TORONTO – Paul George took a flight from New York to Miami with some buddies on the morning of the 2015 NBA All-Star Game because he didn't want to watch the game. The Indiana Pacers star was still recovering from his broken leg and didn't feel like he belonged at Madison Square Garden if he couldn't play.
"All-Star weekend was for the All-Stars," George recently told Yahoo Sports. "I was there for a couple appearances for my endorsements, and after that I was done. It was for the All-Star guys. It was their party.
"I really didn't tell anybody I was leaving. It was like, 'Show up, do my job and get out of there.' All-Star weekend is so fun and you get so hyped up for it. For you not to be a part of it and to be there, it was another reality check about the injury."
George gruesomely broke his leg while playing in an exhibition game for USA Basketball in Las Vegas on Aug. 1, 2014. It also left his fellow participating NBA stars wincing in shock. The six-year NBA veteran was limited to six games last season. George also missed last season's All-Star Game in New York after three straight appearances.
George returned to the All-Star Game on Sunday after being voted in as an East frontcourt starter from the fans. He scored a game-high 41 points after making 16 of 26 field goal attempts and record nine of 19 3-point attempts. And after George threw down an acrobatic reverse dunk late in the fourth quarter, there was a wince of respect this time from West All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins.
"I knew this is where I belong," George told Yahoo Sports. "I just felt good and felt confident after I hit shot after shot. Having this long journey, the long rehab that was really the only thing on my mind was enjoying being back here. It was about making shots.
"Of course, personally I wanted a good showing. But it wasn't really about that. It was just about enjoying being back in this moment."
George is averaging 23.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and four assists for the Pacers this season. He believes he is showing the same stellar athleticism that he displayed before the injury. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who coached the West All-Stars, said what he is seeing in George now is "pretty incredible."
"Every time he runs up and down the floor and jumps up for one of those dunks and everything, I'm thinking, 'Wow, the human body is amazing,' " Popovich said. "To come back and play at this level athletically, it just stuns me every time I see him out there."
George was one point shy of matching Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star scoring record of 42 points set in 1962. George and East coach Tyronn Lue said they had no idea the record was that close. George expects to get "madder and madder" during his flight back to Indianapolis because he didn't break the coveted scoring record.
"Had I known, I would have gone for the two on my last shot instead of going for the three," George said.
George has played in all 53 regular-season games for a Pacers team that is expected to make the playoffs. He is also a member of USA Basketball's 31-man roster that has to be trimmed to 12 before the 2016 Rio Olympics. While USA Basketball executive director Jerry Colangelo has promised George a roster spot, George said his body might not allow him to take the trip to Brazil.
"I had a long year," George told Yahoo Sports. "This has been a long year coming from rehab. I just know how my body has taken these first 50-plus games, not knowing what these playoffs are going to do to my body. So there is a decision coming at the end of the year, is the smart thing to continue on or take a little bit of time for some rest and let my body heal?"
George, a Palmdale, Calif. native, said he became emotional every time he had a one-on-one opportunity with Kobe Bryant, who was playing in his last All-Star Game. George also met Hall of Famer Michael Jordan for the first time over the weekend.
"I had a special weekend," George said.
George hopes his recovery can motivate anyone going through a tough physical challenge.
"It's never over," George told Yahoo Sports. "You're never out of it. Regardless of what situation God put you in, he did it for a reason. That's to build character. To build you up. To make you a stronger person. If you can get through the first thing, the obstacle he put ahead of you, the sky is the limit from then on."