30 or more points. And he earned All-NBA Second Team honors during the seeding games for his play.

During his first postseason, Porter is averaging 14.3 points on 49.3% shooting from the field and 48.2% from 3. The knock on the talented scorer is he has to get better defensively. But overall, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone has been impressed with what he has seen.

“For a rookie player in his first playoffs, I think Michael has been terrific,” Malone said. “It’s a lot to ask a young man to go out there and play against a talented team like Utah. I brought him off the bench [in Game 4] and he handled it like a pro. He didn’t pout. He stayed ready. He gave us energy off the bench. …

“He has been tremendous. We all understand that he is going to be an important piece to this team moving forward.”

The Nuggets face an elimination game on Tuesday, but Porter is just getting started. And he’s not afraid to be himself.

“Stand up for what you believe in,” Porter said. “Don’t back down from that. Even if it is controversial. Even if it is countercultural. Don’t back down from what you believe. ’Cause at the end of the day, I know what I’m saying. I’d rather disappoint a lot of people, than disappoint myself or the God that I serve.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.