LAS VEGAS — It has been two years since Paul George’s life was inextricably altered during a USA Basketball exhibition game in which he snapped his left leg in gruesome fashion under the basket at the Thomas & Mack Center, an incident he now refers to simply as “the injury.”
He’s back in Las Vegas this week. Back donning a USA jersey across his chest. Back among the game’s elite. Back fulfilling his reputation as a dominant talent on the court.
George already restored his place in the basketball pecking order before this week, making third-team All-NBA and second-team All-Defensive in 2015-16 while putting up better overall numbers than he did for the Indiana Pacers in the season before “the injury.” Resuming his spot within Team USA just brings things full circle.
“It means a lot,” George said after Team USA’s opening practice of training camp in preparation for the Rio Olympics next month. “This is like really a redemption to myself. All the bad that happened on that night, I owed myself this opportunity to come back out here and compete for my country.”
For all that has been made about stars such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard bowing out of international competition this summer, George’s inclusion can’t be emphasized enough.
“It’s one of the great stories of this group,” said Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball’s managing director. “I mean, when you think about it, when you think back to the tragedy when the injury took place, no one could have projected where he would be. And was his career over? Was his career going to be limited because of the injury? Would he ever come back fully? And to see him back and to see what he’s accomplished back in the league, it’s like he didn’t miss a beat.”
While George has reclaimed his perch, it’s impossible not to notice all that has changed since that fateful night in August 2014, when he chased down Harden to foul him on a fast break and suffered an open tibia-fibula fracture after landing awkwardly at the base of the basket stanchion.
Donald Trump went from reality TV show host to presidential hopeful; the Golden State Warriors went from a promising group to the league standard for excellence; George’s Pacers went from knocking on the door of the NBA Finals with consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances to a new-look group that’s hardly recognizable compared with what they were before “the injury.”
Indiana’s core has been blown up: Frank Vogel now coaches the Orlando Magic; Roy Hibbert is on his second different team; David West is on his second different team; Lance Stephenson is on his third different team.
“It just goes to show the evolution of this game,” George said. “I’m looked upon as the leader and the longest-[tenured] Pacer now. So it’s sunk in. I don’t think it will officially sink in until training camp’s started, and I’m looking around, and I’m the face of it. So it’s just part of the game, and I’ll deal with it.”
Indiana’s future, although it’s a promising one with the offseason additions of Jeff Teague, Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young, is yet to be determined. What is certain is how George took a guarantee made by Colangelo shortly after “the injury” that there would a spot waiting for him on the ’16 Olympic team, and went and proved he belonged anyway.
“It was meant to be an incentive for him,” Colangelo said. “But when you see it’s actually happened and he’s earned it in every way, this is not a gift here. He’s literally earned this spot. It’s just a lot of extra love involved in this one. So we’re very happy for him, and it’s great to have him here.”
This summer could end up being a reminder to the world just how good George really is. With no James or Leonard, he’ll team with Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony as the team’s most versatile swingman.
“The way he’s just handled everything: physically to be at the level he’s at, emotionally, mentally …” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I mean, wow. I remember being in a hospital with him. … You try to envision and talk about, ‘Well, in Rio, you’ll be there.’ And you hope that you believe that, you think you do, but then maybe that’s not going to happen. And it is. And hopefully we win, and that would be an even better story.”
That story and the way it unfolds at the Olympics is the final march on George’s comeback tour.
“Now I know I’m healthy, I know I’m OK, I know I’m 100 percent,” George said. “I’m back to being myself. It’s no limitations. It’s no thought in my mind that I’m limited to something. I kind of just feel like all the chains are off of me and I’m free now.”
Unburdened by “the injury,” George is embracing being back at the scene where his progress was interrupted.
“I’m just enjoying it, man,” he said. “I’m just enjoying it. This trip is not about the injury. That’s behind me. It happened. I’m over it. It’s about preparing for a gold medal.”