Nearly two years after a gruesome injury derailed Paul George’s FIBA World Cup aspirations and sidelined him for 76 games of the NBA season in 2014-15, Paul George is returning to international competition, via the 2016 Olympic team. He’s accepted the invitation and is now on board to be one of the key participants in Rio De Janeiro, putting in his rear view mirror the freak occurrence on August 1st in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I’ve had a dream of lifting that gold medal. That’s motivation.” (Paul George to Indianapolis Star)
Often, images outlast memories and this one of Paul George’s collision that had him going into the stanchion was a brutal and visceral display of how fragile the human body is. Brilliant, explosive athletes don’t have the ability to transform their bodies into steel. The accident, during a scrimmage that was televised on ESPN, was gruesome and frankly, a little sickening. There was Paul George in the air and then there was his silent scream and in that moment of surreal dramatization there was something else too: questions about international basketball. Was it really worth it for million dollar players?
Before that moment, Paul George was an on the rise superstar player for the Indiana Pacers. After that moment he was symbolic of an entire system of professional players competing in international competitions. Nothing this grim had every been witnessed and the emotion of the moment was to ban all players from competing in the summer but after awhile logic took hold. How many times does an above the rim player descend out of bounds into the stanchion and then just bounce off? But Paul George fell awkwardly and the wrong way. It devastated his leg and the Indiana Pacers season in 2014-15. It was a fluke. It was wretched. It was bad luck. It was not a trend.
Still, the accident was gruesome enough to have players reconsidering. Kevin Durant pulled out of the FIBA World Cup tournament a week later, the only defection, and when the United States team dominated the field, it was an expected achievement with a backstory no one wanted to discuss. Paul George’s absence subtracted a level of joy.
In August of 2014, Paul George’s leg was broken in two places, a nauseating sight. It had a personal cost for the NBA and for the Indiana Pacers who could not recover without him and did not make the playoffs in 2015. That would create a domino effect. They would lose their toughest leader in the off-season, David West, and they would trade their overpaid center to the Los Angeles Lakers, Roy Hibbert. It’s hard not to connect the dots. Had George not been in uniform that night in Vegas, had he not played for the United States, had he not eagerly awaited the trip to Spain, the Pacers would have made the playoffs and David West may have opted to stay and Roy Hibbert could have salvaged a part of this season. The injury to George affected more than him, it restructured the Pacers roster for the worse and was a reminder of collateral damage.
“The biggest burden was not being able to get this group to the playoffs. I don’t want this team to get to the lottery and build. That was the burden I had on my shoulders.”
Because unexpected things happen, Paul George has put it behind him and is looking forward to Rio, wanting to wear that gold medal around his neck. Yes, it is a risk, one that Larry Bird acknowledges, but Bird has his own gold medal so he understands.
As much as Paul George loves the NBA, he also loves his country. It doesn’t make him immune from having a human body. Gary Vitti, the long time trainer for the Los Angeles Lakers put it this way. “Players are moving at the precipice of being in control and one false move away from being out of control. You can make that move 100 times but the 101st time if you’re a little off or fatigued, bad things happen.”
In the playoffs of 2016, after a long uphill climb to return to glory, Paul George admitted he wasn’t the same player as he was before the injury but also noted he was smarter and he had matured. “I love the results”, he said, “I am where I want to be.”
Where does he want to be in August? Rio, Brazil with a gold medal dangling from his neck.
photo via llananba