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How Pacers fans fell in and out of love with Paul George

Why is it hard for Pacers fans to get over how the Paul George era ended? Because they went through a lot together.

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NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After seven long and emotional years together, Pacers fans and Paul George had a fast and public breakup in the summer of 2017. There were rumors that both sides were unhappy with the relationship long before the news became official, but neither party ever said it out loud. Neither party ever really wanted to.

It wasn’t until Pacers fans learned that George wanted out from Adrian Wojnarowski that reality set in. He would leave once he became a free agent, and he preferred to go to the Lakers. Even if many suspected it, it was a gut punch for everyone involved.

Pacers fans felt close to George. After all, we grew up together. We knew his idol was Kobe Bryant — that’s why he wore No. 24. We knew he loved to fish on Geist Lake, something only those from Indiana would understand. We knew he referred to WNBA star and Indianapolis legend Tamika Catchings as “Big Sis.”

After a Most Improved Player Award, back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances, four All-Star games, an Olympic gold medal, and a return from one of the most gruesome injuries we’ve ever seen, the relationship between Paul George and Pacers fans came to a screeching halt last summer. The feelings are still raw, and they will be on full display when George returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse Wednesday for his only visit of the season (7 p.m. ET, ESPN, WatchESPN)

This is how Pacers fans fell in and out love with Paul George.

The beginning of something special

Frank Vogel took over the Pacers in the middle of the 2010-11 season. Right away, he began to unleash two forces that previous coach Jim O’Brien never did: A lumbering big man named Roy Hibbert and a skinny kid from Fresno state named Paul George.

By the end of the 2012 season, the Pacers were third in the Eastern Conference. The team still had their leader in Danny Granger, Hibbert was anchoring an impressive Pacers defense, and David West had come in to be the vet presence that was so badly needed.

But there was something different about Paul George, and everyone knew it.

George was about to be a huge part of the Pacers’ future.

Could Paul George finally be the one?

Superstars don’t walk through the door in Indiana often. So when Pacers fans sensed what George could become, it was one of the best feelings in the world.

While Pacers fans already knew it, 2013 was George’s coming out party for the rest of the league. It solidified everything the Pacers had been whispering. It was the moment we could speak it out to the masses.

Remember Game 2 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals? Pacers fans will for a long time.

There was the George dunk over Chris Andersen at the end of the third quarter. He dunked on Andersen, but that was after he first blew by LeBron James. As Pacers legend Reggie Miller bellowed on the broadcast: “We’re seeing a superstar in the making here in Paul George.”

LeBron immediately nailed a three-pointer in George’s face, reminding us quickly that James was still King. But the handshake immediately after was all we needed to see. It showed James acknowledging what Pacers fans already knew: Paul George was legit.

The Pacers eventually lost that series in seven games, but it was a defining moment in the history of George and the Indiana Pacers. It was a time where George emerged as the true future of the city and maybe even the league.

And no, the Pacers never won actually won a playoff round against the Heat. But the bond between the team and the fans was special during those years. Above all, it was fun. Pacers fans felt this was something that could last for a long, long time.

Things got hard, but we worked through it anyway

The 2013-14 season was the first time George and the Pacers faced any real adversity. A fast start put the Pacers in pole position for the top seed in the East, with George emerging as an MVP candidate.

But all that success came with a cost. The team hit a rough patch, so team president Larry Bird made two bold moves that backfired. He traded away franchise mainstay Danny Granger for Evan Turner, and picked up the mercurial Andrew Bynum to help (and maybe replace) Roy Hibbert. Both moves disrupted the delicate chemistry George’s Pacers had built over the previous few years.

The collapse was so brutal that at one point George had to post a picture of him fishing with Hibbert and George Hill in a desperate attempt to prove the team still liked each other.

These rumors have got to stop! Its gettin old now and all you that believe them are ignorant! #Brothers

A post shared by Paul George (@ygtrece) on

In the end, the Pacers fell meekly to the Heat in the playoffs, sniping at each other along the way.

That summer, Lance Stephenson was the first to leave the core of the Pacers that once had so much success. Instead of returning to Indiana, as most expected, he signed with Charlotte. Losing Lance hurt Pacers fans, but it was something we thought we could get over. We had Paul George, after all.

Then, Aug. 1, 2014 happened.

Pacers fans tuned in to a meaningless Team USA exhibition on a Friday night just to watch George play. Instead, we saw George snap his leg in half on live television.

No one could possibly feel the hurt George felt in the coming days, weeks, and months. But Pacers fans were hurt, too. We hurt for not only the Pacers, but we hurt for Paul George the person.

It was easy to doubt the future of this relationship. Just months after a second straight conference finals appearance, the Pacers stared irrelevancy back in the face. Stephenson was gone, and George was missing, maybe for good. Would he make a full recovery? Would he ever be the same player he was before? Was this it for George in Indiana? In the NBA?

But after the Nike commercials, the Instagram posts, and the banners that hung outside of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, George and the Pacers got through it together.

George amazingly returned eight months later, against the Heat of course. The Pacers were on their way to missing the playoffs, but Bankers Life Fieldhouse was full. Full of Paul George jerseys. Full of signs that read, “Welcome back, PG.” Full of hope.

