Before Paul George was going to grade school, he was regularly visiting a patch of green on the east side of his hometown. Domenic Massari Park was only five minutes from the George family’s house, and because of it, it soon became something of a second home.
It was the site of his first field trip, in elementary school, and his first basketball practice. By middle school, George was spending most days after classes either on the park’s playground or its basketball court, sometimes playing pickup games until the sun went down and the court’s lights came on.
Cheered by chants of “PG!” from a crowd of several hundred while flanked by local elected officials, the Clippers forward was back in the Massari spotlight Sunday, standing atop a temporary stage to unveil three newly constructed basketball courts at the park, part of a larger effort between his foundation and the Clippers’ own to build or refurbish seven courts at four Palmdale parks.
Those courts hosted their first action on a chilly Sunday, which Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer declared “Paul George Day.”
“I wanted to come back here, I wanted to improve it, just give more everlasting memories that can live on further than I will,” George said. “Every accomplishment, everything I’ve done, all my success, I think this is probably the biggest thing I’m most happy about.”
The city of Palmdale declared today Paul George Day. The Clippers’ hometown star is unveiling 7 courts across the city that are either new or refurbished. The mayor just greeted him onstage. pic.twitter.com/UOm4cR2utj— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) December 30, 2019
As George spoke, Trent Stewart stood 10-deep in the crowd, nodding. When Stewart, 53, moved to Palmdale in 1993, he found a scarcity of local courts at which to play on the weekends. They remained crowded in recent years as well, said Bobby Austin, who moved to Palmdale from Los Angeles also in the early 1990s.
“You don’t have to fight over that one little court anymore,” said Austin, 58. “Now you can actually come out here and play.
“They’re putting them all over, which is so good because a lot of people are moving out here, coming out here, and there’s nothing for the kids. This will take them out of the streets and give them something to do. It’s great. I love it.”
When George left Palmdale after starring at local Knight High School, it was not apparent he would grow to become a player of such renown that a day would be named after him, a celebration that included bouncy houses and vendors serving hot chocolate and doughnuts to guests who braved the cold.
Though George had starred as a long-armed prep star, because he lived 90 minutes outside the sprawling basketball scene on “the other side of the mountain” from Los Angeles, as George wrote in a November essay about his upbringing, he was off the radar of many recruiters. Latching onto an L.A.-based AAU team led to a scholarship to Fresno State. A first-round selection in the 2010 NBA draft followed, as did the stardom that led him, in 2018, to earn a four-year contract worth $137 million.
The years of early park visits were made in hopes of making it big in basketball. He believed the next generation of Palmdale players would recognize that his return Sunday was made possible only because of his work toward reaching that goal.
“I think I resonate more with the kids that know what it takes to work hard and know what working hard gets you,” George said. “It’s not many opportunities down here, and somehow I was blessed enough to make it. I hope that I can inspire and keep the kids dreaming.”
Just as George did not transform overnight from a local star into one of the NBA’s top all-around players, finding the right way to give back to his hometown took time.
In Indiana, where he began his NBA career, George once donated $10,000 to help a family whose daughter had cerebral palsy afford a van to accommodate her wheelchair. In Oklahoma City, where George was traded to in 2017, his foundation donated funds to a youth fishing program. At every NBA stop, he made inroads into the community.
“I felt I was at that time where I needed to do something and do something big back home,” he said. “Here we are.”
Paul George on helping build new courts at the Palmdale park he played at as a child: ”Honestly, it’s about the next generation, it’s about the youth. I’m hoping to inspire.” pic.twitter.com/rRp7iX4X5Q— Andrew Greif (@AndrewGreif) December 30, 2019
His foundation had been in talks with Palmdale officials for more than a year, but the scale was small — fixing up one court at a time, using money raised from his celebrity fishing tournaments. The scope quickly grew when the Clippers partnered with their new star following his trade to the Clippers in July, Hofbauer said. In addition to Massari, there are new or refurbished courts at the city’s Courson, Desert Sands and Marie Kerr parks, as well as three other courts refurbished last summer through George’s work with a different foundation.
“If he wouldn’t have been [from Palmdale], we would never have got this because I don’t think someone else would say, ‘Let’s just do this for the Palmdale kids,’” Austin said. “It’s not going to happen. It’s great to give back.”
George hinted that the courts will not be his last project in his hometown.
“This is small compared to what we’re trying to accomplish here,” he said.
Austin commended George’s work but added that his influence was felt in Palmdale well before Sunday. He pointed to his side, where his 6-year-old grandson, Damani Spears, clutched a worn basketball.
“This is where he get it from,” Austin said. “Paul George come from out here.”