by Colin Powers
At some point in the winter of ‘02-03, my buddy AO down in DC told me he witnessed this diminutive blur of a guard bang one on Georgetown Prep’s 7-footer Roy Hibbert at a Christmas-time high school tournament, but the first time I actually saw Chris Paul play was at the McDonald’s All-American game that spring (CP and LeBron ballin’ together). As a devotee of ACC basketball (especially the Jay Williams era, that’s my guy), I could not wait for the next season of college hoops. The conference was in the midst of a historic tour de force at the Point Guard position with the collision of Jarret Jack, John Gilchrist, Raymond Felton, Chris Duhon, and the much heralded newcomer Chris Paul delivering superlative performances night in and night out. Despite being surrounded by this exceptional guild of PGs, CP ascended above the rest and asserted himself as a generational talent from day one.
I had never witnessed someone play at the speeds he pushed while maintaining such equanimity and control over all the action around him. He had that vision and feel that made everything seem like it was moving in slow motion around him. Later, when he made the transition to the NBA after his sophomore year, Paul was still completely undisturbed by the breed of athlete he encountered, athletes that makes the League one of the finest and most impressive spectacles in all of sports. It’s commonly understood that the jump from amateur ranks to the Pros is most difficult for PGs because of the combination of mental and physical demands unique to the position. Chris was the anomaly to that paradigm, though, and his play as a rookie is regarded by John Hollinger’s analytics as one of the best four seasons in history for a first year guard (the two MJs and Oscar Robertson being his peers).
Since then, with a few injuries mixed in, CP3 has continued his ascension and now stands on firm footing amongst the truly elite players in the world. After an arduous battle to recover from meniscus surgery on his left knee, Paul rejoined his Hornets teammates this past week in hopes of building a foundation and a chemistry that will catapult the team back into contention next season. He has also recently been working on a project with long-time partner Powerade and the McDonald’s All-American Game, which begin their annual festivities next Monday, March 29th with the Powerade Jam Fest. As you may recall, CP and Derrick Rose served on a panel which selected the best fan dunk submitted to an online contest. The winner of that contest will sit alongside some hoops royalty and act as a judge at the aforementioned Powerade Jam Fest, the dunk contest featuring the best of the McDonald’s All-Americans. I caught up with Chris this morning to talk about his own experiences as a participant at the McD’s Game, his work with Powerade, and his basketball future in general.
Chris Paul: I’ve been working with Powerade now for a while. And this Powerade Jam Fest, I’m excited about it. It’s going to be a great competition, and I actually had the chance to be a part of it back when I was in high school, and I remember how tight that was. I had my video camera out on the court, and I actually still have that video at home.
SLAM: What do you remember most about your experience at the McDonald’s All-American game?
CP: One of the things I remember the most about my McDonald’s experience was going to the Ronald McDonald House and stuff like that. I went to the Ronald McDonald House and had the opportunity to see a few needy kids and different things like that. And having the experience with all those guys. Just being one of the top players in the country, and being there with all those guys, is something I’ll never forget.
SLAM: Not to make you feel old, but I would bet a lot of the guards in the upcoming game probably grew up watching you, modeling their game on yours, etc. How does that make you feel?
CP: That’s crazy to even hear you say that [laughs]. I played in the game in ’03, you know, so it’s just a huge honor but it’s crazy because when I played in the game, I remember when I was a kid watching guys like Vince Carter and all the other guys playing, so I guess it’s similar to that for the kids that are going to be in it this year. The biggest thing I would tell them is just to cherish it, have fun, but most of all, just respect the game.
SLAM: Who did you grow up admiring on the basketball court?
CP: I was a huge Michael Jordan fan, huge Michael Jordan fan.
SLAM: How’s the knee? What’s the toughest thing about coming back from a long lay-off from injury?
CP: The knee’s getting a lot better. The toughest thing when you’re coming back from an injury over a long period of time is finding your rhythm, you know. It’s one thing to work out and shoot and play one-on-one with coaches and your friends, but it’s totally different thing when you get back out there on the court and it’s five on five.
SLAM: How good do you think this Hornets team can be as presently constituted? What areas do you need to address via the draft of free agency to get better for next season?
CP: I think the sky’s the limit with our team. We have everyone that are very capable of doing all the things a team needs to win a championship. You know, we have scorers and different things like that. We have a great scorer in David West, but I think the biggest thing that we have to do is get better defensively. We have to get a lot better defensively because until we do that, we’ll struggle.
SLAM: Are you still hoping to play with Team USA in Turkey this summer?
CP: Definitely gotta see how my body’s feeling, but there’s nothing like playing for the USA team. So hopefully I can get everything back to normal and I can be ready to go.
SLAM: It seems like a very close-knit group of guys on the team. Can you describe that, how quickly you all came together?
CP: We came together really quickly, most of us knew each other really well already. You know, I think the process of being a part for three years, understanding what it’s all about. We understood it was bigger than any one of us. It was all for the United States, and it felt great to bring home the gold.
SLAM: I’m sure you hear this enough, but a lot of talk these days about whether you and Darren Collison can partner together. What do you think, and how do you think it could work out on the court?
CP: We’re gonna be just fine. I think that it makes it easier on both of us when we can play together. Teams can’t pressure us so it gives me an opportunity to attack from a different angle. I don’t have to have the ball in my hands all the time.
SLAM: Last question…who’s the toughest matchup in the League for you right now?
CP: Man I don’t know, I’ve been out of the League so long now, I don’t know [laughs]. There’s too many different guys. At the point guard position, you’ve got your hands full on a nightly basis. Aaron Brooks, Steve Nash, Tony Parker, DWill, Baron Davis, I could go on and on.