While Team USA goes for the gold in the Beijing Olympics, we’re digging into the Dime archives for a closer look at the players who will make it happen. For the duration of the Games, we’ll be re-running some of our best Dime Magazine feature stories on DimeMag.com.
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Photos are splayed across a round table in the Hardwood Suite at the Palms hotel in Las Vegas. They are shots of Chris Paul, clad in a white-on-white suit, taken as part of a Jordan Brand ad campaign. In the shots, Chris stares intently back at the camera, eyes aglow, hot light bouncing off his suit coat.
One member of the crowd encircled around the pics cracks that it “looks like ‘CP Almighty.’” The group laughs, because of the obvious ethereal nature of the shots. The crowd eventually breaks up, each dispersing to do any one of a hundred things people do on commercial sets, but I am left wondering: jokes aside, as far as the NBA goes — and the current pro sports world in general right now — Chris Paul as sports’ guardian angel might not really be all that far off.
Think about what’s gone down in NBA circles this past summer: the Tim Donaghy scandal, the Eddy Curry and Antoine Walker Chicago home invasions, offcourt incidents involving Andray Blatche and DeShawn Stevenson, and right before this issue went to press, the tragic death of Eddie Griffin.
While the world’s greatest game will always win out in the end, and while none of the aforementioned events will ever really stop any hardcore basketball fan from watching, loving and playing the game, these blights have been, and will continue to be, seized upon by frenzied media looking to pounce on headlines and blowout stories about spoiled, rich, out-of-control athletes. The antidote? Chris Paul.
Paul hardly needs us to act as his public relations mouthpiece, but nonetheless, it’s hard to deny his All-American, mom-and-apple pie package; he’s easy to champion. Thoughtful in interviews, always exceedingly pleasant and cooperative, CP will tell you straight up that he’d be just as happy bowling — for which he has a passion that approaches his love of basketball — or at home watching “King of Queens” or “Entourage” as he would be hanging out at the club. He’s home in North Carolina as much as possible — in July he took an extended stay there to throw his parents a 25th anniversary party where he helped fly in 400 of his parents’ closet friends and family — and when recalling the first time he met Michael Jordan, he relays the story with a positive giddiness. He is deeply involved in charity work (his annual “Chris Paul Winston-Salem Weekend” includes a gala, a celebrity bowling tournament and of course, church services). Can you think of anyone better suited to be the face of New Orleans’ franchise?
On top of everything else, Chris Paul can play. His 17.3 points and 8.9 assists per game last season place him in the discussion of the NBA’s top two or three point guards, but his most important talent, the ability to dictate the flow of a game, is almost unmatched.
We caught up with Chris to talk about his place in the sports world, his team, and one of the most difficult summers of his life…
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Dime: For more than one reason, this has been a rough offseason for you. Almost immediately after the last game of the season, you had foot surgery; you’ve probably never gone more than a few days in a row without playing ball, right?
Chris Paul: Two days after the last game, I had surgery. They put a screw in my fifth metatarsal. That’s the hardest thing I ever had to do. I have never gone two or three months out of my life without playing basketball. I finally feel like I can put a little weight on it now, too, to tell you the truth. So now I am just working out, getting ready for the season. I could never do that again, though. I was just going crazy. I was watching the playoffs on TV while I was in a boot on crutches. I couldn’t even leave the house. I am happy that’s in the past.
Dime: How are you working your way to back to NBA shape and preparing for the season?
CP: I’m working out, but I am not doing the Team USA stuff. I am trying to get back in shape. It’s tough. I just keep talking to my doctor because sometimes I want to go full-speed, especially right after they said I could start jogging. I just wanted to start sprinting right away.
I’m able to do everything. I do a lot of toe raises and things like that. I pretty much lost my entire calf muscle in my left leg after surgery. I definitely make sure I do a lot of shooting and ball handling and stuff like that.
I think this season we have a lot of expectations for ourselves. I think I missed 18 games, Tyson Chandler missed a few, and Peja missed almost the whole season. I think if everyone remains healthy, the sky’s the limit. We feel like we let ourselves down; even though we missed so many games [with injuries] we missed the playoffs by two games.
