PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRIAN HIGBEE
It’s been a crazy week for Chris Paul. On Monday night, he and the Houston Rockets played a nationally televised Martin Luther King Jr. Day game in Los Angeles against the Clippers, the team for which Paul played six seasons before asking to be traded last summer. The Rockets lost, and a much-publicized postgame altercation—“the whole fiasco,” in Paul’s words—led to the suspension of two members of the team. Paul then arrived back in Houston only to see the city shut down for two days by a winter storm; he posed for his Rhapsody cover shoot at the Hotel Icon on Wednesday; and on Thursday night, the Rockets played an up-and-coming Minnesota Timberwolves team, again on national TV, this time collecting a 116-98 victory.
So you could understand the 32-year-old point guard being distracted and tired when he walks into a lounge at the Toyota Center for our interview. It’s early Friday morning, he’s just come from dropping off his 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter at school, and the next two days will be consumed with prep for yet another national TV game, this one on Saturday night against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, a team that has tormented Paul over the last three seasons and that Houston general manager Daryl Morey has said the Rockets are “obsessed” with beating.
But sitting on a couch in a black hoodie and beanie, munching on a plate of ribs and mac and cheese—a heavy breakfast, but he is from North Carolina—Paul seems anything but stressed. This is a man who’s used to being in control. At 6 feet nothing, he’s tiny by NBA standards (the rare basketball star who’s regular-human-size, though I’d need about five years in a weight room to get my upper body in the same shape as his), but he’s so masterful at handling the ball and the intricacies of an offense that he has made the All-Star team nine times in 13 seasons, played for two U.S. Olympic teams, and earned one of the NBA’s best nicknames: “the Point God.” Ask him about the whirlwind week, and he simply says, “I forget about all the different craziness and situations I’ve been a part of. It’s all part of it.”
As in control as Paul usually seems on the court, storms have often raged around him—sometimes literally. Less than two months after he was traded to Houston, just before Rockets training camp was supposed to start, Hurricane Harvey devastated the city. The scene was déjà vu for Paul: In 2005, he was drafted by the New Orleans Hornets, only to see Hurricane Katrina savage the Big Easy. He spent his first two NBA seasons playing for the displaced Hornets in Oklahoma City. Houston has bounced back much more quickly than New Orleans did, but Paul cautions not to assume the recovery is over.
“When the stuff happened in New Orleans, everybody was trying to figure out how they could help or be a part of the recovery,” he says. “The biggest thing that I noticed, especially when we moved back after those two years in Oklahoma, is how easily it becomes out of sight, out of mind. The thing that we keep reiterating here, because we live here and we’re part of this community, is that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Even though you don’t see it on CNN every day now, everything is not just back to normal.”
After Harvey, Paul put in hours working at the Houston Food Bank and appeared on a national telethon to raise funds for the recovery. Since then, he’s visited schools and handed out Christmas presents, maintaining a steady presence in the community—not an easy feat, given how much time NBA teams spend on the road. This comes as little surprise to anyone who knows Paul, one of the most civic-minded athletes in any sport. He started the Chris Paul Family Foundation, which partners with organizations such as Feed the Children and Make-A-Wish to support health, wellness, and education initiatives. Paul’s charitable work has earned him the NBA Cares Community Assist Award four times, and in 2016, ESPN named him Sports Humanitarian of the Year. Such off-court commitments are significant for an already time-strapped professional athlete, but Paul credits his altruistic streak to the tight-knit family that raised him in Lewisville, a small town near Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“I definitely attribute it to my upbringing and my parents and my late grandfather,” he says. “Growing up, we were always taught to be thankful for what we have and understand that objects and materialistic things don’t matter. It’s true love and affection and genuine support that people need. That just might be a Southern thing—whether it was in church and we’d bring in canned goods, or we’d bring in coats, or we’d go feed families at the soup kitchen. That was my home. So when I go to a new city, and we do things, it’s not because, yeah, we need to do that or we need to do that; it’s because we want to. We’re a part of this community, and this is our extended family.”
If Paul’s closeness with his family—he regularly talks to his grandmother after games; his brother, C.J., helps manage his business affairs; he’s been with his wife, Jada, since college—explains his philanthropic streak, it also offers some insight into his drive and passion on the court. Paul starred at West Forsyth High School in North Carolina, becoming a McDonald’s All-American and earning a scholarship to nearby Wake Forest University. Sitting next to him when he signed his letter of intent was his grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, who Paul has referred to as his best friend growing up. Jones, whom friends nicknamed “Papa Chili,” was the proprietor of what was then the only black-owned gas station in North Carolina, and as kids Paul and his brother both pumped gas there for tips. But shortly after Paul committed to Wake, the 61-year-old Jones was murdered by a group of teenagers in a robbery attempt. In his next game, Paul set a goal of scoring 61 points to honor his grandfather. He reached that mark late in the fourth quarter on a layup, and he was fouled on the play. Although he was just six points short of the state record, Paul intentionally airballed the free throw and walked straight off the court, into the arms of his father.
