LAS VEGAS -- You always know in an instant when something has gone horribly wrong. You can see it in the way the player falls to the ground and the looks on the faces of his teammates. You can hear it in the gasps from the crowd, and feel it in the sickening quiet that follows.
When Paul George fell to the ground after jamming his leg into the bottom of the basketball stanchion Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, you knew in an instant how serious and devastating the injury was. James Harden, who was the closest to the play, took one look and bent over in disgust. Kevin Durant threw his hands in the air and looked up to the sky, already knowing this was a time for prayer.
The crowd knew it was bad, but most hadn't seen how gruesome it really was, and no replays were shown in the arena. When the bright orange stretcher appeared from the tunnel, there was an audible cry from those watching, realizing the severity. Moments later, fans started pulling up photos and videos of what happened on their phones. Pockets of screams flared up around the otherwise quiet building.
Derrick Rose squatted down and covered his face with his hands. If anyone in the arena knew what was going through George's mind in that very moment, it was Rose. After two years lost to devastating knee injuries, the Bulls point guard had finally made it back. Friday had been his coming-out party. He looked incredible slashing to the basket with that supersonic burst that made him the MVP at 22. He was confident. He had his swagger back.
But in the first few moments after George's injury, every player on the court was feeling the same sense of basketball mortality. They all know every time they step on the court that something awful can happen. They all have to find their own ways of blocking that fear out. When you're coming back from an injury like Rose's or George's, that confidence is the last thing to come back. That trust that the knee is going to hold. That faith that it won't happen again.
It was truly heartbreaking to see the look on Rose's face as he watched George lie on that court. He knows what is in front of George now. He knows what effect this injury will have on the Indiana Pacers franchise this season. He knows all the doubts an injury like this can plant in the minds of every other player on the court.
Will all the players in this USA Basketball camp want to continue on with the national team this summer? Will their franchises allow it?
Was this just a freak injury any of them could have suffered at any time? Was the basketball stanchion at UNLV too close to the court? Which of those possibilities is worse?
The Pacers' initial statement Saturday morning made it clear that they are focused on George, not on why the injury happened or whether it could've been prevented.
"There is no question about the impact on our team but our goal is to be as strong-willed and determined as Paul will be in coming back," Pacers president Larry Bird said in the statement. "Our franchise has had setbacks in its history but has demonstrated the abilities to recover. Paul will provide the example of that off the court and it is up to the rest of us to provide that example on the court. Any discussion regarding the future of our team would be inappropriate at this time. Our focus is solely on Paul and doing whatever we can to help.
"We still support USA Basketball and believe in the NBA's goals of exposing our game, our teams and players worldwide. This is an extremely unfortunate injury that occurred on a highly-visible stage, but could also have occurred anytime, anywhere."
It was classy and well-crafted. It brought perspective to what is an incredibly emotional situation. George's health is what matters right now. He's one of the great young players in the game. It's been wonderful to watch him and Durant and Harden go at each other this week in camp, as they played an epic game of King of the Mountain every day after practice.
"We were playing one-on-one, just trying to challenge ourselves," Durant said. "I'm just trying to get better; that's why we like playing against the best. The Bible says, 'Iron sharpens iron.'"
That spirit is what these players have come to love about their time on the national team. It's where they measure themselves against the best. They learn from each other. They push each other. As the saying goes, "Game respects game."
It's hard to see that spirit dying. But it's also hard to see how these players get back on the court anytime soon after being on the court for that horrific injury Friday night, or whether their franchises will let them.
Ultimately, that will be a choice for each player and each franchise. As USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said Friday night, now is not the time to make any decisions like that.
In the immediate aftermath of a franchise player going down, one who is about to start a five-year, $90 million deal that represents the deepest investment in Pacers history, there was an outcry in front offices of the dangerous downside of playing for the national team. This has long been an issue bubbling below the surface, forgotten during opening ceremonies and on medal stands but sure to flare up again now and perhaps threaten the fantastic capital Colangelo has built by transforming the program over the past eight years.
That thorny conversation is sure to be revisited in the coming days, of course. Questions about the closeness of the basketball stanchion at UNLV will arise, as well. The NBA standard is four feet from the baseline, but in many arenas it is farther back than that. To the naked eye, the stanchion at UNLV appeared to be very close to that range -- and closer than what you'd find in a normal arena.
The NBA will surely investigate the situation. But either way, George is still likely out for the season. A career has been changed, a franchise has been altered. No one in the arena can unsee what he or she saw Friday night.
The players can only learn to live with and play through that fear again.