Chris Paul's Leadership Lessons

No one in the NBA was busier during the league's hiatus than the 10-time All-Star, who had to guide more than 400 players into restarting the season while also keeping OKC primed for a playoff run.
photo of Jonathan AbramsJonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagJuly 21, 2020

A day before plunging inside the Orlando bubble for the NBA's restart, Chris Paul was working phones, soliciting information from players on teams already quarantined and sequestered inside ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex.

He messaged Dallas Mavericks big man Dwight Powell to compliment him on the team's socially distanced dance party.

"The more we have those different types of interactions and experiences, I think that the better we'll make this," Paul told reporters via Zoom after the Thunder's first practice at Disney World.

He phoned Orlando Magic forward Gary Clark, seeking his initial impressions on the player accommodations.

"Even though there's a number of us throughout the league that worked on this, we didn't know what to expect either," Paul said. "We keep telling the players, everyone, any questions, anything like that, we don't always have the answers, but everything isn't going to be perfect. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened."

Consider Paul the continual concierge. Plenty of people worked around the clock over the last few months, dissecting the multitude of complexities and layers involved in resuming a season amid a pandemic and the continued urge to shed light and speak out against systemic racism.

Paul, the National Basketball Players Association president and one of the league's marquee names, has been a leading figure in building the bubble and resuming a season that was suspended in mid-March when Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 right before Oklahoma City was set to take on Utah.

30 teams, 30 days: The biggest story from each NBA team ahead of the league's return.

Atl | Bos | Bkn | Cha | Chi | Cle
Dal | Den | Det | GS | Hou | Ind
LAC | LAL | Mem | Mia | Mil | Min
NO | NY | OKC | Orl | Phi | Pho
Por | Sac | SA | Tor | Uta | Was

"It was tough, but you got to be built for it," Paul said. "I think that the people during all of this, as far as my family goes, who actually had the hardest time, would have to be my wife and my kids. They really made some sacrifices as far as me and my time. I think that's who I was constantly apologizing to, and it was a huge wake-up call. When the kids are like, 'Is Daddy on another call? Is Daddy doing this?'

"So, it is what it is. I'm no different than any other player in this league. We all made sacrifices. All the employees, everyone here is making this happen. Everybody made sacrifices. But at the end of the day, our family is the most important thing."

He shared plenty of those calls with Michele Roberts, the NBPA executive director. Reached while she recently waited in line for a COVID-19 test during an Orlando afternoon storm, it didn't take Roberts long to recall when she last talked with Paul.

Chris Paul has led the NBA players' association with a style that welcomes input from all level of player, from superstar to journeyman.
Chris Paul has led the NBA players' association with a style that welcomes input from all level of player, from superstar to journeyman.Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

About 10 minutes ago, she said.

"I could not have been luckier to have him be in this position," Roberts said. "Not only because of his status among other players and his relationships with the league, but because he's personally committed to putting in the time and the work, despite the fact that he obviously has a day job and a family. So, I don't want to imagine what I would have had to do if I didn't have Chris and someone like Chris available. He's worked as many, if not more hours than many members of my staff. And that says a lot because everybody's working super hard, but nobody harder than Chris."

That Paul has had to balance the demands of leading a union of 400-plus NBA players while also a group of teammates for a Thunder team better than many expected is no surprise to those who know him.

In many ways, he already has trained for the role.

At West Forsyth High School in North Carolina, Paul served as class president from the 10th grade onward.

Kurt Telford, then the school's principal, recalled the days when Paul would set up for senior prom in the morning, play AAU ball in the afternoon and return at night to make sure everything remained on schedule.

Sometimes, starstruck freshmen nervously asked for Telford's help in meeting Paul when he was a high school senior.

"That was the craziest thing I ever heard," Telford said. "I'm serious. It's the only time of my career when freshmen would come to me and say, 'Hey, will you introduce me to Chris Paul?' I kind of knew his schedule, unfortunately, when he was a senior. I say unfortunately, because I knew when he had his tough classes, and I knew when he had his easier classes. I think his computer class was fairly easy. He probably hated to see me come, because it was either student government stuff ... or 'Can you talk to these kids who want to meet you?' He never flinched when I asked.

"Now, did I think he was going to be an NBA star? No. But he had that leadership. He's able to bring different parties together, because I don't think he's one to put himself on a pedestal or feels that he can't talk to others."

Jeff Battle served on Wake Forest's coaching staff during Paul's time in Winston-Salem. While recruiting him, Battle quickly noticed how Paul's AAU's teammates responded to him.

