Paul George said he still remembered his first game at the Save Mart Center, the butterflies among other things. That, he said, was a big emotional night. There are a lot of games, a lot of dunks, a lot of wins and losses, and a lot of life between there and here, but Sunday also was one of those days for the six-time NBA All-Star.
The former Fresno State Bulldogs’ forward had his No. 24 jersey go up into the rafters of the Save Mart Center at halftime of a 77-74 victory over Winthrop in front of 8,529 fans, including several of his teammates with the NBA Los Angeles Clippers, one of the largest crowds to see a basketball game in the building in years.
“I am more grateful and more than honored and humbled,” George said at a pre-game news conference, seated between his former coach Steve Cleveland and athletics director Terry Tumey.
“I wouldn’t have dreamed this in a million years, to be able to come to Save Mart Center and to be able to look up and see No. 24 in the rafters. This is special.”
The No. 24 jersey was unfurled behind the Bulldogs’ bench, just to the left of the No. 2 honoring former Fresno State player and coach Jerry Tarkanian.
They are the only basketball players to have jerseys retired by the university. In addition, Fresno State executive director of governmental relations Larry Salinas delivered a proclamation from the city that Nov. 10 will always be Paul George Day in Fresno.
“It’s special,” George said. “Tarkanian outweighed anything that I could have done here in my two years. But to be able to have my jersey up here next to his, it means the most to me. It means a lot.
“This is the place where I call home, the place where I enjoyed my time here. I gave everything I could have in my little scrawny body. I loved to put on the red, white and blue and loved to perform in front of the fans here. Again, speechless on the words, to even find what this moment feels like right now.”
George played for the Bulldogs for only two seasons, 2009 and ‘10. But he came in at a time when the program needed a boost following some rough times on and off the court and he provided it. He went on to become the No. 10 overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft by the Indianapolis Pacers.
He spent his first seven seasons in the NBA with the Pacers before playing two seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He joined the Clippers this summer.
George is a six-time NBA all-star and won a Gold Medal with the 2016 United States’ Olympic team at the Rio de Janeiro Games along with Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson.
But his impact on Fresno State and the Bulldogs’ program goes beyond the Save Mart Center floor.
“I think his leadership qualities are the things that stand out most to me and I think it’s also why he has been so successful at the next level. He has always been grounded,” Cleveland said. “It has really done him well in the NBA and it was a great service to this community.”
Cleveland said Paul’s success in the NBA “made it OK for scholar-athletes, for outstanding high school players to come back to Fresno State” and helped push the program past “some pretty turbulent times.”
George, Tumey said, is quintessential Bulldog.
“This place will be his forever,” the Bulldogs’ athletics director said.
He may soon have company at a Save Mart Center filled with memories. “Big overtime wins, big nights, big scoring nights and big dunks, bringing the house down,” George said. “There are a lot of great memories here.”
Fresno State, Tumey said, has some catching up to do in honoring its past and student-athletes. On Saturday, the volleyball program retired the No. 15 jersey in honor of Ruth Lawanson.
“Having Paul here is a strong statement as to where we’re going, and this won’t be the last. We’re going to have more of these because this university truly deserves it and it has a place in the landscape of collegiate athletics. There are so many greats. I think we still have others to look at in basketball. We have had some tremendous contributions in football that we need to recognize. Baseball, golf … there are so many sports. That catching up is going to start happening.”