“It’s always going to be a reminder,” George said.
On the dark days of his tedious rehabilitation, the deformed limb taunted him, frustrated him and caused him to doubt if a comeback was ever going to be worth it. On the better days, George was able to look down and realize the strength within that wouldn’t let him surrender to intimidating odds.
George doesn’t know when or if he will ever be that explosive, 360-degree, windmill-dunking daredevil again but if he doesn’t get there, it won’t be from a lack of will or effort. If he does get there — or manages to somehow be even better — George knows that it came as the result of the tests he has already passed. He can scratch off first step, first jog, first sprint, first jump, first dunk, first practice and, incredibly, first game back.
“It definitely built character within myself to know that I can get through anything and accomplish many things,” George said. “If I can make it through this, it won’t get too much more difficult.”
The Indiana Pacers aren’t expecting George to be anything close to that dynamic, two-time all-star as they have welcomed him back for a rehabilitation stint that coincides with a tightly-contested, four-team race for one of the last two Eastern Conference playoff spots.
“It’s really just a victory that he’s back out on the court,” Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said.
Anyone who witnessed when George’s leg snapped like a twig after an awkward landing on a basket stanchion in a Team USA scrimmage last August understands George has defied what appeared to be a career-threatening setback. The injury moved fellow participants to tears, pushed Kevin Durant to withdraw from the FIBA World Cup, and led many to wonder if George would become another in a long line of rising NBA stars whose ascension was clipped prematurely.
George, 24, couldn’t allow himself to entertain the worst of the possibilities for his future. His redundant workout sessions, meant to strengthen his damaged leg, were hard enough. So George had to find peace “looking at the bigger picture,” he said. “The more I put into rehabbing, working out, the faster and quicker the recovery was going to be.”
Returning to the court is another part of the process, not the completion. But it was important for George to play this season, even if that meant he would only appear in six games since the Pacers – currently tied with Miami for ninth in the East – will need to win and hope other teams lose to extend a tumultuous campaign into the playoffs.
“We’re down to the wire now. I just want these games to make that jump back to who I was. That’s the only thing that I’m getting out of these games personally is working my way to being the Paul George I was,” George said. “Just for the confidence. Not in my abilities on the court, but going into the summer, knowing what I can do and can’t do and building from that.”
Four teams in NBA history have dropped from No. 1 in the conference into the lottery the next season. Each had valid reasons for the decline. The 1974-75 Milwaukee Bucks had just traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers. The 1998-99 Chicago Bulls had lost Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson. The 2010-11 Cleveland Cavaliers had lost LeBron James to the Miami Heat. The 2004-05 Minnesota Timberwolves lost their way when Latrell Sprewell lost perspective of what it would take to feed his family.
George’s broken leg would be the explanation should the Pacers become the fifth team and it would also serve as a measure of his value for the franchise. But Indiana also had to endure extended absences from point guard George Hill and veteran power forward David West and recently had another late-season distraction with reserve Chris Copeland done for the rest of the regular season after getting stabbed outside a New York nightclub.
As much as the Pacers could benefit from George’s presence, the expectations aren’t particularly high.
“I’m happy he’s able to do the thing he loves the most,” said center Roy Hibbert, who has been George’s teammate for each of the past five seasons. “He’s going to go out there and give us all that he can and that’s all we can ask for.”
The Pacers haven’t rushed back George because they need him to be a difference-maker in an effort to avoid joining some ignominious company. And George never would have put a uniform back on if he wasn’t confident in his leg or feared he wasn’t able to contribute.
“I don’t have any fear. Unless they move the stanchions closer,” George said with a laugh. “I don’t have any fear of re-injuring it. That’s that least of my worries. I’ve got to ride in there and be 10 times stronger because of that.”
George was encouraged by his 13-point debut against Miami on Sunday, when the home crowd at BankersLife Fieldhouse gave him a standing ovation, but felt the Heat took it easy on him defensively, perhaps out of sympathy. In his second game, George was again greeted by cheers from a knowledgeable and appreciative crowd at Madison Square Garden and a very gracious host in the New York Knicks. After George missed a pull-up jumper, Knicks center Cole Aldrich was kind enough to flub the rebound and tap the ball in, giving George his first points of the game.
George actually got his toughest physical test from Pacers teammate Luis Scola. Scola held a screen to free up George for a three-pointer but crashed into George’s right leg after Knicks forward Quincy Acy knocked him. George hopped up, cracked a smile, shook Scola’s hand and told him, “Nice screen.”
“That was really the first time I’ve been hit in my leg,” George said. “I think the more contact I get to it, the more I trust it. It’s going to help because it didn’t hurt.”
Limited to a playing time restriction in the 15-minute range, George still scored 10 points. He has countered rust with aggressiveness and refused to settle for jumpers even if it resulted in some clunky-looking drives.
“He’s a little slow right now but he’ll be fine once he gets his rhythm and his legs under him,” said Lance Thomas, one of several Knicks assigned to defend George Wednesday. “He’s a warrior for doing what he did to get back out there. … He just overcame a horrific event.”
George said the way he moved after the injury “wasn’t normal at first” and considered scrapping a comeback this season “many, many times. I hit that wall where I wanted to just throw in the towel. Make the rehab this summer opposed to rehabbing now. But the training staff stuck with me and really pushed me and that’s what helped me to really turn the corner.”
On his rise from the 10th overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft into consideration as one of the 10 best players in the game, George always used the offseason as an opportunity to add different elements to his game. But George said the rehab helped him improve mentally because it was “10 times tougher than getting ready for a season.”
When George started working out one-on-one and practicing with his teammates, he urged them not to hold back because he didn’t want to step on the court ill-prepared for how opposing teams would attack him.
“Now that he’s gotten over that hump, he’s going to break that mental barrier hopefully these last couple of games,” Pacers reserve forward Damjan Rudez said. “Knowing he’s only 20 to 30 percent of his capabilities, that’s impressive. To think of what he’s going to be like when he’s 100 percent is kind of scary.”
George is in no rush to get back to full strength, having gained appreciation for the slow, measured approach of his rehabilitation.
“I don’t want to reinjure anything or put too much pressure on myself,” he said. “It’s going to always be tough, but that’s what makes it a challenge. Taking the steps and working toward getting back to who I was and becoming ultimately better than who I was. I look at it as a challenge and a fun obstacle to overcome.”