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LAS VEGAS – During that traumatic, disquieting time when Paul George went from crashing into a basket stanchion to being carted off the floor, strapped on a gurney, at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center two years ago, Team USA participants lowered their heads in silence, prayed softly to themselves or turned away in horror. Kyrie Irving, however, had the most unrestrained, emotional reaction to George’s leg snapping, an incident that no one in the arena could fully comprehend. Unable to watch, Irving buried his head in the chest of his father, Drederick, and began to cry uncontrollably.
“I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of it, what transpired. I’m thinking, like, when is he going to be back?” Irving recalled this week as the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team held training camp for the Rio Games. “In that moment, I don’t know the injury. I don’t know what happened. I knew it was pretty gruesome.”
USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski immediately shut down the exhibition game, held a difficult news conference and quickly rushed to the hospital to provide support and comfort, if possible. Looking back, Krzyzewski admitted they were somewhat overwhelmed during the visit at George’s hospital bed but wanted him to know he wouldn’t be left behind.
“It feels like, what can you do?” Krzyzewski said of that moment, but the words eventually came. ” ‘We want you in 2016.’ Jerry and I both said that, ‘We know you’re going to recover.’ We didn’t know if he would.”
George is back in the Team USA fold, ready to complete what he started before his career was interrupted by what he now calls a “bump in the road.” The venue for George’s long-delayed international debut changed to the brand-new T-Mobile Arena, but he admitted playing an organized game in Las Vegas again was “eerie.” Any uneasiness quickly subsided shortly after Krzyzewski brought him off the bench in the first period. After scoring 18 effortless points in an emphatic 111-74 demolition of Argentina, George was quick to state that the injury that rocked USA Basketball was “behind me.”
All week, George’s Olympic teammates avoided discussing with him a setback that he has little interest in reliving but remains a defining moment in his career that he has been unable to escape – especially since his will to overcome that incident continues to define his character. Krzyzewski said after Friday’s game that George is playing “the best basketball in his life.”
Determined to not only come back, but to continue his steady improvement after missing nearly an entire season, George made his return since breaking his right leg the best of his career. He led the Indiana Pacers back into the postseason, came one point short of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star Game scoring record with 41 points and earned third-team All-NBA and second-team All-Defensive honors.
Colangelo said the incentivized gesture USA Basketball extended in the aftermath of George’s injury was the “right thing to do,” but George also rewarded that blind faith, making easy the decision to add him to the 12-man roster.
“I’m here for a reason,” George told The Vertical. “I’m not just a guy that Coach K brought along.”
Irving has already recognized a difference in George this time around. No longer trying to find his way, understand Krzyzewski’s system or figure out how he fits among a roster full of All-Stars, George now has the strut of someone in control, in command. “Right now, I feel like I belong,” George told the Vertical.
Back among the elites, George is on a higher perch. He’s on the cover of the video game NBA2K17 and expected to have a prominent role on this Olympic team, a position that wasn’t assured on that World Cup squad before the injury.
“You can tell he carries an aura about him now. That I don’t know if he had it before,” Irving said. “Sometimes, adversity can do that to you. And it has a way of shaping a person’s life like no other. None of us were there when he was going through rehab. None of us were here when he was in his bedroom alone, thinking about life, how he was going to get back. None of us were there when he was trying to figure out, what is the next step? That right there builds character. I can feel it. I can see it.”
Game restored, George now has his sights on Irving and the champion Cleveland Cavaliers, confident that the Pacers are back to being “one of the premier teams.” Indiana was coming off consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals when George’s injury stalled his career and stunted the team’s growth. He is the only starter remaining from those teams after Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird completed one of the league’s most dramatic offseason makeovers with the additions of Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson.
“I think with the moves that they made, it’s on me now, to get us back to being contenders,” George told The Vertical. “I think, with what I’m going to bring, the talent I have around me now, I’ve got a chance to challenge Cleveland.”
Team USA might lack some of the usual star power with LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and James Harden declining invitations or unable to participate, but it possesses the most remarkable individual redemption story in George. “I’m not shocked, because you know who he is,” Krzyzewski said. “But what a recovery. We talked a little bit about since he’s been here. He not only recovered physically, he recovered emotionally, mentally, his instincts. And I think he’s better. The fact that he’s here and is going to be one of our key players, that’s a heck of thing for that guy.”
To cap the recovery with a gold medal would only make George’s journey more inspirational, but he nearly skipped the opportunity, as the regular season became more of a grind. After spending the past two summers focused on rehabilitation and regaining his rhythm, George contemplated taking some time for himself, to let his body rest. Then, George realized he owed it to himself not to let his international basketball experience end with a failed attempt to chase down a Harden layup attempt.
“I did it for the inner Paul George, the kid Paul George who always dreamed of winning a gold medal,” George said. “I wasn’t worried about no injuries. I wasn’t worried about getting back on the court and how would I fare out there. Winning the gold medal is a lot bigger than any other concerns. It’s been a childhood dream, so, for myself, it’s just fulfilling it.”
With no fear. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this opportunity,” George told The Vertical. “I’m going all out.”
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