Chris Paul, Clippers Quarterback
Commissioned for LA Weekly’s annual People Issue but unprinted due to issues in production. (Last year I wrote about Li Fellers.) Chris Paul is a professional basketball player. He runs the floor and loves talking about how he does it, and he’s candid and insightful without being gossipy. Like a company man he demurs politely when asked about business. I’d be surprised if he leaves LA — he likes hosting family at his big house and his son’s Montessori school.
We met after a home game evisceration of the Bucks and later talked on folding chairs at the team’s practice facility with his press dude hovering close by. I was struck by level of access and intimacy granted to NBA beat reporters but also by this complicit understanding that they stick to this boring and digestible script. After the game reporters queued up by the locker room and were ushered in to show different Clippers just-uploaded videos of their own slam dunks and ask to rank them. In the press room next door they asked players to reflect on a one-line stat sheet — Cambria, size 12, plain white office paper — handed to everyone in the room. (Look out for this time next time you watch a post-game press conference and guys answer questions by looking down at the table and reciting stats.) No wonder most athletes sound like idiots.
Unfortunately for sports fans these are really terrific, funny environments — professional athletes unwinding or getting ready to perform for 15 thousand fans. I’d like to see more reporters talking about the on-the-rise second-stringer who stuffs his face with chocolate mints before the game, or the veteran who drapes enormous heat pads on his thighs and plays with an unreleased smartphone, or even try the packaged, cafeteria-style meals handed out before the team charter. (Chicken cacciatore.) I think Chris Paul gets that.
Spotlights have a way of erasing your surroundings. The intensity blinds you, turns whatever’s not right in front of you to black. When Chris Paul was named the Most Valuable Player of this year’s NBA All-Star Game, he accepted the award with his four-year-old son at his side.
“I’m not who I am without my family,” says Paul, 27. Lots of professional athletes say things like that. Paul, the starting point guard and undisputed leader of an invigorated Los Angeles Clippers franchise, means it.
Seated on a folding chair at the team’s practice court in Playa Vista, the sounds of skidding sneakers and thumping basketballs filling the room, Paul explains his game day routine to a reporter. Normally, this is when he’d pick up his son, nicknamed Lil’ Chris, from school in Santa Monica, on his way home to Bel Air for lunch. But this is an off day. So the architect of Lob City — the swaggering team nickname coined upon Paul’s arrival in L.A. during last season’s lockout — and his son are playing putt-putt.
At a shade over six feet, Paul isn’t physically intimidating. His father taught him to play basketball more like a quarterback calling plays in football. He controls the floor — directing movement through shouts and gesticulations, dishing passes through unexpected holes, and of course, setting up outrageous, emphatic slam dunks that are more like touchdowns than two-point buckets. Before home games, while his teammates ham up for fans during the starting lineup, he scopes the referees and susses out his opponents for signs of low energy.
“I’ve always tried to play as unselfishly as possible,” says Paul. “My big thing is, make sure everybody gets the ball.”
When Paul was traded from New Orleans, his original destination was the Lakers, where he’d be the set-up guy for a superstar who plays as selfishly as possible. The trade was infamously scuttled for “basketball reasons” and Paul agreed to join a team who’d been underdogs for decades. Recognizing a potential franchise player, the front office solicited his input to build a team that could be a contender.
He was excited to come to L.A., but the move was rough.
“For two months, I was living in a hotel in the Marina,” he recalls. “I did Christmas in that hotel, and my wife was so depressed. We had a tree, like a little tree, and we had just found out she was pregnant with our daughter.”
Since he joined the league eight years ago, Paul and his wife have always lived in condos. In L.A., he bought his first house. He admits it’s a little “weird” living in Bel-Air, but when his friends and family visit from North Carolina, they stay at his place and shoot hoops on the neighborhood court. His agent just took him to his first Oscar party. And he eats healthier here. “You can’t just walk into a restaurant back home and order something gluten-free,” he says.
And when he takes Lil’ Chris to birthday parties, are the other parents Clipper fans?
“They are now.” —Sam Bloch