There are certain moments in life that you immediately know could alter the course of history (or in this case, NBA history). You’ll be able to recall where you were during these moments for a long time. The latest moment is the gruesome breaking of Indiana Pacers star Paul George’s leg last Friday during a Team USA scrimmage.
I was in Boston for the NABJ Convention when George’s injury occurred. I had the game on while getting ready for the Sports Task Force Jam; a party thrown by sports media members. It was hard to bring myself to leave for the party, since it meant missing the rest of the game. Especially with Derrick Rose looking like he was back in his 2011 form. But, I eventually made my way out.
A little later, I was in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel with Myron Medcalf of ESPN.com and some other friends, and I waited for them to hit the ATM before we got in our cab. We look over at the TV that was showing the game, and all we saw was George lying on the baseline; then we saw the looks of awe and terror painted on the faces of his teammates; then we saw the stretcher come out.
More and more people hanging in the lobby began to look on. We all waited for a replay as we wondered just how bad the injury could be. Some around us were saying that it was comparable to Shaun Livingston’s multiple-ligament tear in his knee back in 2007.
After realizing ESPN probably wasn’t going to show a replay, we took to our phones to find a video on Twitter.
We finally saw it, and it was worse than what we imagined. It was unbelievable. Way more devastating to see than Livingston’s injury.
My friends and I hopped into our cab and headed for the House of Blues. We walk up to the building and see Bill Simmons, David Jacoby and Rembert Browne of Grantland, all of whom I had met a few hours earlier, waiting in the VIP line. I go up to them and we all re-greet each other.
In a moment of excitement and without even thinking over my words, I blurt out to Bill “yo, did you hear about the Paul George (expletive)!?”
His eyes widened with curiosity as he told me he hadn’t heard. I responded with “his leg snapped, Kevin Ware-style.”
Bill’s eyes widen even more as it became clear he was in beyond-disbelief. “You’re lying,” was Jacoby’s verbal reaction.
To prove the unfortunate truth, I pulled out my phone to show them the carnage. Several people crowded around me to witness the video and then proceeded to freak out. Bill couldn’t bear to see anymore and took a few steps away from me.
He wondered how this kind of injury could happen to world-class athletes in amazing physical condition.
I contacted my college buddy Decland Paul-Roper, who’s an aspiring sports medicine specialist, later on to see if he could shed some light on the reasons behind the accident. His explanation:
“Well very similar to Kevin Ware who attended Louisville, (George) sustained a compound fracture in his leg. According to MedicineNet, a compound fracture occurs when a bone or bones pierce the skin upon impact or the time of injury, more commonly referred to in the medicine world as an open fracture. The severity of this occurrence may have resulted from a previous leg injury that caused the bone to be weakened, or what I may believe may just have been a freak accident due to a bad landing or a wet spot on the court.”
In other words, ouch.
After the immediate stunning of seeing the injury wore off outside the House of Blues a little, we briefly discussed how this would impact on the Pacers.
I didn’t initially think it spelled absolute doom for the team. For whatever reason, I thought they might be able to muster some decent play in the upcoming season and perhaps position themselves to make the playoffs.
Maybe I was too much in a state of shock to think everything out rationally.
It had completely slipped my mind that Lance Stephenson was no longer a Pacer. That’s a huge detail to overlook, because it means that two starters are now gone.
The Pacers ranked an underwhelming 23rd in offensive efficiency, and that was with Stephenson being the primary play-maker and assist-guy. That was also with George leading them in scoring, more than 21 points a game (Stephenson was second in scoring as well), so say goodbye to any kind of offensive production.
The defensive side of the ball is what allowed Indiana to capture the top seed in the East. That took a hit as well considering George was All-NBA Defense and Stephenson provided contagious energy when guarding opponents.
So, basically they lost their two best players and their identity has become largely anonymous. Their game plan is suddenly a mystery, and it’s unclear what strategy they’ll now apply.
Losing Stephenson was tough in itself; it looks worse with the latest bad news. The Pacers’ contract offer to him was not too far off the money he eventually got from Charlotte. Pride and stubbornness got in the way of the two sides working it out, and now one will pay a steep price.
President of basketball operations Larry Bird will likely make a few more moves this summer as he and the rest of the organization will ponder what the team’s direction for the next 12 months. Will they tank for a draft pick, or will they try to structure a foundation?
It’s such a shame that this all had to happen to this franchise. The Pacers had built a contending team in the most honorable way. They did it by drafting with picks in the teens. They did it with free agent signings that were just really solid and not ultra-flashy. They did it without spending money that they couldn’t dish out and doing so in a small market.
