NEW ORLEANS -- "How's your wife and baby?'' asked a woman.
"They're doing well,'' said Chris Paul earnestly.
"We love you Chris!'' shouted another woman as he turned to wave goodbye, walking off the court and into the hallway in his stocking feet. He had given away his sneakers to the children who had met him before the game on behalf of the CP3 Afterschool Zone, the charity he has been leading here to encourage scholastic achievement. In the hallway he hovered outside the visitors locker room, a short distance from the room of the home team that felt a great distance away.
"How are you doing?'' asked one of the security officers who gathered to shake his hand.
"Oh, I can't complain,'' Paul answered.
He was the neighborly star who had reintroduced the Hornets to their adopted city, after the floods had receded and before the city had recovered from Katrina. This was his first time back since his December trade to the Los Angeles Clippers, and he was going to find that his old city and team were moving on without him. They were going to beat his Clippers by 97-90 and a lot of people weren't going to be sure of how to feel about that.
"A lot of things went through my mind,'' said Hornets coach Monty Williams after his last-place team had played one of its best games of the season. "Seeing him in the hallway before the game, we talked for about 10 minutes. It was weird. You wanted to say, shouldn't you be in the locker room getting ready? It just brought back memories.''
It was a strange and familiar place for Paul to spend a Thursday night. He had played his first six NBA seasons for the Hornets, and after the upheaval of the hurricane and the sale of the team to the NBA, he hoped to spend the latter half of his career in a more stable environment. His trade to the Clippers ruined this season for the Hornets and yet set them up with cap space and young assets with which they can rebuild this summer.
Yet Paul couldn't afford to be too sentimental on behalf of what he had left behind, because the Clippers were unsettled in their own way. After a promising 19-9 start they had since lost 11 of 18 games over the last five weeks. They'd lost the previous two nights at Indiana and Oklahoma City by a combined 36 points amid talk that coach Vinny Del Negro's job was in trouble. "It was good to see everybody, but for our team it was a business trip,'' Paul said. "I mean, we need a win to see what it feels like.''
Paul was introduced to discernible booing that was overwhelmed by a majority of cheers. Throughout the first quarter, the tone was established by a minority of fans who were frustrated by his departure from New Orleans, and they booed him more loudly each time he touched the ball. Their protest never approached the scale that was earned by LeBron James, but it was noteworthy that most of the fans sat quiet and allowed the bitterness to go on. At the end of the quarter the Hornets played a video celebrating Paul's winning plays and his extensive charity work in New Orleans. By the end of that presentation a majority of the 17,209 were standing in applause and he stepped out of the huddle to wave in reply.
"I'm so tuned into the game that I can't really get into it,'' said Paul of the tribute. But of course this was a half-truth.
The game was predictably dramatic, and worthy of his charisma. In the beginning the Clippers, inspired to perform for their leader, attacked the basket incessantly for five dunks in the first quarter and a 35-29 lead. That was the most points the Hornets had allowed in an opening quarter this season, and they responded by attacking their guests. Center Chris Kaman, who was traded by the Clippers in the deal for Paul, rejected two Griffin dunks by knocking him in the face, earning a foul for one of them, and he produced an aggressive stat line of 20 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and seven turnovers. His fellow big man, Jason Smith, banged Griffin on the head while setting a screen far from the basket, and with 4:06 remaining Smith (17 points and eight rebounds) was ejected for shouldering Griffin hard to the floor on a fast break.
Moments earlier the crowd had booed Paul when he left the bench to return to the game. Now, as Smith left the court, he was waving his arms to further incite the crowd after his hard foul. "What was that?'' complained Paul as he approached Williams. "What was that?''
It was the kind of performance that would have made him proud in any of the previous six years. The overmatched Hornets blocked eight shots, earned 34 free throws and shot 57.6 percent. After Paul missed a contested three to go 5 of 14 from the field, finishing with a disappointing 16 points to go with his routine 9 assists, the ball was chased down eventually by the Hornets. There were 1.3 seconds left on the clock but the celebration started early. The purple streamers and confetti fluttered down from the ceiling as the last of New Orleans' free throws were attempted and converted.
Chris Paul had to stand on the court and listen to the applause and here, for the first time, it was not in his honor, but to his spite.