INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George was ready to play Thursday night — and not just in another charity softball game.
He was ready for the biggest challenge of all. A little more than 10 months after a horrific leg injury and just hours after impressing his coach with an hour-long workout, the Indiana Pacers' two-time All-Star proclaimed he felt like his old self and was ready to face his biggest rival.
"I'm dunking on both legs, and if we were in the finals tonight, I'd be ready for LeBron," George joked before the first pitch at the Caroline Symmes Celebrity Softball Challenge. "I guess I should say I'd be ready for the (Golden State) Warriors."
For George, it's been a long road back from that ugly, unforgettable scene last August.
After running into a basketball stanchion and gruesomely snapping his right leg during a U.S. national team scrimmage, the budding NBA star was wheeled off the Las Vegas court on a stretcher. He missed 76 games before making his season debut April 5.
Now, almost exactly two months later, George says he's regained his timing, his explosiveness and his confidence, and coach Frank Vogel has detected a noticeable difference.
"He looks really good," Vogel said. "Obviously he was back and healthy enough to play last season, and now he's taken another step. We're encouraged with what he's been able to do."
Vogel was so happy with what he saw that he seemed more concerned about pitching to George than seeing his best player get hurt — or plunked — by an errant throw.
The 6-foot-9 forward wasn't the only injured player under the microscope at Thursday's game, which is sponsored by the Tony Stewart Foundation and benefits the Indiana Children's Wish Fund.
Colts' Pro Bowl linebacker Robert Mathis, George's co-host, planned to participate on a more limited basis even though he has been held out of the team's offseason workouts. The NFL's 2013 sacks champion is trying to come back from a torn left Achilles' tendon in September.
Mathis made it clear that while he would play softball, he didn't plan on running.
But both stars believe recoveries are on track and expect to be at or near 100 percent when their respective seasons begin.
"It's getting there," Mathis said. "I'm not going to rush it, but I'll be ready in September. I'm going to work hard to get back to my old self and I'll leave it at that."
While Mathis has remained relatively quiet since getting hurt while serving a four-game suspension for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing substances, George has become increasingly more visible around town.
On May 24, he came to the Indianapolis 500 in a helicopter with Tori Gwyn, a patient at Riley Hospital for Children in Indy.
On Thursday, he was back in front of his fans playing softball.
It was a stark contrast to what fans witnessed when they last saw George competing April 15. That was the night Indiana's season ended with a loss at Memphis and George gave Pacers fans another scare when he had to be carried into the locker room late in the game.
Fortunately, he was only diagnosed with a strained right calf. But the effects lingered for weeks.
"It scared me a lot because I felt the pop and I heard the pop. I knew that was not good," George said before being asked whether he could have played — if Indiana had made the playoffs. "I was done. It would have been at least a four- or five-week thing."
But Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird had hoped all along that George could play last season so he could find out what he needed to work on in the next phase of his comeback.
It's worked out perfectly.
With the left calf healing and the right leg healed, the California native has been working hard to get back to an All-Star level.
"Everything's great," he said. "I needed the time off to kind of nurse myself back and strengthen my body, add another element to my game. ... But this (softball) is all fun and games. I'm not coming out here to make the Indians. We're out here to have some fun and for a good cause."