Stronger Than I Was
SLAM 174′s Cover Story: The Pacers’ Paul George is starting to think MVP.
It is 10 p.m. on a frigid November night in Brooklyn, NY, and Paul George is sitting in a surprisingly dank visiting locker room at the year-old Barclays Center.
The unordinary player is folded into an ordinary dark-colored chair. Rasual Butler, an older player but newer Indiana Pacer teammate, occupies the stall to No. 24’s right. George Hill, a good point guard by NBA standards but even better friend by the 6-10 small forward’s standards, stands barefoot to his left.
The troika, along with the rest of the Indiana Pacers, has just defeated the Nets, 96-91, extending their franchise-record start to seven wins and zero losses. The victory completed a four-game, five-night cycle, and though it wasn’t evident by their play on the court, the Pacers are gassed.
After a few minutes of staring somewhat listlessly, George adjusts the bandage and icepack strapped to his right shoulder and prepares to speak with the horde of journalists encircling his locker. In 36 minutes of play on the night, George scored 24 points, corralled 6 rebounds and held future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce to 15 points while forcing him into 5 turnovers. It was one of the 23-year-old’s weaker games so far this season.
With a smile camouflaging the fatigue on his face, the fourth-year pro handles the ensuing questions deftly.
Yes, he’s OK. Somewhat sore, but that’s to be expected with the schedule they’ve endured.
Yes, this was a good win. The Nets might be 2-4, but they’re ultimately going to be one of the teams competing with the Pacers atop the Eastern Conference.
Yes, 7-0 is a great way for the team to start the season.
No, he’s not surprised to be averaging nearly 25 ppg, 8 rpg, 4 apg and 1.5 spg. He’s just showing the fruits of hard labor and capitalizing on an opportunity.
As George talks about George, serving and volleying like a young Pete Sampras on grass, many of his teammates do the same.
“He’s the head of the snake for us,” says All-Star forward David West succinctly, fresh off an 18-point, 8-rebound effort.
“I’m not surprised at all by Paul’s hot start,” adds reserve guard Donald Sloan. “I watched him play last year, watched him develop. I could see it coming. He’s playing with a high level of confidence right now, and he definitely has the skill set and the right group around him.”
A key member of that group, Luis Scola, had 6 points and 5 rebounds against the Nets. He’s not asked about that, though. “Paul—” Scola, who has played with the likes of Manu Ginobili, Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming in his long tenure as a pro, stops and restarts—“he’s been doing some amazing things this season. He’s a great player, and he has a lot of talent. He has a bright future ahead of him.”
If George is the theme of the eve’s questions, responding with conviction about his skills as a two-way player is the subtheme.
“He has all the attributes of [an MVP] and he has the opportunity to be that for us,” says Solomon Hill, the 23rd player selected in the 2013 Draft. “He’s one of the better two-way players in the NBA. Some guys are offensive-minded and lack on the defensive end, but he actually guards the best player when we need him to.”
“He’s one of the best two-way players in the League,” says Butler, who has worked out in the same California gym as George for the past few summers. “His will to get better is very rare. I haven’t seen someone like that in a while from every basketball player. He wants to get better. He tries to win every drill. He works defensively every day. And I don’t see him being satisfied.”
George Hill is two feet away from a sweat-soaked Paul George. He knows his real-life friend can hear every single word he says. With that in mind, he takes to cracking jokes at the younger George’s expense. When he engages in real talk, there’s no mistaking his sincerity.
“If he keeps improving like he’s been, he can be a Hall of Famer in this League,” says Hill. “I don’t count him just as a two-way player; he’s more like a 10-way player. He can pass, he can shoot, he can dribble, he can defend, he can guard a big, he can guard a small.”
The media lingers for a little longer. They speak with Roy Hibbert, a potential Defensive Player of the Year; West, one of the best on- and off-court leaders in the League; and Lance Stephenson, a native of the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. Buzz about a perfect record, about coach Frank Vogel’s schematic mastery, about George’s unexpectedly awesome seven games is abound.
It’s getting late now, and with the team due to the airport soon and back on the court in Indiana on Monday night, Pacers PR begins to usher writers out the door. Players take off their tape and wraps and put on their winter clothes, pack up their spaces in designer bags and walk toward the bus heading to the airport and home. Before leaving the scene of the historic victory, George takes the ice off of his shoulder. The chip that has been there since he was a teenager remains intact.
Paulette George, Paul’s mother, knew that her youngest child would be special from the moment she laid eyes on him. Actually, that’s not accurate. She merely saw a physical anomaly; it was her mother and grandmother who foretold of future greatness from Paulette’s only son. “Paul has a little pinhole on the right side of his ear,” Paulette says in a soft, sweet voice over the phone. “When he was born I said, Why is that hole there?”
Medically speaking, the hole, almost an ear piercing in appearance, was nothing to worry about. Spiritually speaking, according to Paulette’s family, it was actually something to rejoice over.
“My grandmother, she’s passed away some years now, always used to say, ‘That baby’s going to be special,’” says Paulette. “I was like, ‘Really?’ She said, ‘Yeah. When kids have pinholes in their ears that means they’re gonna be special.’”
Like clockwork, and maybe because of the seed planted by the family’s matriarchs, Paulette began noticing behaviors that differentiated Paul from average babies early on. At first, he didn’t want to be held or swaddled. Paulette’s two daughters went to sleep in that fashion; Paul went to bed best, after a soothing pat on the back, in his crib.
As he matured into grade school, other differences emerged. Instead of chilling with friends his age, he gravitated toward older kids. Instead of idolizing NBA players, he looked up to his sister—whom he admittedly couldn’t beat until he was 16—on the court. Instead of taking up a lot of hobbies, George chose to focus on just one.
