Chris Paul at a Crossroads

Chris PalmerSenior WriterApril 16, 2015

B/R via AP Images

He sits at his locker nearly motionless with his forearms on his knees. There’s an eerie calm about him. He’s the first player dressed. He looks tired. His piercing almond-colored eyes stare forward, focusing on everything and nothing. A chaotic world swirls around him. The room is loud and rambunctious. The revelry is unabashed. Assistant coaches put their feet up while loosening ties and scanning box scores. Siblings with exclusive Air Jordans come and go. There are almost as many children as ball boys. Most are clutching shiny tablets.

Laughter rises and settles. Rises again. Head coach Doc Rivers darts across the floor, sans jacket and tie, clapping his large hands three times, then disappears.

DeAndre Jordan is saying something to no one in particular. Judging by his uproarious laughter, it’s very funny. Blake Griffin and Matt Barnes emerge from the shower at the same time, draped in towels. They stop at the entrance to the locker room, and Blake holds out his right arm. He and Barnes pose, making silly faces to punctuate the latest of a thousand inside jokes. Blake mimics a camera shutter and takes a pretend selfie. He is not holding a phone.

The leader of these men doesn’t say a word. Thirty minutes ago, he was cussing at them. He confines himself momentarily to his corner.

He is the man who cannot be moved. So, there, Chris Paul sits.

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The thoughts in his head are as loud as the voices in the room. They remind him of the brutal road ahead. That failure is a possibility. That the window is closing.

The laughter crescendos. Glen "Big Baby" Davis is in on it now.

Without provocation, Paul stands up and walks across the room to an eager media throng that has swelled to more than 20. He leans up against a white countertop, just in front of a dry-erase board with the words Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together scribbled in black marker in Doc’s handwriting.

Paul dutifully answers every question in slightly above a whisper. He doesn’t exchange pleasantries. Never cracks a smile. The last recorder clicks off. He heads straight for the door. As he heads down the hallway, the thoughts in his head roar louder still.

“I think about our goal every moment of the day,” says Paul. “I think about what it means. I know there’s a window for us. Believe me, I know. There’s nothing I want more than that ring. When I woke up this morning, it was the first thing I thought about. It’ll be the last thing I think about before I go to sleep.”

He knows his time is now. He knows this won’t last forever. He knows he can still make it through that window.

Chris Paul is aware of everything.

Chris Paul after a costly turnover in a pivotal 2014 playoff exit game.
Chris Paul after a costly turnover in a pivotal 2014 playoff exit game.Uncredited/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

The 2015 postseason will be the most important of his career. There is no player with more to gain and even more to lose. The Sword of Damocles hangs perilously above Paul’s head, its unforgiving razor-sharp edge waiting to cut him down. To separate him from the greats who win and those who don’t. Paul’s legacy is front and center. His singular, extraordinary career offers no protection. Only what he does from this point forward will matter. His interest in individual awards has long dissipated. The pain from 2014’s untimely playoff exit at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder still burns.

Outwardly, he is unmoved. He won’t let on.

“There is no pressure,” Paul says. “I’m not walking around going, ‘Oh, my God, what do I do?’”

But he can’t unburden himself from the weight of the expectations without a trip to the Finals. Despite the locker room hijinks, this year’s Clippers team has a decidedly more serious edge. It has diligently tried to shed the tired Lob City label. The season has been mercifully free of last year’s poisonous Donald Sterling drama.

The team's unofficial motto is “Lock In.” Players reflexively pepper their speech with the phrase.

Much of their newfound focus and drive is derived directly from Paul’s ultimate intangible that is both the hallmark of his game and the thing that will fuel the Clippers' playoff run: a smoldering intensity.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

The rage of Russell Westbrook burns like a fiery oil well no man can cap. The moody Kobe Bryant broods, jaws clenched, all but daring his teammates not to deliver.

But Paul is different.

Over the course of the volatile 48 minutes of an NBA game, he is both caretaker and taskmaster. He ping-pongs from genuine encouragement to visceral anger. From empathy to ferocity. Pats on the back are doled out between icy stares and acerbic retorts.

“It’s like he’s possessed,” says Clippers sixth man Jamal Crawford. “He turns into a completely different person. There’s no playing or joking. That’s just how he’s wired.”

