In a single, sickening moment Friday night in Las Vegas, the definition of tragedy was rewritten for Team USA basketball.
Old definition: Returning to the United States without gold medals.
New definition: A player hurt severely enough to jeopardize his NBA career.
The new definition, so much more accurate, was realized the moment Paul George sustained a gruesome lower right leg injury during a glorified scrimmage Friday night in Las Vegas. It was so ugly the players didn't want to look, so grotesque that TV replays came with warnings.
The fallout was immediate, Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski and managing director Jerry Colangelo deciding to end the game as medical personnel attended to George on the court at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center – before the Pacers star was carried out on a stretcher.
"It's a tough situation for our entire organization; our coaches and players are very, very emotional," Colangelo said at the postgame news conference. "There's no way the game could have gone on under the circumstances."
Coach K and Colangelo had temporarily lost their desire to oversee more basketball. The players participating in the game had temporarily lost their desire to play, busy fighting back tears. Fans with any sense of decorum had lost their desire to watch.
And the Pacers, and the other 31 NBA teams, have lost their desire to encourage their best players to represent our nation in international competition.
That feeling is not temporary.
George's injury will discourage NBA players from this voluntary effort, altering Team USA rosters forever. It will have the greatest impact on USA basketball since the Dream Team was assembled in 1992, the debut of NBA players on the international stage. That's when Team USA, stocked with players from the world's greatest basketball league, wrapped itself in a cloak of invincibility.
By so doing, bronze medals would represent utter failure – and, to the particularly dramatic, a measure of shame. The bronzes in the 2004 Olympics and the World Cups in 1998 and 2006 were widely perceived as ill-fated endeavors.
We all stand corrected. George was diagnosed with a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula, according to the Indianapolis Star, which reported that a pin would be placed in his leg. He could miss the upcoming season. His career trajectory, so majestic and steep, can't help but change.
"This is a tough blow, not only for USA basketball but for the Indiana Pacers," Colangelo said. "And so as an organization, we're just going to let a little time go by here before we address rosters.
" . . . It seems so unimportant in the scheme of things. When you have something like this, it puts things in perspective.''
It also put a pit in the bellies all around the NBA. General managers, paid to build and maintain contending rosters rather than chase medals, can't be blamed for losing their appetites. If the sight of George's grotesquely bent leg didn't do it, the thought of one of their players being lost certainly did.
The Timberwolves surely felt grateful that this wasn't Kevin Love, who withdrew from the roster, being taken to the hospital. The Warriors were happy to see Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, in the thick of the Vegas competition, walk off the court in sullen silence Friday night.
Care to think how the Cavaliers might feel watching LeBron James, especially in this summer of reunion, break his leg for the Red, White and Blue?
This is not about soldiers going off to war, where there are daily examples of the exact definition of tragedy.
This is about basketball players, under contracts worth millions, doing their patriotic best to represent their country and burnish their personal credentials.
Those ambitions, already the subject of anxiety, are about to be taken away. After the first ghastly injury in pursuit of international acclaim, how could anybody – player, coach, fan or politician – campaign otherwise?
Team USA got its first look at a very real, very personal tragedy. It won't be forgotten. Can't be forgotten.