On a night when the basketball-loving world was set to revel in young stars competing on a no-consequence stage, it was the fall of a star that sent shock waves through the sport.
With 9:33 remaining in the fourth quarter of Friday’s Team USA showcase in Las Vegas, Paul George, while attempting to challenge a James Harden layup, landed and caught his right leg beneath the basket stanchion. According to a tweet from SportsCenter, he sustained a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula.
Even in real time, it was clear George had suffered a serious injury. His lower leg appeared to bend the wrong way. You can view the injury here. (Warning: Video contains graphic images.)
For minutes afterward, the players, many of them with towels and hands over their heads, sat in stunned silence. Slowly, reluctantly, they began milling around the court, exchanging quick, unbelieving words, the crowd around them equally subdued.
George was eventually carried off by stretcher, the calm look on his face masking a deeper pain. Or shock. Or both.
Moments later, head coach Mike Krzyzewski, mic in hand at center court, officially called off the game "in respect to Paul and his family."
Later, USA Basketball Director Jerry Colangelo addressed the media:
While the primary concern is George's health and future, at this point there's not enough information to address that. What we can do is look at how it affects Team USA.
According to Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, George had emerged as a likely starter heading into Friday’s inter-squad scrimmage, with Derrick Rose, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis rounding out the first unit.
A long-term question is how George’s injury affects his NBA team, the Indiana Pacers. Here, the diagnosis is significantly starker: Without George, a two-way force and one of the league’s most exciting up-and-coming stars, Indiana’s near-future prospects will be considerably compromised.
How long the impact lasts is, at this point, impossible to say.
If fans are to look anywhere for a sliver of solace, they might find it in the case of Kevin Ware, the University of Louisville player who sustained a similar injury—at first glance, anyway—during an NCAA tournament game in March 2013.
Eight months later, Ware was back on the floor, playing in nine games the following season before redshirting and transferring to Georgia State University.
Without knowing the full extent of George’s injury, such comparisons are, admittedly, painfully futile. At the same time, it’s impossible not to look for glimmers of hope. Not with a player this promising, this productive and—more importantly—this eminently personable.
There will be many who cite George’s injury as a prime example of the dangers inherent in NBA players delving into international competition. It’s certainly a fair opinion to have. The NBA is, after all, the best, most competitive basketball league on the planet, one in the service of which there ought to be one and only one exception of allegiance: the Olympics.
What this perspective fails to acknowledge, however, is the sheer, often cruel unpredictability of human injury. Declining to participate in Team USA would’ve spared George his fate. Whether it wouldn’t have happened on some other court, or today to someone else entirely, or some other victim tomorrow, or next week, or 10 years from now—the only way to guard against these fates is to ban basketball altogether.
Kevin Love's recent withdrawal underscores this debate. Was his decision based on business? Injury avoidance? The advice of an agent? It's difficult to say. What seems likely, however, is that Love will be offered up as a kind of safe-play alternative to George's cautionary tale. Cynical though the motivation may be.
Sports, like any walking endeavor, entail risk. To tell Paul George not to go for that block, in that game, is akin to telling a falcon not to fly. It's what he does. More to the point, it's why we watch. From SB Nation's Mike Prada:
Paul George didn't need to chase down James Harden. The scrimmage was meaningless except to entertain the fans that decided to come out to the Thomas & Mack Center. The two stars were virtual locks to make Team USA's final roster and play together in the starting lineup. Coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn't going to change that if George pulled up.
Yet George hustled it anyway because that's the culture Team USA is building. They play as if nothing is given and everything is earned. Cliche as it sounds, that's how George approached the breakaway. Harden's dunk would not be given. It needed to be earned. That's what every grade-school coach preaches to his players.
For us as fans, there’s a distinct difference in the stakes between, say, an NBA playoff game and an international tune-up. But projecting that same value system on players—players we quietly demand do everything in their power to improve their product, real rest be damned—is neither fair nor realistic.
As we await further word on the more media-meaty questions of team prospects and timetables, it’s important we take full stock of what unfolded Friday night. That means honoring George the best ways we can. In keeping him in our thoughts and prayers, in pulling for his teammates to take the prize, in acknowledging the quiet nobility of doing what so few of us find the time or wherewithal to do: going all out on something less than the biggest stage.
The season, it’ll arrive. The games, they’ll be won and lost. Us fans, we'll move on.
Most important of all, Paul George will play basketball again. Welcomed back, no doubt, by embraces of a different, more joyous kind.