Months after revealing a bout with anxiety and depression in the NBA's Orlando bubble environment, Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George says he is experiencing more trash talk than ever before "because I was down," and that reality is difficult to reconcile for a league that has prioritized mental health in recent years.
Credit to George, who is enjoying a resurgent start to his 2020-21 campaign, averaging 24.6 points on remarkably efficient 49/48/95 shooting splits, along with 6.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. His Clippers are 6-3 despite a slow start for superstar teammate Kawhi Leonard made worse by a facial injury.
"I'm just in a good headspace," George told a national TV audience after dropping 33 points in a season-opening win against the rival L.A. Lakers. It was refreshing to hear, considering how last season ended. He was also able to train throughout the offseason, something he could not do in the summer of 2019, when he underwent surgeries to both shoulders. As George said, "Coming off two shoulder surgeries ain't easy."
When he has been afforded the opportunity to enter a season in good health, George has been one of the game's truly elite performers on both ends of the floor. He finished third in MVP voting when last he enjoyed a healthy season. Yet, his peers seem to have forgotten that following a disappointing 2019-20 campaign.
Might George's playoff struggles have something to do with a respect level that has fallen short of his First Team All-NBA talent? Of course. He did declare himself "Playoff P" shortly before submitting a five-point effort in Game 6 of a first-round closeout loss to the Utah Jazz in 2018. This past summer, he scored just 10 points in a Game 7 loss to the Denver Nuggets that capped the Clips' embarrassing blown 3-1 series lead.
But the increased trash talk George is facing this season feels different. It feels like a direct response to his revelation about mental health struggles inside the bubble, and that is an uncomfortable NBA conversation.
Few players but George are willing to have it.
"The bubble got the best of me," George revealed on Aug. 25, when he followed a three-game slump with 35 points in a pivotal Game 5 win over the Dallas Mavericks in their first-round series. "I was just in a dark place. I really wasn't here. I checked out. These past couple games, it was just difficult, but shoutout to people who stood behind me, that was in my corner. ... I was just in a bad place, and I found my way back."
He had spoken to a team psychiatrist that same morning about the rigors of living in isolation. It helped.
"It was just a little bit of everything," George told reporters. "I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety, a little bit of depression. Just being locked in [the bubble]. I just wasn't there. I checked out. Games 2, 3, 4, I felt like I wasn't there. But shoutout to the people that were in my corner, people that gave me the words. They helped big-time about getting me right back in great spirits. Can't thank them enough."
Publicly, ex-players blasted George for sharing his struggle. Chief among them was Charles Barkley, who said, "We are the luckiest people in the world to dribble a stupid basketball to make millions of a dollars; we're never in a dark place." Raja Bell added, "Keep that s*** to yourself, bro. Nobody wants to hear that."
Privately, active players were confiding in George that they too were struggling.
"Whether I was the first to say it or not, we're all dealing with it," George told reporters in the days following his revelation. "I've had conversations with guys here, and there's been a couple guys that is like, 'Man, I'm happy I'm not the only one. I've been dealing with this, too.' It's a thing in here. It's a brotherhood."
Apparently, that brotherhood has not extended to this season, when George says the "hate" has increased on the court. It boiled over on Sunday, when Phoenix Suns guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker berated George, sparking an angry response that required players and referees to sort out the commotion. It was indicative of what George describes as "a lot of mouth," a shift from his previous 10 seasons in the NBA.
"I had a tough year last year," George told the Clippers' broadcast in a postgame interview. "People think it's sweet, man, people think it's sweet because I was down. I didn't hear none of this my 10 years in the league, but people living on that last year. And I got to answer that. I'm ready to compete. I'm back."
Asked what Paul and Booker did to set him off, George told reporters, "You got to ask them. I was talking to the ref, CP jumped in and it escalated from there. Like I said, I've never had any words talking, there was never any altercation, there was always peace when I am on the floor, but for whatever reason, there's a lot of chirping and people just living in the past. Last year was last year. I'm in a new situation; I am in a different mindset. Any of that hate stuff, you got to ask them. I don't know where that's coming from."
The media did ask them. Paul said, “It is what it is, man.” Booker added, “It’s nothing.”
Except, it was something.
Devin Booker calls Paul George a "soft a$$ n****a" pic.twitter.com/tYEOybZIld
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) January 4, 2021
Look, I understand the heat of competition. I know this is their livelihood. I get that trash talk is part of the game. As former New York Knicks coach turned analyst David Fizdale said, “It’s the land of the wolves.”
But the NBA is walking a tightrope here. Ever since All-Stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan made public their own bouts with anxiety and depression, prompting other players to do the same, the league has made mental health a staple of its messaging, expanding its mental health and wellness program each season. Off the court, anxiety and depression are becoming less stigmatized. On the court? It makes you a target.
A line can be drawn. Booker crossed it.
Was George “soft” when he rebuilt himself into an MVP candidate after suffering one of the most brutal leg injuries the game has ever seen in 2014? No. Was he “soft” for taking umbrage when Cameron Payne wildly jumped on that same leg after the whistle was already blown, sparking Booker’s outburst on Sunday? No.
We all know why Booker said what he said. Except, George is not “soft” for having the courage to share publicly what others in the NBA would not. He is stronger. Mental health struggles are real, especially during the pandemic, and professional athletes are not immune. Paul himself called this his top priority as the National Basketball Players Association president over the summer. His lines on the court might be blurrier.
So, kudos to George, who responded to Sunday’s trash talk with 39 points and a victory.
"I'll go through the fire,” he told reporters of his torrid start in the face of heightened criticism. “It's fine. As long as we come out on top, we win and I am helping my team win. That's all that matters. Save the rest, they can do what they want. I'm locked in and it's more so about me being at peace and at ease."
Paul George is on top again because he shared his struggle, not in spite of it, and that is anything but soft. NBA players might consider that the next time they start talking trash, especially to a six-time All-Star.
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