During the Miami Heat's playoff run in 2012, Mike Miller's back pain was so severe at times that he couldn't even sit on the bench during games.
Then, after only seeing the court for 20 minutes over the first four games of the NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miller put on one of the most memorable performances on the NBA's biggest stage: In the championship-clinching Game 5, he lasted 23 minutes with a balky back and shot seven of eight from three-point range.
While Miller seriously considered calling it quits at that point, a month later he said (via The Associated Press), "No retirement. ... Let's party again next year." That's just what he did, helping the Heat defend their title.
Now two years later, at 34 years old, not only has Miller not missed a single game for the Memphis Grizzlies, but he's also the only player on the team—which an NBA scout called the "toughest team to beat" in the playoffs' opening round—to suit up in all of their 63 games. He's also averaging the most minutes (20.8) and points (7.0) since the 2009-10 season.
Speaking with Bleacher Report, Miller shared his remarkable story of recovery, starting with the biggest game of his life. With his consent, his insights are presented here from his first-person perspective, edited for clarity and length.
Game 5 was a blessing.
It was difficult to go through that playoff run. I played in the first round, but then in the second and third it got to be where I couldn't really do much with my body. I hung in there, stayed mentally ready and got an opportunity. For me, it was one of the best things—not only to perform like that on that kind of stage, but also win a championship at the same time. It was a crazy feeling.
During the playoff run, it got to the point where it was tough to do day-to-day things. That's where I got concerned. I think the bulging disc and disc irritation stemmed from my sports hernia surgery in December 2011, which tightened my hips and things like that. I can't tell you how painful my back was—just breathing and doing the things you want to do day to day. And once your back becomes a problem, it's hard to really recover. I can fight through anything basketball-wise, but when you've got kids at home and it's tough to do day-to-day things, you've really got to start putting things into perspective.
When it started getting to the point where the pain was down my leg and I had a hard time feeling my right leg, that's when I really considered retirement. I was honest and open about it, and I told the Heat after the finals, "If I feel like I'm a liability, I don't care how much money is left on my contract."
The first couple of doctors wanted me to have surgery and, for me, surgery was out of the question. My wife, Jennifer, and the kids all had a talk that I would miss basketball way too much. Because if surgery happened, that means a tough recovery, it's hard to come back, we were coming off a championship and it doesn't look good for me. So I knew that in order to do the day-to-day things and the family things, I was going to have work at it anyways. So why not get the motivation to come back and play at the same time?
That's when I was fortunate enough to meet renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Barth Green through the Heat organization. To leave Green's office saying that we can get this done without surgery and the way he wanted to approach it was exactly what I wanted. When you and your doctor are on the same page on a rehab, on any kind of injury, it's refreshing to hear. He really did have an impact on changing not only my professional basketball life, but my life in general and the way I wanted to carry my body the rest of the way.
The approach was basically reworking my core and strengthening my hips. I honestly tried everything. I was doing yoga, I was doing acupuncture. I tied in the yoga with the core strengthening with the rehab that he had me doing. It all worked, and the warm weather of Miami is always good on the body. I've dealt with a lot of injuries, and it's really the worst one I've ever had to deal with. That's why I worked so hard to make sure that it stays healthy.
More recently, I tried zumba. It's fun, a good cardio thing and it strengthens everything. Also, the next-gen cryo-based chamber that I use at the Grizzlies' practice facility is fantastic. It's almost like a stand-up keg from your neck down and you're in there for three minutes. And then there's a lot more massage and maintenance, like stretching, and working smarter and not harder sometimes. I used to be one of those guys that shoots thousands of shots a day.
But I had to get back my shooting form. When I was dealing with my back, shooting was tough because I'm an up-and-down shooter. When I made those threes in the finals, there was a lot of adjustment because I was dealing with the pain. If you watch the tape, there's a pretty good-sized difference. I was almost like a hunchback. Sometimes it's good because you don't fade as much, but it's more of a bent-over shot. I like to be vertical and straight up and down on my shot.
To be a good vertical shooter again, I made sure my conditioning and my strength was good. Now, I'm more back to where I was three, four years ago when I could get to a vertical spot, I could stop on any kind of dribble and take shots that I want to shoot or make an adjustment. It's weird how a jump shot can be affected by something in your stomach or in your hips, but it is. So what I've really worked on is getting back to the basics and relearning the foundation again.
Through my recovery, I turned to my family who has always been a big basketball family, so obviously I picked their brains. My wife and kids have been unbelievable for me because they're my motivation. My kids love basketball. And you've got to believe that you have a path, and my path is to continue to do this; I know that. All that plays a huge part in what I've been able to do and where I'm going.
I also found inspiration through my former Heat teammate Ray Allen and Kyle Korver, who had an unbelievable shooting streak; I've never seen anything like it. I pick his brain on some things. And with Ray, he made sure that he took care of his body in a way that conditioning-wise, body-wise he could do the same things that he was doing at 26, 27. He's doing it now at 38.
Basketball for me now is a mind thing. I'm a way better basketball player right now than I was when I was 25, 26 years old, just because I understand the game so much better. I know I can't do some of the things when I was 25, 26, but shooting and getting to your spot and getting open I'm better at. Now I've just got to stay healthy to do it. I felt really good last year in Miami and now my body has never felt better.
Reflecting on everything, it starts with the Heat; those are my guys. Anytime you go through what we did the last three years there in Miami, those guys will be friends for life, and that's the whole organization, that's all the players. It's almost a brotherhood for the rest of my life, and I owe a lot in my career to what they did, because you ultimately want to win championships and those guys were the ones that gave me the ability to do that.
Now, it's unbelievable how the full circle comes. I've been able to play with both Gasols—Pau in the past and now Marc—which has been an absolute pleasure because they both understand the game so well. Besides that, our team has built a defensive mindset and that's why we're a playoff-type team. We like our chances against anyone in the West. It's going to be very difficult, but it's about making sure we take care of these games coming forward now.
My motivation when I came back was to play for a long period of time and to be an asset on a playoff-type team. For shooters like myself and the Kyle Korvers and the J.J. Redicks and the Ray Allens, they are an absolute huge asset for championship-type contending teams because they make the job so much easier for the other guys, and vice versa. That's why teams make playoff pushes just because of floor spacing and things like that. So my whole thing now is getting back to where I want to be with a championship team.
As a reminder for others who have back pain, it's all about work like anything else. If you want to be better at something, you've got to work at it. If you want to feel better about something, you work at it. Thirty-four is not an old age in the league right now. So whenever you're motivated to do something, you can do it. That's really the bottom line.