“Crazy intense, man,” says Rockets defensive ace Patrick Beverley. “He challenges you mentally, but you love it.”

“He’s a dog,” Clippers backup guard Austin Rivers adds. “When he goes against the best players in the league, he just tries to kill them.”

Paul doesn’t understand the fuss.

“I just lock in,” he explains. “I don’t know how else to describe it. I play hard, I talk and I see everything. I’ve always been this way, so it’s just normal to me.”

Kevin Garnett showed rookie Chris Paul no love.
Kevin Garnett showed rookie Chris Paul no love.ANN HEISENFELT/Associated Press

In his rookie year, Paul had a run-in with a master of psychological warfare that helped shape his mental approach to the game. The then-New Orleans Hornets were in Minnesota when Kevin Garnett made it perfectly clear he wasn’t there to make friends with the hotshot upstart.

Before the opening tip, Paul kindly extended his fist toward Garnett, a player he admired growing up. Garnett shoved his hand away. “F--k outta here,” snapped KG. Paul was momentarily confused, then incensed. They both picked up technical fouls in the opening quarter for jawing at one another.

Shortly after, Paul drove the lane and was leveled by Garnett. “Don’t bring that weak s--t in here again,” he barked at the rookie.

“Just knocked him right on his behind,” says Dave Miller, a Hornets assistant coach under Byron Scott during Paul’s first two seasons. “But then a light went off.”

Paul called off Scott’s next play and took it right at Garnett, flipping a floater over his outstretched arm and drawing the and-1.

“You can’t affect him psychologically,” scoffed Scott at the idea of getting in Paul’s head. Then he chuckled, shook his head and offered a wry smile. “You just can’t.”

Teammates are hard-pressed to recall a moment when Paul has smiled on the basketball court.

“All business,” says Crawford. “All business.”

“I’m sure I smile or laugh if something’s funny,” counters Paul, but he doesn’t offer examples.

Paul’s intensity is not reserved for his opponents. It extends to his on-court management style, which has been honed from years of interactions with teammates.

In training camp of his rookie year, Paul pushed the ball every time down the floor, much to the dismay of veteran center Jamaal Magloire. He told him to walk it up the floor and just throw it inside to him. P.J. Brown, one of Paul’s early mentors, told the guard to be himself and run the team as he saw fit. But he had to lead. The key was to be vocal. So Paul was. He kept pushing it. And pushing it. A week later, Magloire asked for a trade. He was gone before the season opener.

As he came to better understand things that affected team dynamics—egos, personalities, moods—and his confidence grew, Paul quickly developed a rep for being one of the league’s most demanding teammates.

“He’s the most demanding teammate I’ve ever had,” says Crawford. “And I’ve been in the league 15 years.”

“He’s demanding in a very positive way,” says Doc Rivers. “He’s our voice. He’s our conscience. When we’re not playing right, he usually senses it first and lets everyone know.”

The coach’s son, whom Paul mentors, is more direct.

“He will not let anybody get in the way of him trying to win,” says the younger Rivers. “Nobody. Even if it’s his own team.”

He admits Paul’s leadership style might not be for everybody but notes that the point guard has a keen awareness about who can handle tough love. “We have guys who are a little more emotional, so you have to be careful,” he says. “My dad yells at me more than anyone, and I got it good from Coach K, too. I can handle it. Chris yells at me, but he doesn’t disrespect me. He knows I’m a man.”

In a March 25 game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Rivers hadn’t been in the game for 30 seconds before Paul focused his wrath on the third-year guard.

A Clippers big failed to box out, leading to an offensive rebound and a three-pointer for the Knicks. Rivers had nothing to do with the play but missed an opportunity to correct his teammates. An irate Paul pulled him aside.

“What the f--k you doing?” Paul shouted. “Why you being so f-----g lackadaisical?

The second unit is your unit. The first is mine. Get on it!”

Right after that, the Clippers went on an 18-2 run, led by Rivers, to blow the game wide open.

“I took it as a sign of respect,” Rivers adds. “He’s doing it because I matter, because I’m a factor. If I couldn’t play, he’d never say anything to me.”

Paul has made an art of blending tough love and affinity in the name of winning.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press

“He’ll tear you down one play, then put his arm around you the next,” says Miller.