Miami Heat v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

George scored 13 points in 14 minutes that night. He checked in to the game, to a roar from the fans. He hit the first shot he took. He hit two late three-pointers to help put away the Heat. It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie. A script you could only make up in your dreams.

"(The reception) was probably the greatest moment that I've had,” he said after the game. “It was so hard to not get caught up in the moment."

Pacers fans loved Paul George, maybe more than ever. The relationship was back on track.

But nothing was the same after that

George returned to a Pacers franchise that was moving on without the other elements that made their previous teams successful. Hibbert’s game fell off a cliff, and he fell out of favor with Bird. West, angered by the Pacers’ treatment of Hibbert, declined an $11 million player option to sign a minimum contract with the Spurs.

The Pacers did not crash quickly. In fact, it was a long slow burn, as the remaining vestiges from those great Pacers teams left. Vogel and George Hill lasted one more year, then departed themselves, leaving George as the only holdover. The Pacers finished seventh in the East the following two years after George’s return, never finding their 2012-14 success again.

Small cracks slowly appeared in the relationship. Cracks that illustrated something just didn’t feel right.

One was George’s reluctance to play power forward in his first full season back. Bird wanted to refashion the team into a small-ball juggernaut with George dancing around slower defenders, but George didn’t feel comfortable changing positions. He had valid reasons, but the animosity between the Pacers and George was strong. So strong that Bird even said, “Well, he don't make the decisions around here,” when asked about George’s reluctance.

There were moments of hope every now and then. In the 2016 playoffs against the Raptors, George played out of his mind, forcing the Raptors to seven games and re-establishing himself as one of the best players in the league.

But the Pacers didn’t win that series. They didn’t win a playoff series again after 2014.

The cloud of doubt that hovered over the Pacers, their fans, and their players was becoming more stressful every day. The team just wasn’t good and Bird’s moves to reshape the team weren’t working. It was clear George wasn’t happy.

But you never want to admit it’s time to break up with the generational talent that you snagged at no. 10 in the draft, especially after you watched them grow up right before your eyes.

Sometimes in relationships, you hang on to things long after you should have let them go. That’s exactly what happened to the Pacers and George in the years after he returned from injury.

The inevitable break-up

At his charity softball game last summer, George he said wanted to be a Pacer again.

“I’m under contract as a Pacer. That’s all that needs to really be known. I’m here. I’m a Pacer. Again, what I’ve been dealing with is stories. You guys talking or teams talking. I’m a Pacer. There’s no way around that. This is my team, my group and this is where I’m at.”

It wasn’t the most inspiring declaration of love, but George has often unintentionally mixed his words. Most fans took it as a positive heading in the 2017-18 season. They still had their guy.

Three days later, the report of him telling the Pacers he wanted to leave surfaced.

George claimed he was declaring his intentions in advance out of respect of the organization so they could plan ahead for the future. But he also made it clear, through his agent, that he would only play for the Lakers long-term. George not only wanted out of Indiana, but he reportedly knew where he wanted to be. And it wasn’t anywhere close to Indiana.

How were the small-market Pacers supposed to find a trade partner for a player that only wanted to play for one other team. Why would the Lakers give up anything substantial? Why, after all these wonderful memories, was George making it more difficult for the Pacers to move on, even if he insisted he wasn’t?

Less than a month later, new GM Kevin Pritchard snatched a trade out of thin air with the Thunder, one panned by nearly every expert. After all that, it was done.

On the night he was traded, George left one small message for Pacers fans. It was an Instagram post that read, “I can go on and on with pics and comments but INDIANA.. THANK YOU”

Except he didn’t go on and on with pics and comments. He was quiet.

Was it silly for us to get upset over an Instagram post? Yes.

Did it feel disingenuous from George after seven years and everything he had been through with Pacers fans? Yes.

How could you break up with someone in an Instagram post?

Paul George had the right to move on from the Pacers and do what’s best for himself and his career. But by that same token, fans also have the right to be hurt by his decision and the way it ended.

Luckily, Pacers fans have been given the ability to move on quickly from the George breakup. Victor Oladipo, acquired in Pritchard’s much-criticized trade of George, is legitimately making a case to be an All-Star in 2018. Third-year big Myles Turner is a joy on and off the court. Even Domantas Sabonis, the other player in the George trade, has turned into a critical piece for these new-look Pacers. It sure helps that as the Pacers have thrived, George’s new team has been the league’s biggest disappointment to date.

It’s easy for an outsider to only remember the good things Paul George did for the city of Indiana. He led the Pacers to back-to-back conference championship appearances. He won that team a ton of basketball games. And he was in Indiana for a seven good, nay great years.

But Paul George is always going be that ex Pacers fans think about, even if we don’t want to admit it. That’s OK. That’s not necessarily rational. Just understand that Pacers fans will always be hurt by how things ended with George. We went through a lot together, and those memories, good and bad, will linger for a long time to come.

The sad end of this relationship will be hard for us to get over, no matter how great this new relationship with Victor Oladipo and friends is.

Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis have the Pacers soaring