Paul's team would gather, and when they broke, his four teammates would run to their designated spots on the court.

"Right away, I'm looking at them and thinking, 'Man, that cat's a leader,'" Battle said. "Because most guys wouldn't respond that way. They might say something back to him. They might say, 'Well, I don't want to run that. I don't want to do that.' But all four guys on the floor were listening to what he was saying and how he was saying it to them.

"I saw early on that he had a way of leading guys and getting them to do the right things. I think that translates back to off the floor, knowing the right things to say and also carrying those actions out as well, is the product of the way that he was raised by his family."

Those traits came in handy when he was elected to lead the NBPA in August 2013. Six months prior, the union, then led by Derek Fisher, had created a storm of internal turmoil when it fired longtime executive director Billy Hunter, who countered with a wrongful-termination lawsuit that was eventually dismissed.

Paul drew the attention of Wake Forest's coaches when they noticed how he commanded his teammates on his AAU team.
Paul drew the attention of Wake Forest's coaches when they noticed how he commanded his teammates on his AAU team.JAKE SCHOELLKOPF/Associated Press

The union named Roberts executive director the following year.

Paul quickly established an open-door policy for membersfrom rookies to veteran superstarsto reach him while also relying on the counsel of NBPA executive members such as Andre Iguodala, Garrett Temple and Jaylen Brown. 

"The biggest thing that we've learned from this situation is communication," Paul said during a conference call last month with reporters. "We have 450 players, and it's always hard to get on the same page. ... None of us are perfect, but what we're learning is that if we communicate with each other, for the guys that choose to go play [in the restart], we'll support those that don't, that choose not to go play, and vice versa. Probably the most eye-opening thing through this entire experience is that everyone doesn't have to agree, but we all are a big family, and the more that we can support each other and listen to each other more than anything, I think the better we are as a community."

Paul's willingness to engage in debate, to confront differences, has helped keep his constituency together, even if those same qualities often grate on opponents on the court.

"He walks the talk," Telford said. "He's one of the shortest guys in the league, but I think he commands that respect. I don't think he commands respect just because now he's a 15-year veteran. I think it's his actions. My guess is he doesn't ask anybody to do what he doesn't do himself."

Paul is a constant. Those in the room recognize his presence. 

"I'm glad that he's our president for the players," Danilo Gallinari said in a Zoom press conference. "He's been so active, and sometimes, it was even tough for me to call him because he was not answering, because he was on a call every time, every day.

"He can talk to you and be a leader," Gallinari added, "not just in basketball, but in many, many things that we approach in life."

With the bubble in place for now, Paul has turned his attention to the other group he leads. The Thunder, only one game back of a top-four seed in the Western Conference, are preparing to see if they can go on a surprise run in the playoffs. Few anticipated Paul would be long for the franchise following the blockbuster trade a year ago that sent him to the Thunder and Russell Westbrook to Houston.

But instead, he flourished in Oklahoma City's backcourt alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder.

As the season resumes, the Thunder appear to be in better shape than many teams. They aren't filling out a roster with cast-offs. Instead, they're welcoming back one of their best defensive presences, Andre Roberson, who has been practicing with the team after a lengthy rehabilitation from a knee injury.

"When the shutdown happened, everybody was obviously nervous, but then most guys got back to their respective families and enjoyed that time," Paul said. "The team group chats are always great. The team Zooms were great, but it's not like seeing each other. I said this and I truly believe it: We got a special team. We got a really special team, and we genuinely love to be around each other."

But the games are just games. Yes, the pandemic has created a mountain of logistics to overcome, but the social justice movement has created a good reason for many to consider the value of playing at all.

Paul has led an Oklahoma City team many expected to be in rebuilding mode into the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture.
Paul has led an Oklahoma City team many expected to be in rebuilding mode into the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Paul listened to players and felt it himself. He saw the need for players to have the outlet to use their platform to continue shining light on the movements for social equality and against police brutality.

"We're aware we're not just basketball players," Paul said. "We are—like me, I'm a Black African American with kids and a wife and a family and stuff like that. So everything that you've seen, from George Floyd to Breonna Taylor to Rayshard Brooks and related to Elijah McClain, you see this stuff. So, we can't act like we don't, because these are our communities. These are the streets that we walk on, that we're raised on, that we grew up on, so we're aware.

"We also understand how powerful our voice is, and so even if we're back to playing, we understand that our voice can still be heard, our message can still be screamed loud and clear on an unbelievable platform. So just know that you're going to continue to hear us. Just know that. It's never a shut-up-and-dribble situation."


Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the bestselling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter, @jpdabrams. 

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