“That’ll probably always be the coolest thing that I ever did,” Paul says now. “A lot of it has to do with the fact it was for my grandfather, but the other thing is, all my family was there—my granddad’s funeral was the day before. That was something I’ll never forget.”
Most players who make the McDonald’s All-America team and are capable of dropping 60-plus in a game would have their NBA dreams front and center, but Paul insists that wasn’t the case for him. “When I went to college, I didn’t know I was going to the NBA,” he says. “I went to Wake Forest because it was a good academic school and would look good on a résumé when I was done. I wasn’t even supposed to start my freshman year. Wake Forest had won the ACC Championship my senior year in high school, and they had a point guard and a shooting guard already.”
A fortuitous—for Paul, anyway—circumstance landed him playing time sooner than anticipated. Just before Wake’s season opener, in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York, starting point guard Taron Downey had to have an appendectomy.
“We played at Madison Square Garden, against Memphis, point guard named … Burks, Antonio Burks,” Paul says, laughing at the memory. “He was a senior; I was a freshman. We won. The rest is history. Now I’m here, and I’m so grateful and thankful, but I always say, what if that wouldn’t have happened?”
Here’s what did happen: The Sporting News named Paul Freshman of the Year, and as a sophomore, he was named a first-team All-American. He declared for the NBA draft that spring, and New Orleans selected him fourth overall.
Paul’s NBA career got off to an auspicious start, despite the tumult of Katrina. He was named NBA Rookie of the Year in 2006 and made his first All-Star team after his third season. By the time he was traded to the Clippers in 2011, he was widely considered the best pure point guard in the league.
The move to LA was filled with promise. Paul had asked for a trade from New Orleans in order to join a team with a better supporting cast, and the Clippers already had a budding superstar forward, Blake Griffin, and a future All-Star center, DeAndre Jordan. The prospect of Paul throwing highlight-reel alley-oops to those high flyers set the NBA hype machine into full motion: “Lob City” was born. Expectations only rose in 2013, when former NBA champion coach Doc Rivers took over the team.
This is when things began to go ever-so-slightly awry, when the Point God suddenly began to appear less than omnipotent. In the pivotal fifth game of the Clippers’ 2014 second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul committed a pair of uncharacteristic turnovers in the final minute of the fourth quarter, costing his team the game and, ultimately, the series. The following year, the Clippers held a 3-2 series lead over Houston and a 19-point second-half lead at home in Game 6—only to collapse and lose. In 2016, the Clippers led their first-round series against Portland until Paul broke his hand on a freak play and the team folded.
Amid all the playoff disappointment, the mood around the Clippers soured. There were rumors of locker room discord, and many fans and even players and coaches around the league seemed to tire of a team they took for dramatic, whiny, and entitled—given that neither the Clippers nor their star point guard had ever made it to the Conference Finals. As Paul entered his 30s, there was no question he would one day be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but would he join the list of greats—Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing—never to win a ring?
“That’s not something I think about all day, every day,” Paul claims with a shrug. “For me, it’s about staying in the moment. If you’re dwelling on that all the time, you just set yourself up for failure.”
Still, Paul had clearly tired of the environment in LA. So with the prime years of his career possibly beginning to slip away, the Point God took control, telling the Clippers he would opt out of his contract and sign with the Rockets, the team best positioned to challenge the dynastic Warriors, if he wasn’t traded to Houston first.
“I have different friends around the league, so you know what [people think] about your team,” Paul says. “But thankfully, that’s in the past. I could’ve stayed there, but it was time.”
Even as his career has seen ups and downs, Paul has shown his signature decision-making savvy off the court. He entered into high-profile endorsement deals with, among others, State Farm and Nike’s Jordan Brand (according to Forbes, he was the 35th highest-paid athlete in the world last year), and in 2013, he was elected president of the National Basketball Players Association. Under his leadership, the players’ union has taken several major steps forward. In the summer of 2016, the NBPA’s player representatives voted to provide health insurance for all retired players with at least three years of service—the first such arrangement in North American sports.
“I’ll never forget how our players came together and we implemented health care for retired players,” Paul says. “As I look back on it, once again, I’m so fortunate to be in this position—to have been able to learn. I’ve had an opportunity to basically do an accelerated business course.”
Then, a few months later, the union was able to come to terms with league owners on a collective bargaining agreement that could lead to the longest stretch of peaceful labor relations in decades.
“Chris was the leader,” NBPA executive director Michele Roberts says of the CBA negotiations, “and I was astounded at how accessible he was. Anytime ownership was involved, he was at all those meetings. He was thoroughly familiar with all the issues, and he made decisions. I consider myself blessed to have this guy as my president, because he gets it.”
