OAKLAND, Calif. – As Team USA executive director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski crafted the U.S. men’s basketball roster this spring, a series of high-profile players declined to make themselves available for the upcoming Olympics in Rio De Janeiro.
LeBron James decided he’d had enough after playing on three straight Olympic teams and in six straight NBA Finals. Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden all joined him on the sidelines, while other stars like Blake Griffin and Chris Paul were unavailable due to injuries.
As multiple big-name athletes have backed out of the games for reasons ranging from fatigue to health fears, it would not have been at all surprising had Indiana Pacers star Paul George likewise decided to sit out the Olympics. After all, no one better knows the potentially devastating cost of even a few extra games on a professional athlete’s livelihood.
In a team scrimmage just over two years ago, clad in the uniform of Team USA, George lay on the floor of UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center, a bone from his shattered right leg protruding from his skin.
In the wake of the injury, not only was it unknown if George would ever have the desire to compete for Team USA again – it was unclear if he could make it back onto the court in any capacity, for any team.
“It’s hard to really express in full detail, except for this: We didn’t know, when he got hurt, if he’d ever be back,” Colangelo said last week. “Not just with us – in terms of his career. We just prayed he’d just be able to come back and continue his career.”
Kevin Durant admitted George’s injury played a part in his decision to pull out of preparations for the 2014 FIBA World Cup a few days later. Colangelo and Krzyzewski met with George after his injury and promise him a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, but both were unsure if he’d be able to perform at the level necessary to make it more than a token gesture.
“I remember being in the hospital with him,” Krzyzewski said. “Not that I did anything, but you try to envision and talk about, ‘In Rio you’ll be there.’ And you hope you believe that, you think you do, but maybe that’s not going to happen.”
Yet here is George, preparing to head to Rio next month not only a member of Team USA but a deserving member coming off a sensational season for the Pacers, his first full season back on the court after recovering from that compound fracture.
He could have stayed away. He could have concentrated on the NBA career, from which he draws his paycheck. But instead he’s again suiting up in red, white and blue and preparing to take on the world.
“I did it for the inner Paul George,” he said last week, when asked for an explanation for why he wanted to come back and be part of Team USA after everything he’s gone through. “The kid Paul George, who has always dreamed of winning a gold medal. I wasn’t worried about no injuries, I wasn’t worried about getting back on the court, and how I would fare out there.
“It’s about fulfilling that childhood dream, and representing the country.”
It’s a dream that’s only possible because of the quick work Dr. Riley Williams III did that August night to give George a chance to get back on the court, and the days and weeks and months worth of rehab George subsequently did to get his body back into the world class shape it was before.
Williams, the team doctor for the Brooklyn Nets who also works with Team USA through its partnership with the Hospital for Special Surgery, was in his first week on the job with Team USA when George suffered his injury. After performing the surgery to place a rod in George’s leg, the two of them have grown close over the past two years as Williams has watched George return to the player he was prior to the injury.
“I’ve come across a lot of personality types in sports,” Williams said. “I didn’t know [George] because he wasn’t with my team, and I’d only known him for a week. But what a honest, well-raised, forthright guy. He’s a total joy to deal with. … to have him come back [this way] has been pretty phenomenal.”
That’s a sentiment shared by everyone within the Team USA apparatus. George has long been one of the most easy-going stars in the league, well-liked by both fellow players and the media for his friendly, laid-back disposition.
Combined with everything he’s battled over the past two years just to get back to this point, it’s made George’s inclusion on Team USA a topic that brightens everyone on the team whenever it’s raised.
“Man, for him, I know he’s like a kid in a candy store right now,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Being able to be back out here, compete at a high level, not have to think or have any injuries on his mind or anything else. For him to be here, I’m pretty sure he’s excited.”
“It’s the best,” Krzyzewski said. “Just the best. He should be on the team, but the way he’s handled everything … Physically, to be at the level he’s at, emotionally, mentally. Wow.”
It took him the better part of a year, but George eventually completed his comeback to game action on April 5, 2015, when he played 15 minutes off the bench in a game against the Miami Heat while finishing with 13 points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals. He would go on to come off the bench in the final six games of the 2014-15 season for the Pacers, nearly helping Indiana squeak into the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
But after having a full offseason to work out and get himself back into shape for an NBA season, George looked like the same player he was before the injury. This past season he finished with a career-high average of 23.1 points per game to go along with 7.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals before averaging 27.3 points per game in Indiana’s seven-game loss to the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
After a season like that, it made the choice of putting George on the Olympic Team an academic one – assuming, of course, George was willing to play after what he endured two years ago.
For George, though, the decision was easy. After everything he went through, the only choice, in his mind, was to come back and be part of Team USA again, to fulfill his lifelong dream of earning Olympic gold.
“At the end of the day, I owed myself that opportunity to come back out here,” George said. “There’s no thought on [the injury]. I’m moving forward. It’s another opportunity for me, and I’m just happy to be representing my country.”