Paul George described the pain associated with breaking his right leg in two places -- a sickening compound fracture suffered during the fourth quarter of a USA Basketball exhibition game in Las Vegas on Aug. 1 -- with turns of phrase every bit as grotesque as the now-viral video of the injury. “It felt like gasoline was on my leg and someone lit a match,” Indiana’s budding superstar forward said at a news conference last week. “Just internally, my leg felt like it was in flames.”
Pacers fans can relate. In a sense, it seems as if someone has done the same to the hopes of their team winning an NBA title any time in the near future. But just like the ill-fated exhibition game that was called off, on-court things feel at once unimportant and unresolved.
Their first thoughts were of heartsick sympathy for George. Here was a guy -- their guy -- representing his country, hustling back on defense, for crying out loud, and the next thing you know he’s crumpled on the floor with a career in jeopardy and his teammates holding their hands over their mouths and doubled over in agony. The scene was better suited to the "Saw" franchise or "Hostel" than "SportsCenter."
Too young, too talented, too sturdy (George said in the news conference he might have rolled an ankle once or twice before), the injury seemed improbable. Denial, that was the first reaction. From there, fans zoomed through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.
They lingered on anger for a bit, looking for someone to blame for the freak injury. USA Basketball seemed like a good target for a while. So did the court at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center, where some found fault with the distance of the basket supports and a too-crowded baseline.
Bargaining? There was a good deal of that, too -- the ex-post-facto kind. Revisionists revisited the Lance Stephenson negotiations from July and suggested the absurd: This was karma for letting the talented but troubled guard leave for Charlotte. If only Pacers president Larry Bird had sweetened the five-year, $44-million deal, they argued; the franchise would’ve had a cushion for George’s fall.
And now the Indiana faithful find themselves smack-dab in the middle of depression, torn between tanking the upcoming season in hopes of securing a lottery pick and playing for pride. Both seem like rotten short-term options given the Eastern Conference landscape that existed just a few months ago. Despite the balance of power shifting from Miami to Cleveland with LeBron’s return home, Indiana, a conference finalist two years running, remained a contender with its nucleus intact. That, of course, was before this summer of agony.
Tanking -- or at least temporarily being good enough at losing to secure a top pick with your superstar on the IR -- has worked in these parts before. In 2011, with a franchise-tagged Peyton Manning out for the season with a neck injury, the Colts looked to the three-headed quarterback monster of Curtis Painter, Kerry Collins and Dan Orlovsky to save the day. Indy finished 2-14, blew up the team in the offseason, and drafted Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick.
The ball’s never bounced that way for the Pacers -- or at least as directly in a line from tragic injury to silver lining.
After two straight Eastern Conference finals appearances, Reggie Miller led Indiana to a 52-win season in 1995-96. But in April of that season, Miller collided with Detroit’s Otis Thorpe and Allan Houston, fell to the floor and broke his eye socket. That kept the Pacers’ leading scoring on the bench for three weeks, including all but the team’s final first-round game against Atlanta, a series Indiana lost. The Pacers went 39-43 the next season, coach Larry Brown resigned, and Bird came aboard to coach the team, eventually leading it to its first-and-only NBA Finals appearance in 2000.
Bird, of course, is the man in charge at another critical juncture, and he seems as likely of throwing the upcoming season as he does getting a sleeve of his basketball accomplishments tattooed on his arm. At a news conference with Bird and coach Frank Vogel a few days before George spoke to the media, a reporter asked Bird if the team had plans to wear a uniform patch this season to honor their injured teammate. “Patch?” Bird said, laughing in disbelief. “He’s still alive.”
True, but the team’s hopes of making a third straight Eastern Conference finals appearance are dead as long as George has two metal rods in his leg and is walking around on crutches.
George held out hope that he might return this season, but he admitted it seemed unlikely. In his stead, Bird and Vogel have outlined a plan that relies on guys such as the C.J.’s (Watson and Miles) and Shayne Whittington surprising, George Hill stepping up, and David West and Roy Hibbert posting up more. (It could be a long depression stage.)
Bird also admitted having an eye toward the future, discussing expiring contracts and options in vague terms. “You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “But we’re starting to look at all that right now. We’re always looking ahead. We always try to look two to three years down the road. Whatever happens we’ll be competitive. We know that. But losing a Paul George is definitely going to hurt you for a while. But when he comes back, you want to make sure you have the pieces around him.”
In the interim, George will rehabilitate -- and re-brand. He changed his number from 24 to 13 to facilitate a new PG-13 nickname, which he said is about coming into his own. “I feel like I’m at that stage where I’m ready to embrace everything that comes with being one of the young stars in this league,” George said.
That sounded an awful lot like hopeful acceptance, but a local T-shirt-maker here in Indy is even more optimistic. Last week, Hayes and Taylor added a new shirt to its line, featuring a George-inspired silhouette about to dunk alongside the tagline from "The Six Million Dollar Man": Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. Bigger. Stronger. Faster.
The words are a blast from the past, but right now, the future feels just as far away.