It should come as little surprise that a player who’s been such an off-the-court leader has also found himself in the middle of the national political conversation more than once. In 2014, an audio recording surfaced of Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks, and Paul raised the possibility of a boycott, saying it was “unacceptable” for Sterling to remain owner. (The NBA banned Sterling for life and forced him to sell the team to former Microsoft exec Steve Ballmer.) And last fall, when Stephen Curry of the champion Warriors said he wouldn’t attend the championship team’s traditional White House visit, and, in response, Donald Trump rescinded an invitation he had yet to actually extend, Paul tweeted, “With everything that’s going on in our country, why are YOU focused on who’s kneeling and visiting the White House??? #StayInYoLane.” The tweet got more than 150,000 likes.
“I have an 8-year-old son who is pretty aware of things going on around him,” Paul says. “And whether it’s social injustice, whether it’s different things that the president says or whatnot—like, I am 32 years old, and I know how I can dissect and judge what I believe and what I don’t or what I feel is right and wrong, but sometimes you get so busy as a parent, you’re like, Man, are my kids seeing this? What are they thinking?”
Of all his off-court endeavors, parenthood is the one Paul takes most seriously. “Usually, whenever you hear people, especially professional athletes, talk about somebody, who do they talk about?” he asks. “Their mom, right? My mom is an unbelievable woman, but the coolest part for me is to have my dad. And I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I think the toughest part [of moving to Houston] for me is ‘Dad.’ To a certain extent, I feel like I haven’t really had an opportunity to be Dad like I want to.”
Travel and schedule issues aside, being a father as an NBA superstar also means dealing with the possibility that his kids may hear about events before he has a chance to talk to them—as was the case with the MLK Day incident between the Clippers and the Rockets. (It was initially reported that Paul was an instigator in the near brawl, before a league investigation concluded that he had actually played the role of peacemaker.)
“I was getting ready in the locker room before the [Minnesota] game, and I was on FaceTime with my son,” Paul says. “And he was like, ‘I hope y’all win. Uncle Trevor [Ariza, one of the suspended Rockets] not playing, right?’ And I was like, ‘How you know Uncle Trevor ain’t playing? What else did you hear?’ He said he was watching TV and saw it go across the bottom that Uncle Trevor was gonna be out for two games. When I get home today, I’ll probably talk to him about it.”
Family and basketball. Basketball and family. Even if Paul tried to separate the two, they would be irrevocably intertwined. In Chris Paul’s Chapter 3, a documentary he produced last year about his decision to go to Houston, he admitted that if his only concern were his family, he would have stayed in LA. But he needed the competitive opportunity that the Rockets offered—and the Rockets needed him. The Warriors—NBA champions in two of the last three seasons and winners of a league-record 73 games in 2015–16—have left much of the league paralyzed, but Houston GM Morey’s response to their dominance, as he told ESPN’s Zach Lowe, was to “up our risk profile and get even more aggressive.”
Hence, the acquisition of Paul, which has certainly worked out so far. The Rockets ran out to a 25-4 start on the back of a 14-game winning streak; at the end of January, the team had the second-best record in the league, 36-13, behind only the Warriors. This is despite both Paul and fellow superstar guard James Harden missing time with injuries.
“When we got our whole crew, I like our chances,” Paul says. “Over the course of the season, you have your ups, your downs; we obviously rode a nice little wave when we went on that winning streak, but that can be fool’s gold.”
In the week following MLK Day, Paul drove home hopes that his team is more than just pyrite. The recaps of Thursday night’s game against Minnesota—an exciting young team that came in with a 29-17 record—touted Rockets sixth man Eric Gordon’s 30 points, but it was a really a stretch in the final three minutes of the first half during which Paul took over that made the difference. He knocked down two free throws, a short jumper, and two three-pointers, assisted on a Gordon three, and throttled the Wolves’ point guards on defense. A three-point Rockets lead ballooned to 13, and Minnesota was never really in the game again.
“I don’t want to be too syrupy, but he’s the ultimate professional basketball player,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni says of Paul. “In the locker room, he’s talking basketball, trying to figure out ways to get better, but always in a positive way, always in a smart way, and he’s an ultimate leader.”
On Saturday, the day after our interview, Paul led the way against the Warriors, collecting 33 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists in a 116-108 Rockets victory that gave them the season series 2-1 and cemented the widely held opinion around the league that Houston is the only team that can challenge Golden State.
But, what if the Rockets can’t take down the Warriors? What if Paul exits his prime, and his career, ringless? The Point God will always be a part of the NBA pantheon, but has he thought about what happens when he begins to lose his powers?
“It ain’t at that point yet,” he says, dismissively waving a hand in the air in front of him. “I’m not just a basketball player. I have different things I’m into—I have an AAU program, I have a family, last year I was taking piano lessons—but I can’t even fathom not playing. I don’t care how much business I have set up or what opportunities I have off the court—when I’m done playing, I’m gonna have a hard time. Don’t nobody love to hoop more than I do. It ain’t nothing like hooping.”