CHICAGO – Consider this story: A star professional athlete suffers a gruesome injury, a broken leg so horrific that bystanders — including me — couldn’t even bear to look at the damage, the bone literally sticking out, piercing the covering skin.
And this was not any professional athlete. This was a star, in fact competing at the time with the USA Basketball team preparing for the World Cup of Basketball and the Olympics.
This was one of the world’s best athletes as well, a participant in the NBA dunk contest as well as being a two-time All-Star, an all-NBA player and a first team all-defensive team player, arguably one of the best two-way players in the NBA on a level with LeBron James.
So this player sustains one of the most severe injuries imaginable, so ghastly it almost makes witnesses faint seeing it. Just over a year later this same player not only is back playing. But he is playing better than perhaps anyone in the NBA other than Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry.
This player has turned his team, which went from title contender to missing the playoffs without him, back into a contender. And without several of their previous best players.
And this player a year from being immobilized in the hospital is one of the leading scorers in the NBA, one of the top 10 shooters and at his position among the leaders in rebounding and assists.
Sure sounds like a fish story.
It’s no exaggeration as Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, coming off that compound fracture suffered in the summer of 2014, is probably runner up to Curry for league MVP a month into the NBA season.
George is averaging 27.6 points, third in the NBA, along with 8.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists. He’s shooting 45.4 percent on 3-pointers, which ranks in the league’s top 10 and is just coming off a career best 48-point game in a loss in Utah.
So as the Indiana Pacers returned from a 2-2 Western Conference trip with the team competing for the top spot in the Eastern Conference with the East’s best record against fellow conference foes, George is actually telling fish stories.
About real fish.
A fish story is a colloquialism for an exaggeration as people who fished were said to be famous for inflating the size of their catch.
It seems George in developing a distraction from his physical issues and seeking out a form of relaxation has turned to fishing. Teammates say George is an avid fisherman, regularly retreating to the Geist Reservoir near his Indianapolis home for fishing whenever the team is off.
In fact, and perhaps not surprisingly among professional athletes, the fishing has become competitive among teammates.
“They’ll be talking smack now about their fishing,” says veteran Pacers media relations director David Benner. “It used to be video games. Paul gets as excited about anyone.”
And anyone who has seen George has to be excited.
His recovery and return is one of the great stories in the NBA this season.
It’s been much overshadowed by the undefeated run of the Warriors and Curry’s phenomenal scoring and the retirement announcement of Kobe Bryant for after this season.
But the George story is truly not only one of the great ones, but probably the feel good story of the NBA.
I was there Aug. 1, 2014, in Las Vegas at what was to be a light scrimmage for the USA Basketball team when George caught his leg in a basket stanchion and practically snapped the bone, which protruded through the skin.
The scrimmage obviously was canceled amidst a shocked and somber USA team as questions were raised whether NBA players should even compete anymore and risk injury.
Though doctors said George would recover, it was a horrible break and this was a world-class athlete. But both George and the Pacers supported USA Basketball. Still, George was expected to miss the 2014-15 season and thus end the Pacers’ chances to compete.
George did return for the last few games, though the Pacers, who were in the conference finals the previous season, still missed the playoffs. But the return was significant because even with indifferent play coming off the bench, George gained the confidence he could return and began to lose the fear of injury again.
George then attacked his rehabilitation as he does the basket. He returned to Indianapolis last summer long before the season began, engaging in pickup games with rookies to play wherever he could.
And it was vital not only for George.
The Pacers lost David West as a free agent to the San Antonio Spurs and traded Roy Hibbert to the Los Angeles Lakers. The moves represented breaking up the Pacers’ team and changing its style as they were a slowdown, defensive power team even with George that played through Hibbert and West.
Now it became George’s team, and the Pacers are one of the big surprises of the early season hitting the quarter-season mark contending for the top of the Eastern Conference. The fuel has been George, averaging those 27.6 points, which is almost double his career average of 15.2 coming into the season.
In fact, George is averaging six points more per game than his best NBA season, about a 30 percent increase in scoring production despite coming off the most horrific of injuries.
And George is directing a new high-flow offense that features 3-point shooting and a fast pace that has turned the Pacers from one of the league’s slowest teams into an entertaining, high-energy group in just a month.
It’s George at 206 cm with his unusual combination of shooting ability and one-on-one excellence with all the athleticism he had before that makes him the focus of the Pacers as James is for the Cavs and Curry for the Warriors.
Stop George and you stop the Pacers. But you can’t.
George won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2013 and could conceivably make a case for winning again. As well as Most Valuable Player.
Really, that’s no fish story for a man who knows something about a big catch.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”
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