Stephen Curry watched Paul George suffer a compound fracture to his right leg. As an active member of the USA Basketball Team, Curry was in the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on the night of Aug 1. As was the case with basketball fans across the world, Curry held his breath.
"It's tough. Any time you see an injury like that it shakes and shocks most people, especially guys that were in the arena," Curry says.
George and Curry are cut from the same cloth. Both were under-recruited as high schoolers and ended up at mid-majors–George at Fresno State and Curry at Davidson. Both silenced their naysayers by striving at the collegiate level. Both became top ten picks, but both still faced critics, in the NBA, whether it be for their size or athleticism. Both have become NBA superstars.
Curry knows it could've been him who jammed his foot into the base of the basket instead of George. He knows this can still happen at any time. But it is not going to slow him down.
"There's a reason we're all playing. There's a risk when you play USA basketball and every time you step on the floor, really," Curry says. "To have the opportunity to represent your country and play against the best in the world while you still can is something I don't take for granted. It'd be really special to win the gold medal now, with all the things that have happened so far."
Along with the injuries, Team USA lost 2010 FIBA World Championship and 2012 Olympic gold medalists Kevin Durant and Kevin Love to withdrawals. The entire infrastructure of international basketball has been under fire thanks to George, Durant and Love. Critics feel the competition extends fatigue and risk of injury while taking away from contract negotiations and endorsements. (Durant's reported $325 million Under Armour deal could have been a factor in his decision to withdraw.)
Curry, who played on the gold medal World Championship team in 2010, is among the strongest proponents of preserving international basketball. For the point guard, international competition is a basketball gift, rather than a hassle. Curry sees the same attitude in George, who communicated with many of the American players from his hospital bed.
"His attitude of 'I'm coming back stronger than ever' -- that's all he really needed to say," Curry said at a clinic he conducted on behalf on one of his sponsors, Degree deodorant. "We were all there and know how crazy the scene was, but for him to just be positive about it is all the motivation we need."
George is expected to make a full recovery, although, he will likely miss the entire 2014-15 season.
As for the competition, Curry will head to Spain at the end of the month for the World Cup (formerly known as the World Championship) with a different mindset than he had four years ago. In 2010, Curry arrived in Turkey fresh off his rookie season. He played 85 minutes in eight of Team USA's nine games, the fourth-lowest total on the roster. Curry was scrawnier and had not developed an elite NBA passing game. His raw talent made for a respectable spark off the bench, but not much more.
In 2014, Curry has a chance to be the starting point guard for the red, white and blue. He averaged 24.0 points and 8.5 assists last season while draining 261 three-pointers in 78 games. Curry's performance earned him a start in the 2014 All-Star Game -- his 1.05 million votes were second in the Western Conference to Kobe Bryant -- and a place on the All-NBA Second Team.
Likewise, USA Basketball is in a different place. In 2010, the United States was coming off the Redeem Team's Olympic gold in 2008, but the U.S. had not won a World Championship gold medal since 1994. Now, the U.S. has won three straight gold medals in World Championship and Olympic events, and the pressure is on.
"I'm at a different place in my career. The stage has been set for us as a national team to defend gold medals rather than chase them," Curry says. "Obviously with the injury to Paul George and Kevin Durant dropping out, it's a different mood, but I know guys are still committed and obviously the mission's to win a gold medal. We'll do that any way we can."
The road to gold is sure to include a series of bumps and possibly a wall to climb. Nations such as Brazil, Argentina, Australia and Croatia are rich in former, current and future NBA talent.
Of course, Team USA's most recent rival, Spain, will loom over the American radar. The silver medalists at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics are loaded with NBA talent. Ricky Rubio, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Jose Calderon headline the deepest of international foes. "La Roja" also serves as the host of the 16-day tournament.
"Spain's the team with the most NBA talent and they've been together for so long. Obviously this year they have home court advantage–home country advantage," Curry says. "They played us tough, but we've been able to come out on top in a lot of matchups recently. We need to continue that trend. We know it's going to be tough to beat them in their own country, but we feel like we have what it takes to make it happen."
In 2010, Curry cut down the nets in Istanbul. He was a skinny kid surrounded by NBA All-Stars. He was a contributive presence to a roster that could have survived without him, to put it bluntly.
In 2014, Curry will be at the forefront of Team USA, as it trots into the FIBA World Cup with some scabs hanging off it. He is a constant on a national team in flux. For Curry, there is no looking back. The man who says he is a better offensive player than LeBron James wants that leadership role.
And he is not taking it for granted.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.