Josh Newlander knew something was wrong when his body slammed to the hardwood floor.
The sophomore point guard and his team, the Chicagoland Jewish High School Tigers, were in the midst of one of the best seasons in school history. Sporting a 17-3 record, the Tigers took the court to play Lake Forest Academy on Feb. 11, 2013.
Midway through the game, Newlander darted to the rim for what seemed like a routine lay-up. Once he left the ground, however, a defender who had stepped in to take a charge wavered slightly and leaned back, taking himself out of position. Without the ability to amply adjust his trajectory in the air, Newlander collided awkwardly with the defender and lost control of his body. Gravity took over, and all he could do was brace his back for impact.
"I was able to get up and play through the pain," Newlander said, "but when I woke up the next day, I was barely able to walk. My whole back felt like it was slanted."
He gritted it out for the final five games of the season, but he knew he needed medical attention. He tried physical therapy but was unable to perform most of the exercises due to the relentless pain in his back. He proceeded to seek help from several doctors, who diagnosed him with a herniated disc between the L4 and L5 vertebrae, components of the lumbar spine, which is essentially the lower back.
Newlander said, "With this diagnosis, they each gave me the most reasonable answer at the time and they recommended surgery, which would give me a 10 percent chance of playing contact sports again."
The news would have been crushing to nearly anyone, but it was especially harsh for Newlander, whose entire life had revolved around playing sports. He took some time off to ruminate on the situation and was directed to Chris Shelton, a Qigong specialist based in San Jose, California.
What is Qigong?
Qigong is an ancient Chinese healing system that aligns the body, breath and mind through a combination of intricate breathing techniques, physical postures and meditation.
In a last-ditch effort to avoid surgery, Newlander flew to California and met with Shelton, who identified his tight psoas muscle as an alignment inhibitor. Loosening the psoas muscle, which connects the trunk to the legs, would ease the tension in Newlander's back and stabilize his spine.
"When he [Shelton] loosened up the psoas, which wasn't the most pleasant experience, I was able to walk around, and everything became aligned," said Newlander. About 40 minutes into their session, Shelton told Newlander to try to run. Having been unable to move without pain for the last four months, Newlander thought Shelton might be slightly off his rocker. Nevertheless, he humored the therapist and followed his unusual instructions.
"Just like that, I started jumping for the first time in four months," Newlander said. "Then I started jogging back and forth in the room, and if you saw my face, this 15-year-old kid who hadn't been able to participate in his favorite activity for four months, to be back doing what he loves, my face lit up."
Newlander wasn't magically healed after one session with Shelton. He continues to do a lot of work on his own to maintain his good health: "I have to do stretches four times a day to make it feel good, but ever since then, I've been able to go to physical therapy once or twice a week to get stronger and keep my back stable."
And since that meeting in June of 2013, Newlander has accomplished quite a bit. He led his Tigers back to the Illinois State Sectional finals, took home the honor of 3rd Team 1A/2A All-State from the Illinois Basketball Coaches' Association and was named 2014 National Player of the Year by Jewish Hoops America.
"Being named National Jewish Player of the Year means so much to me, and I guess hard work really does pay off," said Newlander. "I'm a reformed Jew, which means I'm not too religious, but I believe in God with all of my heart. I would say in my prayers every night, 'please give me a sign that something is going to go right,' and I think that sense of faith kept me going."
Although Newlander is glad to be taking time off from the academically rigorous Chicagoland Jewish High School this summer, by no means has his summer been relaxing. "I'm training every day right now to get ready for D-I showcases [with my AAU team] in Las Vegas and Kentucky in August," he said. "I'd probably be sitting in my bed right now if I hadn't seen Chris Shelton, but now I'm working twice as hard to be the best that I can be."
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