Everybody Loves Chris

No NBA rookie has made more of an impact than point guard Chris Paul. Spend a few days with him and find out how he has turned the woeful, star-crossed Hornets into playoff contenders
February 13, 2006

Maybe you've heardabout Chris Paul, rookie point guard for the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets,star in the making and all-around good guy. Perhaps you've read the commentfrom Knicks president Isiah Thomas, who, after watching Paul torch New York for27 points and 13 assists in a 109-98 Hornets win on Jan. 21, said, "I wasnever that good." Or caught the words of Knicks coach Larry Brown that samenight: "He's as good as we've had come into our league in a long, longtime."

Chances are, however, that you haven't seen Paul play. That's because theHornets--a forgotten, relocated and heretofore woeful franchise--have yet toappear this season on ABC, ESPN, TNT or even NBA TV. (Considering that, on arecent evening, NBA TV was showing a replay of the 1995 NBA Stay in Schoolspecial, this is somewhat humbling.) But don't despair: With Paul & Co.somehow, some way, occupying seventh place in the Western Conference at week'send, there's still a good chance that they'll make it on to the tube byApril.

To tide you over until then, SI presents a glimpse of three days with Paul, alock for Rookie of the Year after being drafted fourth as a Wake Forestsophomore. The tale could be subtitled, "In which Paul chauffeurs hislead-footed teammate, turns around a basketball franchise, resurrects a city,professes his love for an actress and humiliates the Chicago Bulls."

JANUARY 30, GAMEDAY

8:45 A.M. | Asusual, J.R. Smith is still asleep. A lanky 6'6" guard, Smith is Paul's bestfriend on the Hornets and lives one street over from him in a northern suburbof Oklahoma City, the Hornets' new home after Hurricane Katrina drove them fromNew Orleans last September. Though Smith is a second-year player, he's fourmonths younger than the 20-year-old Paul and considers the rookie to besomething of a big brother. So Paul drives by Smith's place every morning--asPaul puts it, "J.R.'s without a license right now [it was suspended formultiple speeding violations]"--and if Smith isn't awake, Paul honks, callsor uses the garage code to enter and rouse him. On this morning only threehonks are necessary; the teammates head to the Hornets' 10 a.m. shootaround inPaul's black BMW 750Li.

5:15 P.M. | Havinghad an afternoon nap, Paul is back at the Ford Center and getting his rightthumb wrapped. He tore a ligament in a Jan. 6 victory over the Portland TrailBlazers, and the team estimated he'd be out at least two weeks. He missed onegame, then persuaded coach Byron Scott to let him play the next one; theHornets won four of their next five. Paul's coaches relish his toughness."He's a warrior, man," says assistant Jim Cleamons. "Don't befooled by his demeanor and his little cherub smile. He's a quietassassin."

7:15 P.M. | Gametime against the Milwaukee Bucks. Even though it's a Monday night, anear-sellout crowd of 18,197 is on hand; that's a far cry from what the Hornetsdrew in New Orleans, where they ranked last in the league in attendance lastseason. These newly minted Hornets fans are lively and loud, if a littleconfused about this whole NBA rooting thing. They stand until the Hornets'first basket, do the wave and when the speakers blare Who let the dogs out?shout, "Who? Who? Who? Who?" as if genuinely curious about the answer.It's as if they are trying to make up for a lifetime without a major leaguefranchise in one season. Says Paul, "It's like being back incollege."

7:45 P.M. | TheHornets are up 21-17, and the 6-foot, 175-pound Paul is controlling the game'space. He throws geometrically correct bounce passes, hits midrange jumpers,plays the passing lanes for steals. He is the rare rookie who arrives in theleague as a fully formed playmaker. At week's end he was averaging 16.6 points,7.7 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 2.2 steals and only 2.4 turnovers--numberscomparable with those of New Jersey Nets star Jason Kidd. "He has anuncanny way of getting the ball to you," says Hornets forward P.J. Brown."That's something you're born with, a special trait that's inside of you.It's like he's been here before."

