For Paul George, the hard part is over. Now the harder part begins.
The surgery's done. Diagnosis: great. Full recovery expected. The universal and public well-wishes have sunk in. Coach K and "Money" Mayweather made their visits. The hysteria about what actually happened is starting to die down.
But as the muscle-firing exercises, the physical therapy and the rest of the rehab process begins, what's going to prove the most difficult struggle for George is the mental war he is about go through -- wondering whether anything about his basketball life will ever be the same.
When everyone is gone, in those times when he's alone, when the doctors are no longer prodding or checking in or asking him questions 24/7, when his family stops getting on his nerves, when there's nothing left for him to tweet and he can no longer force himself to play "Borderlands," when he can no longer watch another USA basketball game without thinking about not being out there hooping -- it's going to be those moments when prayer and hope won't be enough. He's going to need more.
As I was watching the ESPN 30 for 30 film "Bernie and Ernie," that's when it occurred to me: George's situation is not that bad. Or at least not as bad as all of our immediate reactions and fears for his basketball future.
And it was watching Bernard King's comeback that made me feel this way.
True, Derrick Rose has gone through some things over the past two years that could be a great source of inspiration for George, but none of his injuries came off as severe as George's did. King's, on the other hand ...
See, the injury that just happened to George only looked worse than the one that put King's entire career in jeopardy. When King tore his ACL, among the other injuries he sustained when his knee exploded that night in 1985 (a broken bone and torn cartilage), he was averaging 32.9 PPG. He was a bona-fide superstar who had finished second in the previous season's MVP voting to Larry Bird.
No one had ever come back to play at a dominant level from anything like that. His comeback was before the invention of arthroscopic surgery. While George's doctors and medical team are telling him that he will come back and play, King had three doctors tell him that he "was never going to play again and [he] needs surgery just to be able to walk."
BK was 28 at the time, PG is only 24. Bernard not only came back to average 22 PPG in his initial return (and 30 PPG in his last three games as a Knick before they traded him -- fools), but a few years later at the age of 34 he averaged 28.4 PPG and was back in the Larry Bird, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, James Worthy "best forward alive" conversation.
If anything, this is what Paul George needs to hold on to. King is the player he should use as his light at the end of the tunnel when the darkness closes in on him. There are others -- DRose, of course, and hell, Magic Johnson, if he wants to use this time to look at the bigger picture of his life and think about the deeper meaning behind this injury than just playing basketball. (Magic's diagnosis of HIV forced him to look at life, and at his life, differently. And even though George's injury isn't about to force him to stop playing, the year he's expected to miss will give him time to look at life, and at his life, differently -- and reflect on how Magic played the hand he was dealt.)
As long as George doesn't pay any attention or listen to any of the stories about how his injury is going to impact the future of USA basketball and how teams and players are now going to rethink participating in international events, he'll be fine. And if he can stay clear and avoid getting caught up in the nonstop questions about the what the Pacers are going to do and how his injury devastates them and how they'll have to free up money to get a free agent to replace him until he comes back, he'll be even better. As long as Paul George doesn't allow the media or fans to attach this moment to the rest of his career and not let this be how we remember him, this could have the same impact on his career as the broken foot that kept Michael Jordan out for almost his entire second season.
It's on George to be bigger than this moment.
Sometimes injuries find the wrong player to try to shut down. In Bernard King's own words: "I had the fortitude to work with my therapist five hours a day, six days a week for two straight years -- climbing that mountain slowly, not quickly, step by step. And I made it back. That's what I'm most gratified about when I think about my career."
George, who uses "King" as his middle name on his Facebook page, would be smart to allow someone like the original King be his inspiration.