“It was always just basketball, basketball, basketball,” laughs Paulette. “He’d eat, sleep, dream basketball. Wake up, basketball. If I took him to church, he’d go out and play in his church clothes. He’d want to play in the house, break the dishes. We struggled some with that.”
But basketball kept Paul off the streets, which was important to his parents, and let him break out of his off-court shyness, which was important to an adolescent trying to make his way in the world. So, with his family’s blessing, basketball became a mainstay for Paul.
If the George family knew he was special, talent scouts didn’t believe or know that would manifest itself in the form of hoops. How could they? George grew up in Palmdale, CA, well north of L.A. but well south of NorCal. Because of Palmdale’s proximity to nowhere, and because of his timid team-first nature on the court, George didn’t play on a major AAU team until he was 17 and didn’t star on his high school team until senior year.
It was during those lean teen years, when no one was watching, that George made a decision that would alter his life forever. Despite being tall for his age, he eschewed the idea of playing in the post like a traditional oversized kid normally would. Instead, mesmerized by AND 1 mixtapes and NBA guards, George focused on his handles.
“I used to always tell myself that no matter what, I’m always going to be a guard,” says George. “I looked up to big guards, Kobe [Bryant] and T-Mac. So ever since I was a kid, I would go to my garage and just dribble the ball around. I used to work on my handles so coach would keep me on the perimeter.”
In ’07-08, during his final year of high school, George led Pete Knight High to a 24-9 record. He averaged 25 ppg and was named Golden League Player of the Year. He had proven himself as tall and talented—and still college offers barely trickled in. Ultimately, because of the dearth of offers and a desire to stay close to home, George chose to attend a school with a scarce basketball résumé, Fresno State.
“I think going to Fresno helped me,” says George. This past October, as a way of thanking the program, George bought and gave away all of the tickets to the Bulldogs’ home opener. “I was able to make mistakes. I was only playing against OK talent, but I was able to make mistakes and grow from it. I didn’t have to take years to develop or sit or stay in school. I was able to come in right away and contribute.”
As a freshman, George averaged 14 points and 6 rebounds in 35 minutes per game. As a sophomore, he upped those numbers to 16.8 and 7.2. At the conclusion of the season, the journalism major announced he’d be entering the 2010 Draft, fulfilling a lifelong dream that even those closest to him never thought he’d realize.
“He’d tell me, ‘Mom, watch. I’m going to the NBA,’” says Paulette. “He’d keep on saying it. In my mind, it was not something realistic. He had this passion and drive that he knew it, though.”
Three days and one more win after Saturday night in Brooklyn, an always low-key Paul George picks up his cell phone, puts down his video game controller, and talks about what it’s like to play against stars like Paul Pierce, a guy he grew up gaming with on NBA 2K, and other members of the old guard.
“It’s a different feeling,” he says. “You respect them so much, so you don’t know how to go about getting into them or being aggressive. It’s just me having to overlook that, going out and playing my game.”
That’s just the jumpstart of the conversation. For the better part of an hour, George talks in earnest about life and ball, team success and newfound stardom.
He says that being overlooked in high school and college resulted in him growing a chip on his shoulder; that he knew he was more than worthy of being the 10th pick in the 2010 Draft after lunching on big-name players in workouts; that he knew confidence would be the key to success in the NBA; that he thinks he could average 30-40 if he played on a team that needed him to take 25-30 shots a game; and that he knew he’d have to retire his laid-back, nice-guy persona in favor of a tough-guy one for 82-plus games a season if he wanted to be great.
And, man, does he want to be great.
“I have goals,” George says. “I want to be MVP. I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. I want to be First-Team All-NBA. I want to be a Gold medalist. I want to be a Hall of Famer. I want to be a Champion. Everything that’s the highest or the greatest that you can do, I want to do that.”
Ten minutes later he says, “At the end of the day, I want to go down as my own icon, a Paul George, do-everything offensively and defensively type of player. There are a lot of characteristics I have that LeBron does, that T-Mac does, but I want to be my own person and be someone special.”
So far, so good. Each of his first three seasons in the League saw George take Usain Bolt-esque strides, highlighted by an eye-opening series against the Miami Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Between that seven-gamer and off-season workouts that focused on better learning his game and conditioning his body for the extra rigors stars in the NBA face, the stage was set for a big ’13-14.
Before the season even kicked off, the Pacers and George made a major commitment to one another, agreeing on a five-year maximum contract extension. It’s not even really about the money, George clarifies on the phone. It’s about wanting to stay a Pacer, about potentially being able to go down as the greatest Pacer ever.
“We had a great team coming back, a young team coming back, so I didn’t want to lose what we had worked so hard for,” says George. “As far as Reggie [Miller], he was a great player but I feel like my ceiling is higher and I can outdo Reggie. He was a better shooter than I am, but in no way do I want to be categorized as just a shooter. I have the utmost respect for him, but I just feel like I can outdo Reggie.”
Less than an eighth of the way into his fourth NBA season, George articulates three aims for the immediate future: He wants Indiana to finish first in the East; he wants to be named First-Team All-NBA; and he wants to be named MVP.
To be sure, George doesn’t sound boastful or braggadocios when he makes these proclamations. His teammates love him and he’s quick to praise them; he articulates his goals matter-of-factly; and he sprinkles in just enough talk about what he needs to improve on to make everything sound, well, believable.
“I’ve got to be a better floor general, and I’ve got to get better at being consistent,” he says. “I took strides in my consistency, but if I want to get where I want to get to, I need to continue being a consistent basketball player. I feel like I can be in the category of LeBron, as far as being a walking triple-double guy.”