SLAMonline Top 50: Chris Paul, no. 5

by October 23, 2008
35

by Lang Whitaker

“It’s easy to watch Chris Paul play and analyze the basketball gifts that make him so good — his understanding of the game, his vision, his ability to drive and knock down jumpers — but the most SLAMonline Top 50: Chris Paul, no. 5important facet of his basketball skill is his ability to remain focused and be a leader, one of those unspoken things that just can’t be taught.”

I wrote that paragraph in the summer of 2006, not long after Chris Paul was named the NBA Rookie of the Year. And it remains true today.

Chris Paul finished last season averaging 21.1 points per game, a career high. He led the NBA with an average of 11.6 assists per game, also a career high. He averaged 2.7 steals per game, which led the NBA and was a career high. His team, the New Orleans Hornets, finished a surprising 56-26. And he just recently turned 23 years old.

We’ve got him ranked fifth here on our list of the Top 50 players in the NBA, which if anything might be too low. I’ve seen a lot of people compare Chris to Isiah Thomas, which is right in terms of stature and heart, but I find Chris a more complete offensive player than Zeke, who was more of a scorer at heart.

Another difference between Isiah and Chris is that everybody actually likes Chris, both opposing players and even fans of opposing teams. Wifey doesn’t watch sports at all, but she happened to be next to me on the couch a few months ago when I was watching Chris Paul on a late night show, and even she commented on how likeable he seemed. And one of the things that I find so remarkable about Chris is that he never gets trouble. Never a speeding ticket, a baby mama, a fight in a club…nothing. Chris gets it. He stays quiet off the court, and makes mad noise on the floor.

Anyway, two years ago I wrote this story about Chris Paul for SLAM 102, Chris’s first SLAM cover story. We’d done two stories previously on Chris in SLAM, and they both talked a lot about his 61 game for his grandfather. That’s a helluva story, but I wanted to focus more on Chris’s total story, where he came from and where he was going.

I think what I wrote then still tells the Chris Paul story pretty well today…

Family Guy
by Lang Whitaker

“Paint it! Paint it!”

It’s somewhere ‘round midnight in Sin City, down deep inside the Wynn Las Vegas casino. C.J. Paul and his father, Charles, are planted at a $15 minimum blackjack table, pressing their luck. They aren’t betting big money, just enough to have a little fun. Whenever a face card is dealt, cries of “Paint it!” are barked into the desert air by C.J., willing the dealer to turn over another face card or, Lord willing, even an ace.

Behind them, Robin Paul, C.J.’s mother and Charles’s wife, is halfheartedly paying attention, more interested in talking to Carmelo Anthony’s mom, Mary. “She’s going to talk her into to coming to Japan with us,” C.J. says, his eyes focused on the cards, his ears overhearing their conversation. “Watch her, just watch her.”

It’s the end of July, and USA Basketball’s Men’s Senior National Team has gathered in Vegas for training camp before decamping to Asia for the World Championships. During the day, Coach K runs practices; in the evenings, the entire team and their assorted entourages — parents, siblings, buddies, wifeys — chill together.

C.J. and Charles oscillate between up and down, and when a new dealer comes in and puts the smackdown on the entire table, Charles, who at 45 still looks young enough to be C.J.’s brother, gets up and leaves in disgust, giving C.J. a pat on the shoulder.

Chris Paul, the starting Team USA point guard and the reason the entire Paul family came out to Vegas to begin with, wanders around the casino with a buddy, some kid named LeBron James. They stroll up behind a blackjack table where an older man is sitting alone, betting $10,000 per hand. Chris and Bron are each millionaires, of course, but even they aren’t going to throw money directly into Steve Wynn’s pockets like this.

The man senses the two Dream Teamers behind him and glances over his shoulder. “Hey,” he says to Chris, “aren’t you a basketball player?”

“Yes, sir,” Chris says. He doesn’t mention that two months ago he was named the NBA Rookie of the Year, or that he won the Western Conference Rookie of the Month every month last season, or that he averaged 16.1 points and 7.8 assists per game, in the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets starting lineup from day one. Just, “Yes, sir.”

The man points to a deck of cards on the green felt table and turns around to Chris. “Why don’t you cut these for me, then?” Chris grabs the plastic marker and randomly jabs it in the stack, somewhere near the middle.

