Then, in the second half, Paul came out and hit six consecutive threes right in front of our bench. All the scouts were right behind our bench. If they didn’t know who Paul was before, they did then. —Steve Cleveland
PROVO — Steve Cleveland told the parents of Paul George they had nothing to apologize for.
It was a few years ago when the Oklahoma Thunder forward was a few seasons into his NBA career as a member of the Indiana Pacers.
The former BYU and Fresno State basketball coach was serving as an LDS Church mission president in Indianapolis when the soon-to-be four-time NBA All-Star invited him and his wife, Kip, to a Pacers game. During the evening out, Paulette George told Cleveland she was sorry her son only played for him for two years in a Bulldog uniform.
“You have nothing to be sorry about, not at all, are you kidding?” said Cleveland.
You see, George, a lanky 6-foot-7, 175-pound gem Cleveland found in Palmdale, California, was supposed to be the cornerstone of Fresno State’s rebuilding effort after the NCAA came down hard on the program and the school hired Cleveland to fix it. Sanctions hit FSU when Cleveland was just a few years into the job.
There were “unbelievable things” that had gone on at FSU, said Cleveland, and he wasn’t allowed to recruit transfers or junior college players. He was restricted to eight scholarships and it all came down when George, who’d committed to Santa Clara and then Pepperdine, signed with FSU after flying under the radar from UCLA and other Power 5 programs.
George ended up playing just two years before turning his talent into NBA gold.
Cleveland had promised George a couple of things if he’d play for him. First, he had played center a lot in high school and Cleveland told George his staff would let him play small forward and develop his game at the three spot. Second, George could play every minute he wanted to until he was tired.
“He was a perimeter-type player. He was really long, but he was a kid we thought we had a chance with," Cleveland said. "The Pac-12 and Mountain West people were a little soft on him, thinking he needed to develop. We told him we would get him in the weight room and get him stronger and he could play all the time. He got in the weight room and developed his defense.
“He developed his outside game because he’d been playing the four and five positions in high school. He worked hard on his outside shot. One thing he could do from the get-go was defend because he was so long. I’d put him on a three man and he began to develop confidence.
"He had a pretty good year his freshman year. There were no conversations about the NBA. His second year, he worked on weights and attacking off the dribble, how to create shots and get that kind of shot off. As it turns out, his second year, he started getting better.”
Two things then happened his sophomore year.
During a game at Saint Mary’s, George took the ball in a half-court setting, sprinted right down the middle of the key from the wing and delivered a tomahawk dunk on top of three guys. The play ended up making ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 plays. “All of a sudden, that created all kinds of buzz. We were a .500 team and he was averaging about 15 points and eight boards. But he got better.”
Then at a preseason game at Pepperdine, where NBA scouts were plentiful because of the location near Los Angeles, it happened. “Jerry West and other general managers and scouts showed up at the game in Malibu,” said Cleveland.
“It was a pretty good game, nothing spectacular. The guy scouts came to see, a guard, was having a pretty good game. Then, in the second half, Paul came out and hit six consecutive threes right in front of our bench. All the scouts were right behind our bench. If they didn’t know who Paul was before, they did then.”
One of Cleveland’s assistants turned to him and said, with some language not fit for print, “OK, (expletive) we’re in trouble here.”
Cleveland said Paul has the greatest family. “He has a tremendous father and mother and sister. We got to the end of the year and there was a ton of interest in him. Back then it was different. If you put your name in for the draft, that was it, you were in. It isn’t like it is now where you can test the waters.”
After the season, George came in with his parents and sat down in Cleveland’s office. “They said they’d made a decision and their son was going to put in for the NBA draft.”
Cleveland had a lot going through his mind. George and a player named Tyler Johnson, who was coming in the next year, were the pieces that were going to turn things around for Fresno State. (Johnson is now playing for the Miami Heat.)
In college basketball, it takes only a player or two to switch the fortunes and trajectory of a program. Cleveland had it in his grasp.
Then George was gone.
“Hey, it wasn’t great for me, but it was for them and I had a great relationship with them.”
And that brought Cleveland to that Friday night in Indianapolis, where the parents of one of the game’s best players, a star who has given the Utah Jazz everything they can handle, had him as a guest on a Friday night, two time zones away from those college days.
Cleveland was then an ecclesiastical leader, tending to more than a hundred Mormon missionaries in Indiana. His job, like at Fresno, was to build, lead, inspire, teach and then watch.
When the Georges apologized for leaving Cleveland and Fresno State kind of in a pickle, Cleveland was humbled but confident in saying they’d absolutely done the right thing.
“You do not need to apologize to me. This is part of the business,” Cleveland answered that night. “He is a great young man, a leader, and has all the characteristics to be a star.”
George is now 6-foot-9 and lethal as he showed with his 8-of-11 3-point shooting performance in the first playoff game against the Jazz.
"He developed and blossomed because he had the chance to do that and he’s worked hard. This experience at OKC is all about learning to play and develop with others. He’s had his ups and downs but I think they’ve got it figured it out.”
And so they have.
It’s all on display as the Jazz-Thunder playoff series moves to Salt Lake City tied at 1-1. George, once a skinny under-the-radar talent, will absolutely be in the thick of it.