Humble Chris Gives Back
SLAM caught up with Chris Paul in London.
by Matt Ogborn / @mattogborn
“What did you get up to today?” said my girlfriend Kate last night.
“Oh, you know, the usual. Shot a few hoops with an NBA superstar this morning, then chatted with his girlfriend a bit before discussing basketball 1-on-1 with him for a while.”
It’s not the usual, folks. Very far from it. When I got an email on Tuesday afternoon saying Chris Paul was in London, there was only one place I was going to be the next morning — Lilian Baylis school in Kennington where the New Orleans Hornet was helping coaches put kids through various drills before rededicating the Jordan Legacy Court next door.
We’ve seen the likes of Michael Jordan, LeBron and our home-grown star Luol Deng jet in to the capital for sponsored events or NBA friendly games, but this felt different somehow.
Like basketball had finally arrived in my country, after three decades of awkward flirting.
I should know. I grew up in the mid-to-late ‘80s idolizing Scottie Pippen, Dominique, Spud and the Pistons, practicing my moves on one of the few hardcourts in my area. I was lucky. I had a coach at school who was ahead of his time and an Australian cousin who played for Kingston, the big team of that era. God, their arena rocked on game nights back then.
So when the British league failed to rocket in to the stratosphere like my friends and I thought it would, we went back to kicking footballs and chasing girls. I still kept an eye on the Stateside scene, nailing my colors to the San Antonio mast when David Robinson was filling out his Admiral kit and, before, an unassuming lad from the US Virgin Islands sloped in to town to help a Texan underachiever hoover up rings left, right and centre.
It finally took a Sudanese refugee with a huge smile and lion’s heart to stir us all out of our slumber back on British shores, dynamic Deng showing the kids that anything is possible.
And so it is that I traveled in the sweltering summer heat to a groundbreaking school that has turned thousands of young lives around for the better to see a new breed of American player spread the NBA gospel and maybe galvanize a new generation to reach bold new heights.
Any notion that Nike and Brand Jordan were going to dominate this informal get-together was dispelled within seconds of Chris entering the court. He was all smiles for the media and all action for the kids. With his girlfriend Jada watching son Chris Paul II toddle around, the Olympic gold medalist hustled with wide-eyed kids and even got beat 1-on-1 by a slip of a lad who barely reached his waistband. The fact he took it in good humor, after the cheers and teasing subsided, endeared us to him even more. When I grabbed a ball a few minutes later to shake the dust off my jumper, he appeared by my side. I told him he still had it when his effort caught nuthin’ but net, while mine rimmed out in to no man’s land. He smiled that smile again and I rolled back the years to nail the next one. You see, it was that kind of day.
After 10 local youngsters were raucously honored for their positive stories in the four years the free court has been in operation, it was my time to sit down with Chris under the watchful gaze of his loved ones and PR people. I’m not going to lie, it was intimidating, especially after another journo had rocked the boat with a series of trade questions right off the bat.
Kudos to Chris, though, for putting me completely at ease. I explained a bit about my bball background and the failure-to-launch story of British hoops before we discussed the brilliant work the coaches were doing at Lilian Baylis. He enthused, “Seeing the kids and how hard they were working, it’s exciting. To me, it looks like it had been like that for a long time, but I guess from what you’re saying it’s really starting to pop. Those kids, they are learning the fundamentals and now they just have to take it to the next level. You guys may not have had the opportunity of YouTube, and all those different things, and I didn’t have it either, but these kids they know the moves and everything that it takes. So now, when they get these instructions and everything like that, it’s up to them to go out there and put in the hard work.”
One thing that has proved a massive fillip for young British kids is the prospect of a US college career now they have the talent spotters out in force this side of the Atlantic. Deng profited from it and there were a few strapping guys downstairs, who were currently mixing study hall with sports hall on the other side of the pond too. Chris claimed, “I’m 25. To the older guys in the NBA, it probably seems very strange to see all these international players. Since I stepped foot in the NBA, out of the top 25 players, maybe 10 are European players and that’s how it’s always been for me. I played in a high school All-American Game and Luol was there, so I have been exposed to that my entire career.”
Moving on to Luol and Ben Gordon, I got the sense Chris was bang up for the London 2012 Olympics when Team USA blaze in to town to take on Great Britain and the other contenders. He was also quick to give props to friends like Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, when I asked him how important it was for the top players to keep each other on their toes. He revealed, “Oh, yeah. Always. We’re around each other a lot, all the time during the summer. Even though we are all friends, we are competitors. So I’m happy for Kobe that he won a championship. We all want to win, we all want that. To a certain extent, we are all jealous of that.”
Some players get way too comfortable with the trappings of fame when they reach the top. Not Chris Paul. He’s got fire in his belly and championship rings in his mind’s eye. He wants to put last season’s injury problems and Hornets slump behind him, once he’s helped Team USA to gold in Turkey of course. That’s a role model these kids need, not the gun-toting, vice-fuelled brats masquerading as concerned citizens we often get served up. Once I wrapped up the interview and said my goodbyes to Team Paul, I took time out to chat again with one of the coaches Junior Williams. He agreed that Chris’ visit will help inspire these kids, just like Scottie and co helped inspire us back in the day. You can’t say fairer than that.
Matt Ogborn is a freelance British sports journalist and film/TV screenwriter who supports San Antonio Spurs and loves the game of basketball, period. He can reached at email@example.com or @mattogborn.