First comes the revulsion, that queasiness in the stomach that comes from seeing Paul George’s leg twist in a way that legs aren’t supposed to twist. Then come the prayers or the good wishes or the positive energy or whatever else helps you feel as if you are speeding his recovery. Next, perhaps, come the questions: Did this have to happen? Do we really need to have some of the NBA’s best players risking this kind of horrific injury to prepare for an international competition that, let’s face it, doesn’t mean as much to us – or them – as an NBA championship?
It didn’t take long for that buzz to start after George suffered a gruesome open tibia-fibula fracture in the U.S. national team’s intrasquad scrimmage at UNLV Friday night. What happened to George, who may very well miss all of next season, has always been the big fear of NBA front offices. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been opposed to USA Basketball using NBA players for years, calling it “the biggest mistake the NBA makes.” The possibility of catastrophic injury is why so many NBA stars, and not just American ones, decide not to play for their countries, and it’s only natural to wonder whether the NBA should stop making its players available for international play.
But as horrible as George’s injury was, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski was right when he said that “anything can happen anywhere.” NBA players play. It’s not just what they do for a living, it’s what they do for fun. They play in the regular season and the offseason. They play charity games. They play pickup games at their old college gyms. They play on the playgrounds of Rucker Park. George’s injury could have happened in any of those settings just as easily as it did in Friday’s scrimmage. It’s true that NBA stars are paid millions and are valuable commodities to their teams, but unless you want to lock them up in velvet cases once the season ends, there is no way to eliminate the risk of offseason injury.
Beyond that, there is a certain arrogance in placing the NBA above the USA, in the notion that the players need to preserve themselves for individual teams above all else. There is value in representing one’s country that can’t be quantified, and the fact that George was injured while wearing USA on his chest rather than Pacers shouldn’t make anyone think that it was a greater shame because the scrimmage was “meaningless.” This isn’t like an NFL player who tears up his knee in exhibition games, those shameless, needless money grabs. It’s not like Robert Edwards, who wrecked his knee while playing touch football on the beach as part of Pro Bowl weekend. George was representing his country, and that’s not a waste of time. In fact, the inherent risk is part of what makes it meaningful.
That doesn’t mean players should be compelled to play. Choosing whether or not to play for the national team isn’t some patriotic litmus test. Deciding to sit out for any reason – age, fatigue, physical injury – should be every player’s personal choice. Players like Kevin Love and Blake Griffin opted out of playing with the national team this summer, and foreign stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili have skipped international competitions in the past, all for understandable reasons. But the idea of the league making a blanket policy and taking that decision out of the hands of the players would be going more than a step too far.
And what of the owners who pay players millions only to watch them risk that investment by playing for their country? "If you look up stupid in the dictionary you see a picture of the USA Dream Team playing for free for corporate America so the U.S. Olympic Committee can make billions of dollars,” Cuban said back in 2012. It’s stupid only if you put profit above all else, all the time. The players who put on the USA jerseys are not doing that, which is one of the reasons they deserve respect.
None of this is particularly comforting for Pacers fans, who, in addition to feeling sympathy for George, now have to get used to the idea that the odds of their team returning to the Eastern Conference finals are now exceedingly slim. But Pacers team president Larry Bird, a member of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team that started all this, had it right in his statement after George’s injury. “We still support USA Basketball and believe in the NBA's goals of exposing our game, our teams and players worldwide," Bird said. "This is an extremely unfortunate injury that occurred on a highly visible stage, but could also have occurred anytime, anywhere."
George made a great sacrifice, greater than he even envisioned, by playing for Team USA. But with that sacrifice comes at least one benefit: He doesn’t have just NBA players and Pacer fans rooting for his complete recovery. He has an entire country behind him.