8:15 P.M. | TheHornets lead 43-39 at halftime, which pleases Oklahoma City's mayor, MickCornett. Long before Katrina, Cornett had lobbied David Stern for a franchiseso persistently that the commissioner nicknamed him the Mayor Who Wouldn't GoAway. It paid off; within a month after the hurricane the Hornets moved theiroperations north, then pulled in 14,475 fans for a preseason game, the NBAequivalent of a movie theater packing the house to show a trailer. ForwardDesmond Mason, who played at Oklahoma State, was the early fan favorite. NowPaul receives the loudest ovations, and his jerseys sometimes sell out at thepro shop before they can even be put on hangers. "They've fallen in lovewith Chris," says Cornett, looking out at the crowd. "If this team doesmake the playoffs, we may look back five years from now and say, No wonder,they had Chris Paul on the team."

9:30 P.M. | TheHornets are losing 93-92 with 7.1 seconds left. On a high pick-and-roll forwardDavid West takes a feed from reserve guard Speedy Claxton and swishes a jumperto win the game. Paul finishes with 16 points, nine assists and four steals.Afterward, there are good vibes in the locker room: The Hornets have reached.500, 22-22. At his stall Paul talks to a visiting reporter from L.A., anotherindication that the world is starting to notice the Hornets, and Oklahoma Cityfeeds off it. After all, this is a city famous nationally for two things:tornadoes and a national tragedy, the 1995 bombing of a federal building thatkilled 168 people. "It's really been invigorating for us," says ClayBennett, a prominent local businessman. "Seeing our name on the [sports]crawl at the bottom of the screen, as simple as that may seem, is in essence avalidation that we have reached a national level."

JANUARY 31, OFFDAY

11:30 A.M. | Atthe end of practice Paul engages in a good-natured shooting contest withveterans Mason and Brown; he takes $100 from the former, $160 from the latter,flouting the NBA tradition that rookies be separated from their money. He doesnot gloat, which is part of why his teammates love him. "He gets it, on andoff the floor," says Brown. "Most rookies think they know it all. He'sall ears and no mouth. Everybody around here likes him."

12:30 P.M. | Inthe dusty sprawl of Oklahoma City everything is 15 minutes away. Even thoughPaul has been here for four months, he says he only knows how to get to fourplaces: the arena, the practice facility, the bowling alley and the mall. Foranywhere else he uses his GPS navigation system. "I like it like that,"he says. "I don't need too much going on. I could never live in New YorkCity."

For lunch Paul andClaxton head to a Steak 'n Shake at a strip mall. Their cars--Claxton's Bentleyand Paul's Beemer--look comically out of place. Lunch discussion centers aroundPaul's infatuation with the Bad Boys II actress Gabrielle Union.

"That's mywife-to-be," says Paul, smiling. "I met her this summer at MagicJohnson's game. She is a-mazing."

"And?"replies Claxton.

"Got mypicture taken with her. It's the background on my computer. Me andher."

"Isn't shemarried?"

"Recentlydivorced. I keep up on these things."

"You shouldcall her, set it up...."

"For real,just like that?"

"Yeah, we gothrough L.A. [in late February]. Have your agent call her agent."

"That's howBrad and Angelina did it," opines one of their companions.

"Really?"says Paul, momentarily lost in thought. "I got to put it outthere."

After theirburgers arrive, the cook comes out. A skinny teen with braces and spiky hair,he looks at the players, looks at the burgers, then points to Paul's plate."I made that," he announces.

Paul looks him inthe eye. "You did a good job, man. You did good."

This kind ofcasual exchange is common for Paul, who is eminently approachable due to hisrelatively normal stature, polite nature and youthful appearance."Sometimes the fans are too nice," he says, then recounts how a familyat a restaurant insisted on buying him appetizers the previous weekend.

2 P.M. | Paulstops by his house to pick up his older brother, 22-year-old C.J., who handlesChris's business dealings. The house, a rental, is a three-bedroom,$1,500-a-month brick ranch among a landscape of such houses, each with a deadlawn in front and a dead lawn in back. The brothers grew up in Lewisville,N.C., the sons of right-minded parents, Charles and Robin. They went to churchon Sundays, played in the backyard and worked hard in school. Chris was classpresident all four years of high school. He was especially close to hisgrandfather Nathaniel Jones, who at 61 was killed in an attempted robbery whilewalking home from work during Chris's senior year at West Forsyth High inWinston-Salem. The day of the funeral Paul asked his coach to let him play theentire game; he scored 59 points, then hit an and-one runner to give him 61points, one for each year Nathaniel lived. Paul promptly air-balled the freethrow, broke down in tears and headed to the bench. Now that he's in the NBA,Paul has a foundation named in honor of Jones.