But his gamesmanship and concern are just accessories to the trump card that is his indefatigable fervency. If you’re in Paul’s vicinity, you risk being singed by his fire. Consider this sequence from a March 4 home game versus the Portland Trail Blazers.

After Blazers center Robin Lopez slammed Paul to the ground on a drive, Lopez stumbled over to him, touched his chest and asked if he was all right. Paul clenched his teeth, stared forward and then nodded slightly. Lopez’s concern allowed him to narrowly escape Paul’s bubbling wrath.

Upon falling, Paul had become entangled with a press-row photographer. As he lay on his back, he called out to the lensman.

“Are you all right?” Paul queried. “Hey, are you all right?”

No answer.

“Are you OK?!” Paul bellowed angrily, running out of patience.

The photographer nodded meekly before Paul got up and walked to the line. As the ref was about to toss Paul the ball, Hedo Turkoglu walked across the lane to change places with Davis. Big Baby declined, which seemed to confuse Turkoglu. The ref held the ball, delaying Paul’s free-throw routine.

"Get somewhere, Turk!" Paul screamed. "I'm on your team. Don't ice me!" Paul shot Turkoglu an icy glare before drilling the free throws.

“He demands perfection,” says Turkoglu. “He deserves it, so we should give it to him. He’s the one who leads us.”

But Paul’s fire scorched the hide of Jordan several minutes later in a moment that will live in Vine infamy. With the score tied at 87 and 1.7 seconds remaining on the shot clock—2.8 on the game clock—Paul got off a shot, and Jordan grabbed the rebound under the basket with a second to spare. Jordan thought the game buzzer had sounded, sending the teams to overtime, so he didn’t shoot the ball.

He was wrong. Paul exploded.

"Shoot the f-----g ball!" Paul screamed, flailing as he jumped up and down. On the way back to the huddle, Paul shouted at Jordan, who had no response. As a bewildered Rivers tried to assemble a huddle, Jordan stood a few feet away, reeling from his blunder.

"I messed up," said Jordan with his hands on his knees, staring forward blankly and avoiding eye contact with anyone. "Damn, I f----d up."

Paul insisted his anger wasn’t directed toward Jordan but instead the situation. When asked how long it takes a teammate to get over a scolding, Paul stares off and responds with the tone of a seasoned assassin.

“I don’t know,” he says without emotion. “Depends on the person.”

C.J. Paul leans up against a hallway in the underbelly of the Staples Center. He extends a welcome hand to anyone who happens to shoot one in his direction. Many offer congratulations. Others request to meet his brother. He’s been a fixture at Paul’s games since New Orleans. In his younger days, he would ride the refs and shout tips to his brother while excitedly jumping out of his courtside seat.

On the advice of LeBron James, Paul hired C.J. as his business manager early in his career to handle endorsements and personal appearances, work with Paul’s charitable foundations and help run his AAU program, the CP3 All-Stars. C.J. is involved in every major decision Chris makes.

“It was important to have somebody I trust,” says Paul. “And there’s no one I trust more than my brother.”

He is personable and charismatic. His easy-going temperament draws in more people than it discourages. He sits on the baseline underneath the basket 41 times a year. He and Floyd are on a first-name basis. His phone is filled with numbers of NBA All-Stars. People want to take pictures with him. He doesn’t bear much resemblance to his younger brother. He’s thicker and has a slightly less enviable head of hair than his baby bro.

Step closer, and then you see it. The only two sons of Charles and Robin Paul of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, are gifted with the same eyes.

There is another trait. This time, you must step back to notice: C.J. Paul sees everything.

He’s a former point guard himself, a star at West Forsyth High School in Winston-Salem who went on to Hampton University (and later the University of South Carolina Upstate), and like his brother, he was born to see the floor.

These days, he sees everything that revolves around Chris.

He sees the tall beauty in a Chris Paul jersey and white Louboutins who wants a selfie with the star point guard. He sees the slick aspiring agents too old to wear skinny jeans clutching cheap Staples Center beer. The dot-com startup guys with splashy Instagram pages that make them seem like they’re having more fun than they really are. He sees reporters, autograph hounds and well-wishers. He sees me.