The dealer takes the cards, gives them a shuffle and deals the man his hand: ten, ace. Blackjack.

Hey, when you’re hot, you’re hot.

=-=-=-=-=-

It was thirty-something years ago, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, right along Interstate 40, which is better known as Tobacco Road. Two kids, a girl named Robin and boy named Charles, met at church one Sunday. Their parents were all good friends, and the next thing you know, Charles and Robin grow up, start dating and eventually get married. They settle just outside Winston-Salem in a hamlet called Lewisville (pop. 8,826), the kind of old-school town where they show movies outdoors under the stars on balmy summer evenings in Shallowford Square, or where you can easily imagine a bumbling-but-loveable deputy named Barney or Enos having a long and prosperous career.

Charles took a job with AT&T, and he and Robin set about raising a family. “I didn’t play basketball in high school,” Charles recalls, “but I always played.” Charles loved basketball, and when their first son, C.J., was born, Charles named his summer league basketball team “C.J.’s Jocks.” Two years later, when Chris was born, the team name became “Chris’s Crushers.”

Charles and Robin assembled a goal in the basement, and the boys started hooping it up. As the boys grew older, C.J. made varsity at West Forsyth High School, and had a solid career before graduating in ’01 and going off to play ball at the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg. Chris was a baller, too, but early on he was too small to have much impact. “Chris was about 5-6, 5-7 his freshman and sophomore years of high school,” says C.J. “He was always feisty and competitive, so I thought if he grew, he could be good.”

Chris showed up for his junior year a relatively towering six feet tall, and by the time he graduated he was Carolina’s Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American. He enrolled up the road at Wake Forest — Chris says Coach K never really recruited him over at Duke — and finished his freshman campaign as the ACC Rookie of the Year. One season later, after being named first-team All-American — and excepting a brief incident between Chris’s hand and Julius Hodge’s crotch which illustrated that feistiness– the SI cover screaming “St. Paul” might have been about right.

Once Wake’s season ended, Chris announced he was leaving for the NBA. “If Chris Paul never scored a basket at Wake Forest,” said Wake coach Skip Prosser, “never made an assist, or played a minute of basketball, our school would be a better place for him having gone to school here. I certainly feel that is the case.”

=-=-=-=-=-

“It’s the best job in the world,” Chris Paul says. “I get to do something that I’d do for free, every day. If I wasn’t in the NBA I’d play basketball anyway every day. So why not get paid for it?”

It’s a Thursday afternoon in Vegas, and Chris is in transit. He sits in the back of a rental car that’s nosing through midday traffic on The Strip. Team USA has just finished their shootaround, and in a few hours they’ll take on Puerto Rico in their first official exhibition game as the Redeem Team. Chris’s brown eyes point out the window and watch steam rise from the asphalt following a surprising afternoon downpour.

One year ago at this time, Chris was studying videotapes that coach Byron Scott and the Hornets asked him to delve into, and he was starting to understand the power of expectations, before he’d even played an NBA minute.

“Oh, I did it on purpose,” Byron Scott says with a laugh, when reminded of how he announced CP3 was going to win the Rookie Of The Year award before the season even started. “I knew his personality and knew how much he loves to be challenged. Then when he actually won it he made me look like a prophet. He looked like a veteran the first week we had him. It was a little bit of a gamble for me to announce that, but I knew he could respond.”

Chris says he immediately felt comfortable with the Hornets’ offense because of its similarities to the Demon Deacons’ playbook. “It’s not exactly the same as Wake Forest, but we do a lot of pick-and-rolls. It opens the court a lot.”

“I don’t think our offense is particularly easy for a point guard to pick up on,” Scott notes. “It’s basically the Princeton offense, and it takes a special type of point guard. When Chris came to summer league, we’d already given him a big playbook and he knew almost half the plays, so he looked comfortable. We were amazed that he had such a good grasp of the offense, both what to do and what not to do.”

Many NBA watchers attributed Chris’s instant regular season success to his speed and quickness. “I feel like I’m not overly fast,” Chris disagrees. “I’m not as fast as a lot of the guards in the League. I know I’m not as fast as a guy like TJ Ford, Tony Parker, those guys. Them guys are unbelievably fast. What I try to do is just keep guys off-balance, have them not knowing what I do next. I just try to do a great job of changing pace, going from fast to slowing down to speeding back up again. I feel like that’s when I’m most effective.”