Dime: MJ used to say that he would always try to add one piece to his game every offseason. Do you follow that school of thought or do you have a different approach?
CP: Honestly, I think until I go an entire season shooting 100 percent from the field, I can always work on my shooting. I’m working on my range. And definitely working on getting stronger – I have to get stronger. Being one of the undersized point guards in the NBA, when you come across the Chauncey Billups, Joe Johnsons and guys like that, they try to post you up a lot.
Dime: A lot of personal success has come to you over just a short period of time.
CP: Man, there’s a lot of things that keep me motivated to play. One of them is that I love to play. I don’t play for the money. I just can’t imagine doing any other thing than basketball. That’s why I play so hard, and just always, you know, trying to play like I have something to prove. Especially after my rookie year, I got every vote for Rookie of the Year except for one. That definitely motivated me going into my second year, just knowing that there are some out there that still don’t believe. Then going into next year I haven’t made the playoffs. And I think that’s what’s driving me.
Dime: I’ve heard you bring up the Rookie of the Year vote more than once over the past few years; it obviously bothers you. Do you know who cast that one non-CP vote?
CP: Yeah, I do, I know exactly who it was. It was a guy in Utah. [Editor’s note: Utah Jazz announcer Ron Boone cast the only first-place vote for Jazz PG Deron Williams.] I don’t think I have ever interacted with that guy, but if I saw him, I probably would say thanks. That was just motivation for me. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion.
Dime: By the end of last season, with his playoff run, it felt like a lot of the people who killed Utah for taking Deron ahead of you were now saying he was the better choice. Between that, the Rookie of the Year vote and the natural competition you guys have with each other, what kind of dynamic has that created between you and Deron?
CP: Me and D-Will are very good friends. We were just together yesterday. And to see what he did in the playoffs? I was sitting there, like, “Ooh wee!” It was unreal. We’re not blind to the fact that we’re always going to have a connection to each other. People always are going to try to put us against each other, but that’s the great thing about us, too. ’Cause while we are great friends off the court, on the court it’s a battle. Last year he took his team to the playoffs and didn’t stop and went to the Western Conference Finals.
Dime: More than most athletes, you have experienced personal loss in a very public fashion. The story of your tribute to your grandfather in high school has been well documented. And this summer, you suddenly lost (Wake Forest coach) Skip Prosser. How do you think these losses, especially Coach Prosser, have affected you and changed the way you look at life?
CP: Above all, it makes me appreciate life. My Granddad was someone who was really, really close to me, and Coach Prosser was, too. The craziest thing about the Coach Prosser situation was that … you know … I can’t believe he’s gone. Like right now it still doesn’t feel like he’s gone. There were times that went by where I didn’t talk to Coach, but I would know that coming up soon I would be getting a call from him. There are a lot of people you know for years and years, and it may not feel like the time is right, but that person will pass away. And you feel it. From the time I was in college to now, Coach Prosser has had the biggest impact on my life and I know I wouldn’t be in the situation that I am in now if he wouldn’t have given me a chance.
Dime: Right now the sports world is dealing with a lot of negative storylines — Tim Donaghy, Michael Vick, Pacman Jones, etc. Beyond Donaghy, the NBA is dealing with a lot of its own issues. You seem to be the natural antithesis of all those things. And on top of that, you play in New Orleans.
CP: I think the fact that I am playing in New Orleans is a blessing. Everything happens for a reason and there is a reason that God placed me in New Orleans. That’s a city that needs, you know, a lot of different things … and not just monetary things. It’s been years since the hurricane, but people still need to care and understand what’s going on.
As far as sports in general, you know I think there is a lot of stuff going on. We just have to keep getting out to the fans. There are more of us that truly love the game than who don’t. We do it for the right reasons. These are isolated events, things that are taking place. And at the end of the day we are all thankful for what we have, and we truly love doing what we do.
Dime: What do you see as your role in all of it?
CP: I think my role is to just help people understand that if they believe in something and themselves they can do anything. Look at me. I’m just a small 5-11, 6-0 regular guy who made it. I’ve had the opportunity to live some of my wildest dreams.