Knight High School sits on the edge of civilization in Palmdale. To step outside its front door is to face hundreds of yucca palms, or Joshua trees, extending their spikey limbs toward the sky. The trees dot the landscape for miles and miles until they reach the San Gabriel Mountains unobstructed.
Here in the high desert north of Los Angeles, sometimes the wind will catch a basketball midair and carry it somewhere unexpected.
Paul George never cared.
“He was outdoors so much I don’t think it really fazed him,” said Teiosha George, Paul’s older sister.
When the wind changed he learned to adjust, and he stayed loyal to the courts and to home.
This weekend, George returns to Southern California as an all-star, replacing an injured DeMarcus Cousins in the game. For George, it will be a chance to gather with family — his parents, his sisters, his girlfriend, his kids and his nephews and niece. It will be another opportunity to spend time in his Malibu home.
The narrative surrounding him, though, will focus on Los Angeles, the Lakers and — terrifyingly for the Oklahoma City Thunder — whether the game’s host arena, Staples Center, will soon be George’s home arena.
“He’s always wanted to play at home in L.A., but the Thunder have done a great job of making him feel valued,” said Teiosha George, who speaks to her brother several times a week. “That’s going to be a tough decision that he’s going to have to make.”
In some ways, where he is now more closely resembles his hometown than Los Angeles actually does. Oklahoma is a little bit sleepier without the bustle of a city or even much of the crowdedness that comes with urban sprawl.
George grew up in a town that now has 157,000 people.
“You gotta find something you really care about out here to have fun,” said Demetreyus Reed-Cade, a 22-year-old Palmdale native, as he took a break from a pickup game at Domenic Massari Park. On a chilly desert afternoon in early February, Reed-Cade and three friends played on a gray and white court with metal backboards while music wafted from some portable speakers.
Growing up, Reed-Cade saw George here plenty — anyone who came to this park regularly would have. He was either here or he was playing against his sister on a portable hoop they dragged out into the street in front of their house.
Either that, or he was at Knight High, where his high school jersey is framed above a doorway. Next to it hangs an oversized poster showing images of George and thanking him for his donations to the gym. George’s money helped renovate parts of the gym, including the backboards, which are now glass rather than metal.
Knight coach Tom Hegre remembers George and his friends staying so long in the gym he’d have to kick them out eventually, quipping that if he stayed any longer his wife would leave him.
“It became like their home away from home,” Hegre said.
Years later, George returned for a basketball showcase with other NBA players at his high school. He played against adults and against some of the players on his old high school team.
“I’ve never played against somebody with that kind of length,” said Mekhi Smith, now a senior at Knight.
One summer near his own senior year, George found himself torn between two options. His AAU team, which featured elite high school players also on their way to the NBA, had a tournament in Cincinnati. His high school team was heading to San Diego for a tournament of their own. George wanted to go with his high school team, figuring they needed him more.
His teammates and coaches talked him out of it.
“He’s always been a loyal guy, a respectful guy,” Teiosha George said. “I know a lot of people say he wants to be liked and he wants people to like him. It’s not that. It’s a respect thing and a loyalty thing. If he gives you his word, he wants to follow through on that.”
Teiosha does wonder what her little brother plans to do this summer.
Last summer, he told the Indiana Pacers, then his team, that he planned to leave in free agency of 2018 and sign with the Lakers. But then the Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City, where he plays with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and is winning more. Westbrook recently promised a championship, calling that the sales pitch he plans to offer George to stay this summer.
When he speaks about it, George leaves the door open for multiple options. In more than one interview recently, George has spoken of the bond he’s developed with his current teammates.
The last time the Thunder were in Los Angeles, Teiosha asked Paul how he was feeling about all of that.
“When it’s all said and done,” she told him, “just make sure you’re happy.”
As someone who watched him grow, who talks to him constantly and who firmly believes he’ll succeed anywhere he goes, her recommendation was as simple as the life they knew growing up in Palmdale.