Though he racked up individual accolades, any discussion with Chris about the Hornets quickly turns to the Playoffs, and Chris’s hopes for the Hornets get there this season. They finished last season 38-44, but that was only after a late-season swoon left them two slots out of playoff contention.

“Last year when we came into games, teams would look down us like, Aw, that’s the Hornets. Teams know they can’t do that anymore — no way can they do that this upcoming season. They know that we’re going to play hard every game. We have talented guys and we can play with any team in the League. So, I think it’ll be great motivation going into training camp, with the new guys understanding where we’re trying to take this team. Anything short of the playoffs this year and our season will be a disappointment.”

The new Hornets include Peja Stojakovic, Bobby Jackson, Tyson Chandler, Hilton Armstrong and Cedric Simmons. But the key returnee is likely to be Byron Scott, who seems to have a genuine connection to his point god.

“One moment I knew when CP was special was when he came up to get the Rookie of the Year award,” recalls Scott. “The day before the ceremony I’d him a napkin with some numbers and goals for CP for the next season. Knowing him like I do, I knew he would take it seriously, The next day he was receiving the award, I made a little speech and asked if he had memorized the paper, and he had not only read it but he pulled it out of his pocket — he had it with him.”

=-=-=-=-=-

It’s one week after Vegas, and Chris and the USA Men’s Team are in China and Korea, playing a slate of scrimmages before the World Championships get underway. Chris quickly established himself as the on-court leader of Team USA, from developing a salute-inflected high-five with LeBron to logging major minutes in their world tour. Days into their practice sessions, Coach K called him Team USA’s “truest” point guard, and Chris and Kirk Hinrich quickly locked up all the point guard minutes.

It’s easy to watch Chris Paul play and analyze the basketball gifts that make him so good — his understanding of the game, his vision, his ability to drive and knock down jumpers — but the most important facet of his basketball skill is his ability to remain focused and be a leader, one of those unspoken things that just can’t be taught.

While many thought Chris was going to be drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, perhaps it was divine intervention that slipped him to the Draft’s 4 spot and placed him in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina completely destroyed the city just weeks before the season was to start. Chris stepped up and became the franchise’s best player, providing hope to an entire region while entertaining two cities full of fans.

His brother C.J. was by his side the entire season, acting as Chris’s manager, confidant and friend. “I think he handled it like he was a vet,” C.J. assesses. “They talk about that rookie slump, but he never really hit a rookie wall. He got his rest, he ate what he was supposed to. The travel was hard, but the playing never got to him.”

Chris hired C.J. on the advice of LeBron, who counseled him to surround himself with people he trusted. His parents also made frequent trips down from Winston-Salem, both to see their boys and to remain active in their lives. “Family is just something that’s important to me,” Robin Paul says. “We were raised that way, that’s the way we were raised our kids.”

“I love that his family is always around him,” says Scott. “His mother and father are terrific people. After ten minutes of conversating with them, I knew exactly why he had the values he does. They keep him well-grounded and keep him humble. You meet the mother and father, you know he’s always going to be grounded.” (“I think Coach Scott was just glad to speak to someone who loves basketball as much as he does,” Charles Paul remembers of meeting Byron Scott.)

“I like having my family around because they’ve been there from the beginning,” admits Chris. “I know no matter how I play, good or bad, family is always going to be there. You have people who are gonna support you when you do well, and then when you have a bad night they’re gonna act like they don’t know you. Family is always going to be there. And who else, other than my family, to enjoy it with? There’d be no point to be in the NBA and experience the different adventures and stuff like that by yourself. You gotta have somebody else to enjoy it with.”

C.J. is already in Chris’s ear about improving his three-point shot for next season, and Robin and Charles recently bought Hornets season tickets. They’ve also helped out with Chris’ CP3 Foundation, which recently refurbished a court in Winston-Salem and re-named it after Chris’s late grandfather. Later this summer, Winston-Salem and the Paul’s will host a celebrity weekend, which will include a Community Youth Forum, bowling tournament and end with a church service.

“After Chris’s freshman year, I just knew both of my boys would be able to go college and get their degrees by playing basketball,” Charles Paul says. “Everything since then, well, it’s just been amazing, it’s been a blessing, I’m around something I’ve loved doing all along. But I never expected it to end up this way.”

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