C.J. has helped shaped Chris’ game as much as anyone. Paul’s competitive zeal is derived from heated one-on-one battles under the backyard hoop of their Winston-Salem home their father put up for them. The clashes would often get physical, and sometimes ended in tears, usually Chris’. As a middle-schooler, Paul gave up several inches and a few dozen pounds to his brother and had to devise a way to quickly get his shot off, or C.J. would smack it across the lawn. Or crush him with an aggressive foul.

Paul had to work to find any angle or opening to score.

Those were the origins of a game that today is an intoxicating blend of poetry and fury. Equal parts tempestuous and silky, it’s based on patience, misdirection and sleight-of-hand.

“When you have six or seven different moves, you begin to become unstoppable,” says Rivers. “Chris has 12 or 13.”

“He’s the best point guard in the league,” says Scott, now the Los Angeles Lakers head coach. “He’s the head of the snake. There’s nothing he can’t do. When he gets into his mindset, he’s pretty damn good.”

Despite the attention heaped on MVP candidates Stephen Curry, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Clippers point guard is playing some of the best basketball of his career. Having shot 48.5 percent from the field, 39.8 percent from three and 90.0 percent from the charity stripe this season, he narrowly missed the vaunted 50-40-90 club, of which only eight players are members. He's also tied with Washington Wizards point guard John Wall for the league's most point/assist double-doubles.

His 41-point, 17-assist, one-turnover performance April 1 against Portland was a master class in how to play the position.

“When he’s doing what he does,” adds Rivers, “he’s no piece of cake.”

Many of those backyard clashes ended badly for Chris, but as a result, they sparked the embers that would become Paul’s hallmark intensity.

“They made me who I am,” says Paul. “Going against my brother—competing, fighting—just trying to figure things out had an effect on everything I do now.”

Nowadays from his courtside seat, C.J. doesn’t get on the refs very often anymore. He doesn’t shout instruction to his brother’s teammates like he used to. In New Orleans, he used to go to two dozen road games a year. Now he’s lucky to make it to a handful, thanks to 16-month-old twins.

“We’re older now, and we’ve been doing this a long time,” says C.J. “Our lives have changed, but we’re just as close.

And older brother remains ever watchful.

Over my shoulder, just down the hallway, the younger Paul talks with Scott, his former coach in New Orleans. The Clippers have just thrashed Scott’s team—up 43 at one point—but he beams when talking to his former charge. They make small talk about the grind of the season. Paul asks about his family. Scott urges him to win it all.

Paul hugs his former coach before floating away amid a dozen family members and friends.

Can Chris Paul lead his Clippers to the promise land?
Can Chris Paul lead his Clippers to the promise land?David Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press

Paul sits on a blue training table on the edge of the Clippers' practice court.

On the far side of the gym is a game clock counting down the minutes until all players need to be on the floor so practice can begin. It dips past the 15-minute mark.

I take a seat next to him and make small talk about a dribble move he pulled off the other night—a one-handed fake bounce pass tossed several feet in front that yo-yos back to him thanks to a wicked backspin. It brought half the bench to their feet. Aware of his constant tinkering, I inquire whether or not it’s a new wrinkle in his game.

“I’ve been doing that since New Orleans,” he says. “But nobody notices what I do.”

Tongue-in-cheek humor aside, he seems a little distracted. He looks like there’s a jet engine churning in his head. He is always thinking. As I interview Paul, his eyes are on his teammates, who are warming up several feet from us. An enthusiastic Doc Rivers walks by and notices us. “What is this?” he asks, “This Is Your Life?”

Yeah, it kinda is.

Paul cracks a smile, then laughs. Yes, he does laugh.

The rest of his story hasn’t been written. His intensity, his fire and his brand of no-nonsense leadership will play no small part in filling those blank pages. Until then, his mind will never stop. Not that it’s up to him.

“I do everything that it takes to win,” says Paul. “I always have. This is just who I am. I want everybody else to do that, too. It’s not about how talented you are. It’s just about going hard. I play to win. So should you. I think about this all day, everyday.”

The window. Steph Curry. The pressure. His friends with rings. That brutal road. The San Antonio Spurs. Those blank pages. The unknown. A kaleidoscope of thoughts spins behind those eyes.

Paul gets up. Several seconds later, the horn on the game clock sounds. He steps onto the floor and disappears among his teammates.

Chris Paul is aware of everything.

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