FEBRUARY 1, GAMEDAY

10:00 A.M. |Shootaround. The players are upbeat because the team has made its second tradein as many days, adding center Steven Hunter and forward Aaron Williams toreplace 6'10" Chris (Birdman) Andersen, who four days earlier was bootedfrom the NBA for at least two seasons for unidentified drug violations (addingunintentional meaning to the Hornets' billboard off I-40 that reads, FEEL THEBUZZ WITH THE BIRDMAN).

It's been thatkind of season for the Hornets. Since last summer the team has changed cities,lost its general manager (Alan Bristow resigned on Oct. 2), traded its onlyAll-Star (center Jamaal Magloire, to Milwaukee) and played in three differentarenas: the Ford Center, the Maravich Center in Baton Rouge, La., and--becauseBon Jovi had a Ford Center rehearsal one night in mid-January--the Universityof Oklahoma's Lloyd Noble Center. It has been a tough transition for most, withfamilies uprooted and forced to live in hotels. The players, for the most part,take a glass-half-full approach: Paul says the hotel life "brought uscloser," while Mason believes that the turmoil gave them strength on thecourt.

7:20 P.M. |Against the Chicago Bulls, Paul puts on a show. Midway through the firstquarter he drives, draws a double team, spins in the air and hooks the ballback to Brown, who sinks a jumper. He performs this penetrate-and-kick as wellas anyone in the league, in part because of his quickness--he uses aninside-out dribble (basically a fake crossover) to slip through seams in thedefense--and in part because he understands court spacing so well. An EasternConference scout, in town to watch the Hornets, nods in approval, then recountsa first impression of Paul. "Earlier in the season against Philly it was aclose game down the stretch, and J.R. Smith took two horrendous shots," hesays. "Paul came up and got in his face and said, 'We don't need thoseshots.' That showed me something. He's a leader. The kid's a winner."

7:45 P.M. | TheHornets are leading 38-34 midway through the second quarter. After taking adribble handoff on a play called "basic middle cut," Paul is doubleteamed, so he fires a pass to a wide-open Williams for a dunk. Paul runs thesame play next time down the floor, only this time the defense sags, so heshoots a jumper. He is fouled and hits one of two free throws. It's the type ofinstant recognition and decision-making that will prompt Bulls guard ChrisDuhon to say after the game, "We tried to force him where we wanted him,but we couldn't."

9:15 P.M. | Afterleading by as many as 17, the Hornets are down 90-89 with 2:42 to play.Undeterred, Paul scores six straight points, then steals the ball from BenGordon to ice a 100-95 win. The scout, not given to hyperbole, shakes his head."He took the game over. Unbelievable!"

10:30 P.M. | Thelocker room is upbeat, as players praise Paul, who finished with 25 points (on8-of-11 shooting), 13 assists and three steals. No matter what else happensthis season the team will have this moment: above .500, in the playoff mix,playing in front of an adoring crowd. No one could have envisioned this. Downthe hall Chicago coach Scott Skiles muses on what's made the difference. Histwo-word answer: Chris Paul.

As for Paul, theHornets' difference-maker and civic icon heads out into the Oklahoma Citynight, looking forward to getting some sleep. After all, in two days, theLakers come to town. He wants to be ready.

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"He gets it, on and off the floor," saysveteran forward P.J. Brown of Paul. "Most rookies think they know it all.He's ALL EARS AND NO MOUTH. Everybody around here likes him."

PHOTOPhotograph by Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images GOINGPLACES - Paul (3) might not know his way around Oklahoma City, but fewpoint guards are more adept at getting to the hoop. PHOTOJEFFERY A. SALTERGUIDINGHAND - Paul made his toughness and leadership clear when he came back a weekand a half early from torn thumb ligaments.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)