INDEPENDENCE, Ohio -- It was early August and LeBron James was at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey watching the U.S. men's basketball team play an intrasquad scrimmage on TV before he boarded a plane for a short flight back to Ohio.
While James was in the air, Paul George, the ultra-athletic small forward whose Indiana Pacers teams had pushed James and the Miami Heat to their limit in the Eastern Conference finals each of the past two seasons, suffered an open tibia-fibula fracture in his right leg during the scrimmage. His foot had gotten wedged between the court and the basketball stanchion when he landed after trying to block James Harden’s shot. It was such a gruesome injury that U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski canceled the remaining portion of the scrimmage once George was taken off the court on a stretcher.
“I got the news right on my phone as soon as I landed,” James said after practice Friday. “It was pretty bad.”
“It made me sick to my stomach,” he recalled. “Knowing how great of a player he is, knowing what type of guy that he is, for something like that to happen in the summertime, it hit home for us a lot. It made a lot of us uneasy and we all, as a brotherhood in this league, we all was for him and wishing for him to come back 100 percent.”
For the record, James doesn’t place any blame on USA Basketball, what with George’s injury happening on its watch.
“USA Basketball is great,” James said. “It’s unfortunate that it happened in the summertime, but injuries can happen any time. Guys get hurt during the season as well. So, I’m all for USA Basketball and I’ve had a great time. I mean, I’ve been playing since 2004. So, USA Basketball did a great job of handling it. The guys that stepped in in his absence, even with K-Love [Kevin Love] and Blake [Griffin] and Kevin Durant as well being able to leave the team because of their personal reasons, guys stepped in and played well and represented our country.”
James’ Cleveland Cavaliers will host the Paul George-less Pacers on Saturday. While it has been a rocky start for the 7-7 Cavs, Indiana (6-9) has had it even harder, with George sidelined and the team missing free-agent departee Lance Stephenson.
James said he reached out to George in the days following his injury, and now just follows the Pacers' star on Instagram to stay updated on his rehab process.
He also posted a photo montage of him and George to his own Instagram account.
A photo posted by LeBron James (@kingjames) on
“I sent out that Instgram post when Paul George got hurt, saying, you know, I need him back on the court,” James said. “I need it for our competitive games. I’m going to miss that. Paul George is one guy when he’s out on the floor you got to account for because he’s really good.”
James averaged 22.8 points on 55.9 percent shooting, 6.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.0 steals in the 2014 Pacers-Heat Eastern Conference finals, which Miami won in six games. George averaged 24 points on 45.2 percent shooting, with 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals.
George had narrowed the gap in production between him and James considerably from the 2013 conference finals. He averaged 19.4 points on 47.4 percent shooting, 6.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 0.6 steals in the Pacers’ loss to the Heat in seven games. James averaged 29.0 points on 51.0 percent shooting, with 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.4 steals.
“I think our relationship is great,” James said of George. “Ever since he was in high school and throughout college, I’ve always kind of kept a tab on him and then when he came into the league, him just waiting for his opportunity. When he first came in, obviously Danny Granger was their franchise player and because of injury allowed him to come in and make a name for himself and he just took it full storm.
"First of all, us competing against each other the last few years throughout the second round and the Eastern Conference finals and things of that nature definitely has helped it. So it’s mutual respect but I’ve always respected just him as a person.”