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At the 2012 Olympics in London, Chris Paul went to see the volleyball, the swimming, the track. He brought Russell Westbrook with him to root on Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings. He sat in the cheering section for Michael Phelps. “What we do is such a small thing compared to what the people do who protect our freedom,” Paul said. “But when I put on that USA jersey it always gave me goose bumps because you realized you were part of something so much bigger than yourself.”
Paul’s first experience with USA Basketball was in high school, when he played for the North team at the Youth Development Festival in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was on the squad that lost to Greece at the 2006 World Championship in Japan—“I remember sitting at my locker,” Paul recalled, “trying to figure out how we were going to go back home"—and he was a leader of the group that redeemed itself with gold medals in '08 and '12. “Coming from where we were,” Paul said, “that was the best feeling.”
After more than a decade of contribution to USA Basketball, Paul told SI.com on Monday that he is withdrawing from consideration for this summer’s Olympic team, likely ending his international career. “I feel my body telling me that I could use the time,” he said. Few NBA players have expended more this season than Paul. Although his traditional stats do not vary much from his career norms—19.9 points and 9.8 assists in 33.2 minutes—he has piggybacked the Clippers in Blake Griffin’s absence.
Since Griffin was initially injured on Christmas night, Paul has accounted for nearly half of L.A.’s assists, keeping the team fourth in the Western Conference. Last week, ESPN Stats & Information suggested that he has been “the most important offensive player in the NBA” over the past three months, given the wild disparity in the Clippers’ production when he is on and off the court.
Paul, the best point guard of his generation, has a hard time recalling a summer when he was not either injured, recovering from injury, or playing for Team USA. The Olympics are synonymous with other touchstones in his life. His wife, Jada, became pregnant with their son, Chris Jr., right after the ’08 Olympics and gave birth to their daughter, Camryn, right after the ’12 Games. “Just a few days ago, Little Chris asked me, ‘Daddy, will you play in the Olympics again?’” Paul said. “Part of me wanted to say yes, because he’s never been part of it. But I told him, ‘I want to spend more time with you.’” Paul, a fixture at his son’s Little League complex and basketball gym even during the NBA season, opted to stay home.
Drafted two years after LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, Paul and the others helped bring back USA Basketball, one card game at a time. “I think we once played cards 35 nights in a row,” Paul joked. Whether or not James, Anthony and Wade continue their international careers—or follow Paul’s lead—a new generation is on the way. “Of course, you’ll have Steph (Curry) and those guys,” Paul said. “Someone else I think would be great is Kyle Lowry. I love watching him play. You need that grit.” Oddly, Lowry is not on the list of 30 finalists, but Curry, Westbrook, Mike Conley, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are. The NBA has no shortage of premier point guards ready to take the torch.
As Paul spoke Monday, he was on his way to Staples Center, for a game against the Celtics. He thought about the Olympic rings he earned in ’08 and ’12, which his wife recently unearthed while cleaning out his closet, and he sounded wistful. “Tonight, we’ll play the Celtics, and the fans in Boston will cheer hard against us,” Paul said. “The fans in L.A. will cheer hard against them. The thing I’ll always remember about Team USA is that everyone cheers for you.”