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Posted: Friday, February 20, 2009 10:00 pm

Who: Espen and Kami Jensen, and their kids, Benjamin, Marissa, Dominic Wells and Jason Henderson

Destination: Las Vegas (picture is Hoover Dam)

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Paul George already has a winning resume.

He's played in two All-Star Games, been the league's Most Improved Player, reached the conference finals and led his team to the best record in the East. He is revered by teammates and coaches and has been rewarded with a max contract. He finished third overall in this year's All-Star voting, appeared on two major magazine covers and may be on the verge of becoming a major endorser, too.

At age 24, George looks like he'll become the next big small-market star.

"I want to crack the top five," George said earlier this week, referring to jersey sales. "This playoff run should definitely do it."

The truth is George never has defined success by numbers alone. Ask why the jersey sales mean something to him and George explains it's the stamp of approval from fans who like his simple, honest style.

Corporate America, which does look at the numbers, has started noticing, too.

A year ago, George's strong postseason performance helped Indiana push Miami to seven games in the conference finals and turned an overlooked high school and college player into an emerging star. He's now the fifth player in league history to improve his scoring average by four or more points in three consecutive seasons while participating in 50 percent or more of his team's games. Plus, the Pacers (56-26) finished No. 1 in the East, giving them home-court advantage through the conference finals.

Duplicate that performance in this year's playoffs and lead the Pacers on a deep playoff run, and George could emerge as this postseason's biggest winner. Indiana opens its first-round best-of-seven series Saturday night against Atlanta.

"There really isn't a ceiling because each athlete can take it (the endorsements) as far as they can take it," said Ken Ungar, president of U/S Sports Advisors, an Indianapolis-based sports and entertainment marketing agency. "I've seen estimates that LeBron James makes $42 million a year off endorsements. So how far can Paul take it? That's up to him."

George leaves the financial details to agent Aaron Mintz and a team of advisers who are aggressively trying to promote George as a prime-time pitchman.

It's working.

He spent part of last Thursday with Papa John's founder John Schnatter raising money for Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, perhaps a sign of what his next big business venture might be. Three weeks ago, George made a splashy debut on the national advertising scene with a nifty crossover move and a spectacular dunk fueled in part by the rushing onslaught of Gatorade.

Those inside and outside his inner circle believe this is just the start of a booming business for Paul George Inc., and that many more deals will soon be announced.

"We track every sport and are looking at who the up-and-coming talent is and making sure we have connections across the board, Paul was doing those things," said John Shea, senior director of Gatorade Sports Marketing. "When we sign athletes we're looking at the long-term prospects."

Finding major players in small markets is nothing new.

Brett Favre and Peyton Manning became the face of the NFL in the mid-1990s despite spending most of their careers in Green Bay and Indianapolis. Kevin Durant, one of the front-runners for this year's MVP award, has made a similar impact in the NBA even though he plays in Oklahoma City. And Reggie Miller, the biggest star in the Pacers' NBA history, became a popular national figure thanks to his annual battles with Michael Jordan, Spike Lee and the Knicks.

One reason for the blurring of the big-market, small-market lines is expanded television coverage, which has ensured all NBA stars can get a national showcase. Plus, the Internet has allowed everyone to more closely follow their favorite players wherever they are.

"Social media, digital media has really changed the game," Ungar said. "If you looked at when Reggie started to play, it was very early in the Internet market, and you really had to rely on big-market guys to sell products. Now through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Vine, players have the ability to take their message straight to the market. The question is whether you can make your message interesting."

Clearly, there is plenty to like about George.

He is still one of the last players off the court at practice and acknowledged that the Pacers' second-half struggles taught him how to look for shots in a different way.

There are also questions. Despite rumors about his relationship with a Miami-based exotic dancer and a report last month that George had been "catfished" into providing revealing photos of himself to a man who had posed as a woman on the Internet, George has tried to stay above the fray and emphatically denied both stories.

Could that hurt George's image with the public or with the businesses that might hire George to pitch products?

Ungar doesn't believe it will.

"When there are accusations involving physical violence, it's different than something embarrassing to the athlete and then it depends on whether it's true, it's not true," Ungar said. "I think Paul's charisma, his leadership on the court, all those things shine through."

But the biggest part of making this pitch is that George needs to keep winning and perhaps even bring home a championship to cement his status as the best emerging star in basketball.

"All eyes are on you in a small market, and when you're really the only show in town and you are the marquee player, the community looks to you," Miller said. "PG has had a coming out party this year, third in all-around votes, an All-Star starter and rightfully so. He should be in the top five in MVP voting, and he's one of the best two-way players in the game."

Poll

Should graduations return to the Grape Bowl?

Lodi Unified leaders are moving Lodi and Tokay high school graduations from the Grape Bowl to the Spanos Center at UOP in Stockton. They cite limited seating, costs and unpredictable weather at the Grape Bowl. But others say graduations at the Grape Bowl are an important Lodi tradition, and one reason many supported renovating the stadium. What do you think?

Total Votes: 33

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