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After horrific break, Pacers' George hopes Olympic redemption is final answer

POSTED: Jul 21, 2016 10:12 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Real Training Camp: Paul George

'My only focus now is preparing for a gold medal' - Pacers' forward Paul George.

Paul George was worn out by The Question halfway through the first day, but three days later he was willing at least to entertain a question about The Question.

So, rough estimate, how many times had he been asked?

"Man, at least 100 times," said George, the Indiana Pacers forward whose career hung in the balance after he suffered a ghastly injury here nearly two years ago in a Team USA intrasquad scrimmage. George endured a compound fracture of his lower right leg when his foot got wedged against the basket stanchion.

The game was called off at that point. Teammates and fans felt sick to their stomachs, a result of both witnessing the injury and worrying about what it might mean to the young All-Star's budding career. George already had helped Indiana to consecutive Eastern Conference championship appearances, he had drawn comparisons to Scottie Pippen as an elite two-way player and he had re-upped with the Pacers on a fully guaranteed, five-year, $91.5 million contract extension -- a significant portion of which he would have spent to get back pristine, undamaged tibia and fibula bones.

No such store existed. If George were going to return, he would have to work his way back. Which he has, after two years, a season-and-a-sliver with the Pacers and a whole lot of changes for him and his team.

And this week, a media gauntlet reminding him constantly, in their grasp for perspective and an angle, of the shock, fear, pain, uncertainty and work it took to finally get back.

"I'm telling reporters I'm done answering that one," George said.

Mike Krzyzewski, coach of USA Basketball then and now, recalled being in the hospital with George and trying to reassure him with words that rang hollow. "You try to envision and talk about, 'Well, in Rio, you'll be there,' " Krzyzewski said this week. "And you hope that you believe that -- you think you do, but then maybe that's not going to happen. And [now] it is."

Carmelo Anthony had a whole extra set of fears. A USA Basketball loyalist (Anthony has played on 12 teams, including four Olympic squads, since his junior-level involvement), the Knicks forward had skipped the World Cup but wound up watching the scrimmage on television anyway.

"It could have happened anywhere, man. To anybody," Anthony told NBA.com. "I was just upset that it happened on the USA circuit. Everybody started talking about whether people should play for USA Basketball. All of those questions came up."

USAB Scrimmage Recap

Paul George was carried off on a stretcher after suffering a gruesome leg injury Friday night.

It did become a thing, questions from fans, teams and critics about the element of risk inherent in such extra-curricular competition. It didn't matter that NBA players routinely play or scrimmage every summer anyway, frequently in less controlled, shabbier environments where exposure to injuries is as great or greater.

This was a big-stage, bright-lights accident, severe enough to cast doubt on the entire endeavor.

"We didn't know how people would respond," said Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball's managing director. "I remember going into the locker room here after the injury and the looks on everyone's faces! We were all in a state of shock. Disbelief. Wondering what the next minute would bring, let alone the ramifications of something like that.

"The downside was just huge. Including the possibility that guys would shy away or owners would shy away from all of that."

Little more than a week after George's injury, Kevin Durant withdrew, citing physical and mental fatigue. But there has been no groundswell. Among the NBA stars who declined to participate this summer -- LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, James Harden and a few others -- some publicly or privately cited the Zika virus and other health or safety concerns, but none talked about the dread of injury.

George didn't even like hearing such talk from Pacers fans, even if it suggested they were concerned about his well-being.

"We're not forced to play for our country. We do it because we want to," George said, "I think that's the story that's not being told. We want to represent our country, same way guys in the military, in the Navy, in the Army. They're not forced to be in it. They do it because they want to defend their country. So it's hard to say -- injuries, death for what they do -- it's part of it, unfortunately."

George missed all but the final six games of the 2014-15 season. This past season, pressed into more of a leadership role while moving between forward spots for the Pacers, George had his best year yet: 23.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 4.1 apg, with a true shooting percentage of 55.7 and a 20.9 PER.

As might be expected, he was asked some variation of The Question at every stop on the NBA circuit. Typically, he gave upbeat answers. But truth be told, it wasn't until the very end of the season -- when he averaged 27.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 4.3 assists and 39.3 minutes in the playoffs' first round, getting eliminated by Toronto in seven games -- that he knew the real answer himself.

"The doctor told me two years would be the time span of this whole injury, for when I'd start feeling back to normal," George said Thursday. "It's almost funny -- the reason why I played so well, I felt, in the Toronto series was, that's the best I felt all season. My body just felt amazing. My athleticism felt good, my foot speed felt faster. I finally felt good again."

And that was three months shy of two years. George smiled. "I was trying to speed it up a little bit," he said.

George then talked about his enthusiasm for 2016-17, based on the proven players Indiana has added -- point guard Jeff Teague, forward Thaddeus Young, center Al Jefferson -- and the development of young USA Select team member, center Myles Turner. Returning Pacers such as Monta Ellis reportedly are working out hard to get ready, he said, and—

Another microphone abruptly was thrust in front of his face. There it was again: The Question, No. 101.

George took a deep breath and gave at least a Cliff Notes version of his first 100 answers.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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