If it seems like we have been here before, sadly we have. We have witnessed a gifted athlete in his 20’s succumb to a cruel act of fate. We have watched an athlete’s immediate future crumble into surgery, rehab and then the long fight to come back. We have prayed and then selfishly thought to ourselves something along the lines about life not being fair. Last night it was Paul George, it was his turn. But in 2007 it was Shaun Livingston, it was his turn.
Seven years ago Shaun Livingston, a lottery pick, was driving to the rim on a fast break in the Staples Center in a meaningless February game against Charlotte. In a move Shaun has done thousands of times, witnessed by the Clippers home crowd, Shaun elevated for a layup and then something freakish happened and he might as well have been trampled by horses. He shattered his knee. In the aftermath, as they were trying to stabilize his knee, his blood curling screams were so haunting, the detritus still echoes as a sort of second skin if you were there to hear the agony of it.
Paul George was coming down to block a shot when he collided into the stanchion in a brutal display of physics and fate. His absence of a scream was just as paralyzing in its wretched silence as his crumpled leg. It was so quiet in the arena and yet it was so very cacophonous, all of it a surreal illustration of an athlete in despair.
In one moment several things happened- life is unpredictable in that exact way. Paul George’s leg was broken in two places, a gruesome sight. Second, a kick in the stomach stole the breath of the entire state of Indiana in one full swoop. Lastly, NBA owners began questioning the logic of summer basketball one more time.
The hypocrisy of NBA owners can be seen on any given night in the NBA. Veterans who fought overseas are always being honored for their patriotism and service. They are feted and cheered and treated as heroes. And yet, these same owners don’t want their players to do the same, to honor their own country, a double standard of the haves and the have-nots.
Mark Cuban would argue it is not a patriotism issue at all, it is an issue of injury. What if a superstar, someone so important to his franchise and to their revenue stream, someone like Paul George, who is a deliverer of financial capital and fan interest, what if he sacrifices his body and by default, becomes the sacrificial lamb? It is an argument in favor of capitalistic ethic versus nationalistic values.
The truth is that the players who play in the World Cup in Spain are doing so because they love the NBA and they love basketball and they love their country. They are their country’s best players, many of them highly paid. They freely give up summer vacations and leisure to compete for free and to get better. When these kind of players gather for international competition they apply their same competitive will and passion and in return are rewarded with another education. They tighten their brethren bond, remain in prime shape and exhibit national pride.
The San Antonio Spurs denied Manu Ginobli his wish to represent Argentina in the World Cup. In the letter they sent him they cited his recovery time from a stress fracture but really what they were really saying was we need you healthy to try to repeat as champions. And if you make money it is going to be for us.
Capitalism is on trial here, is in front of flag bearers. Does in fact capitalism hold a higher ethic within the front offices of the NBA than patriotism? Than love for your country and representing your country? Than love for your brother?
Billionaire owners are nervous when they see their million dollar one-of-a-kind athletes risking the kind of injuries that can cut into their profit margin. The Lakers and the Bulls are a country unto themselves. Without Kobe, the Lakers profited $100 million. Without Derrick Rose, the Bulls profited $60 million. The rest of the NBA is squeezed into a great player chasm. If you have one you will make money. If you don’t you will lose money. It is just that simple.
This is an argument of perspective, really it is. Ask any trainer how injuries happen. Athletes get injured because of the explosive nature of their game, because, as Gary Vitti, trainer of the Lakers put it, “Players are moving at the precipice of being in control and one false move away from being out of control.” Their injuries also come at the behest of their talent. “The other thing that happens when you make those (explosive) moves is torque on the joints and that’s when bad things happen. So you can make that move 100 times but the 101st time if you’re a little off or fatigued, bad things happen.”
And then there is just bad luck, timing, fate. Basketball players are always in summer pick- up games. They are playing 3-on-3 overseas. They are all over the world giving clinics and teaching fundamentals and playing against fans and other players. They are in the gym improving on skills they are weak in. Injuries can happen then, can happen when they walk off a curb. There is a randomness that no one can predict that you just have to live with.
The facts show: NBA players in games with other NBA players suffer devastating injuries. Kobe tore his Achilles in a game, not stepping off a curb. Rajon Rondo tore his ACL in a game. Russell Westbrook tore his MCL in a game. Derrick Rose tore his ACL and MCL in a game. Kevin Love broke his hand in a game. It is the high level of explosion and competition that Gary Vitti was referring to when he said, “The speed and power of the game has really changed.”
And so here we are without Paul George in 2014-15. We were without his idol (Kobe Byrant) for much of 2013-14. We have been without Derrick Rose for nearly two years.
After his knee injury Shaun Livingston never had the career he was supposed to have. He was the #4 pick in the draft, a high school guard with length, athleticism a soft shooting touch and explosion. After his injury he battled for 20 months and finally returned to the NBA but was never the same player. He was different.
Paul George’s injury is complicated. According to Tim Grover, trainer of Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade and Michael Jordan, Paul George is expected to be in a cast for 4 months. Walk in 6 months. Run in 9 months and basketball activities will star in a year. The physical timetable for his eventual return, nurtured or hampered by what he tells himself, by how he approaches this greatest challenge of his basketball career, is the key that unlocks the largest of all the doors.
It is Paul George’s loss; it is his body that has to climb the mountain and heal and resurrect. But it is the Pacers loss too. Absent of their leading scorer, best defender and everything player how will they manage? It is USA Basketball who will suffer in the short term. Who is going to replace Paul George on the roster? And it is the fans of the NBA who will have to wait and see who Paul George becomes in 2015-16.