They did it in a strategic fashion that was addressed year-by-year. They did it the hard way without shortcuts, and yet the Basketball Gods decided to strike vengeance on them.
That vengeance struck way before last Friday night, however. The Pacers were first struck early in the calendar year — after their hot start in November and December. Suddenly, they fell into a funk of inconsistency and never recovered.
Off-the-court and personal rumors began to swirl; speculation of chemistry issues arose. They backpedaled into the playoffs and nearly lost to the Atlanta Hawks in the first round and then got a pretty scare from the Washington Wizards in the next round. They were finally put out of their misery, for the time being, by the Miami Heat in the Conference Finals. Then came Stephenson’s departure, and now the George injury.
This season will be a test for head coach Frank Vogel. His career got off to a highly praised start, but questions were raised about him last year. It appeared that his handle on the team began to slip. Players’ focus seemed to waver; his offensive system became painfully not creative towards season’s end; his lineups grew to be imprecise.
Vogel can use this season to prove whether he is a true NBA coach or not. He’ll get to start with a bit of a clean slate as expectations won’t be as high as they were a year ago. If he can get the team to play with any kind of consistency or solidarity, that could help him regain the credibility he had built prior to this past spring.
This season will also be a test for Roy Hibbert. He had previously assembled a strong reputation as a supreme low-post defensive presence. And during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals he gained a near-identical reputation as a low-post scorer.
However, Hibbert found himself in some putrid stretches during the season. This coming after being named to his second All-Star Team. The most infamous stretch occurred during the playoffs. On four separate occasions he went scoreless for the entire game; he failed to log a single rebound in two of those games.
Hibbert’s troubling play was perhaps the most head-scratching part of the Pacers’ downward spiral. It never looked like he was hurt, and it all seemed mental. As if he struggled to get something off of his mind while his physical abilities stalled at times. The aforementioned rumors surrounding the team tended to center around Hibbert, and perhaps that’s the origin of mental issues.
Hibbert has now had time to think about everything that has transpired over the last few months. He’s been working with legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Perhaps these two things will help him focus on being a very good big man again. Maybe he can get back to respectability as he joins Vogel in approaching this clean slate. He’ll likely be the focal point of the offense and that could certainly help to regain confidence.
Vogel and Hibbert bouncing back is probably the main thing the Pacers are planning on observing this coming season. Making the playoffs isn’t quite in reach, so they’ll have to willingly accept the small and moral victories.
The injury could also impact the future of USA Basketball. Many critics had already called for the end of NBA players, (mainly American ones) competing in international tournaments. Just too much risk for games that aren’t as important as playoff games in the eyes of NBA execs.
This injury displays the worst case scenario of NBA guys donating their allegiance exclusive of the league. George broke his leg in a game that wasn’t even important within the looming FIBA Tournament and losing an elite player will only raise the volume on the demanding critics.
I understand it on both ends of the spectrum. Playing competitive basketball at this time of year only raises chances of injury, and the league should look into some kind of financial protection so all isn’t lost for them when this kind of thing happens. I wouldn’t blame them for straight-up banning players from competing in outside tournaments, though.
But I do want to keep seeing them in these games. USA Basketball competition gives me an opportunity to watch high-quality basketball during a time I don’t have access to hoops otherwise. Seeing players I’m familiar with representing my country helps replenish my patriotism, and the games are more exciting when these stars are involved.
Injuries like George’s could happen at any time. They could happen not only during a game, but practice as well. This particular incident has just scared everyone into thinking that only this brand of extracurricular basketball can cause someone to get hurt, and hopefully those involved in making a future decision can understand that.
Doctors are confident that Paul George will make a full recovery, but with an injury that was so graphic, it’s hard to believe. He’ll miss the entire season, and that’s a pretty long time. Who knows how the prognosis will change? How will he adapt to playing with the memory of his leg breaking so easily in his head? How will the time off the court affect him? Will he be able to improve as a player when he returns? Will his playing level even get back to where it was?
As a fan, the worse part of severe injuries like this is how much our imagination goes wild. We wonder if a player can come back from them, or if they will get hurt again once they do actually get back on the court. All the time to just sit and play the dreadful “What-If” game has been given to us too many times by beloved players over just the last few years. We’ve gotten it from the likes of Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio.
Add PG to the list.
Paul George is the essence of what you want in an NBA player — from his professionalism to his competitiveness. He doesn’t deserve this.
The Pacers are a prideful, hard-working and blue-collar franchise. They don’t deserve this.
No one deserves this, and it hurts deeply when it happens.