Cliff's Edge

WHEN NOT IN THE GUISE OF HIS MUSTACHIOED, INSURANCE-PEDDLING ALTER EGO, ULTRAINTENSE POINT GUARD CHRIS PAUL HAS MADE THE CLIPPERS NOT ONLY THE HOTTEST TEAM IN L.A., BUT ALSO A THREAT TO WIN THE WEST
March 25, 2013

Beyond the transformation of a franchise, the takeover of a city and the upheaval of all order in the NBA, Chris Paul is responsible for the West Forsyth High 10-year reunion. Forget about lobs to Blake Griffin and matchups with Russell Westbrook. "We need a deejay," Paul says, not to mention a caterer, a bartender and decorations. He inherited this assignment through an obscure student council tradition that apparently provides no exemptions for point guards who happen to be MVP candidates for title contenders. Paul was class president in seventh and eighth grade at Hanes-Lowrance Middle School in Winston-Salem, N.C., but swore his political career would end there. "I wanted to be cool," he says. That lasted about a semester. He became class president in 10th, 11th and 12th grades at West Forsyth High in Clemmons, N.C. He chose the theme for the prom, Midnight in the Rose Garden. He spoke at commencement. And he agreed, like every other senior class president, to organize the 10-year reunion with his fellow council members, no matter where life took him.

"I had no idea I'd be in the NBA," the 27-year-old Paul says. He knew only that he was destined to lead. When he played Pop Warner football for the Lewisville Titans, he didn't stand five feet tall or weigh 100 pounds, but coach Ron Morgan started Paul at middle linebacker so he could instruct the rest of the defense. When he was ready to play varsity basketball for West Forsyth as a sophomore, coach David Laton kept him on jayvee so he would never begin to defer. And when he joined an AAU program, the Carolina Hornets, college recruiters marveled at how, when he pointed teammates to spots on the floor, they sprinted to them without hesitating. As a freshman at Wake Forest, Paul gave pregame speeches before the coaches. "We only had to talk about X's and O's," says Demon Deacons assistant Jeff Battle. And as a rookie with the Hornets in 2005, Paul was already tagging along for captain's meetings with 13-year veteran P.J. Brown. "Chris was a once-in-a-generation leader," Brown says. Paul earned the loyalty of the New Orleans big men by chirping after they fumbled his feeds, "My bad. I need to get you the ball in a better place."

The Clippers had 21 lottery picks from the time the system was implemented, in June 1985, to the time Paul arrived, in December 2011. They had talent, with nobody to nurture it. They acquired Doc Rivers to play point guard, but he stayed only a season, and Mark Jackson, but he lasted just two. Lamar Odom was voted captain at 21, a year removed from Rhode Island, and he wanted to command the Clippers the way Magic Johnson did the Lakers, with fancy passes and tough love. "I couldn't do it," Odom says. "But he can." He points at Paul, standing on the practice court with Vinny Del Negro, holding a marker and scribbling on the coach's whiteboard. At 6 feet, Paul is nine inches shorter than Magic, but they carry themselves the same way, taskmasters disguised as cheerleaders. "These are people who have the ability to blend everybody around them together," Odom says, "whether they're taking you to dinner or kicking your ass."

Johnson likes to say that when he landed in Los Angeles in 1979, the Lakers were on page 3 of the Los Angeles Times sports section. Paul forced himself out of New Orleans and into a similar oblivion after commissioner David Stern vetoed a trade that would have sent him to the Lakers, clearing a path for the Clippers to acquire him for a package including guard Eric Gordon in December 2011. A month later Paul went to a Golden Globes party at the SoHo House in West Hollywood, where actors and industry types shared the same message: Too bad you're not a Laker. He went to Dodger Stadium last April and was booed. He went to souvenir stores looking for Clippers gear and recoiled when vendors only offered Lakers T's. He was reminded of the day he committed to Wake Forest and could only find North Carolina hats in Winston-Salem. "That drove me nuts," he says. By the time he left Wake, the school had its own shop at Hanes Mall.

The 2012--13 Clippers are the best team in franchise history, the best team in Los Angeles and, at week's end, the fourth-best team in the NBA. They have sold out every home date this season. At an Oscar party Robert De Niro asked him to tape a greeting for a family member. After a practice the Dodgers asked him to film a promotional spot. When Paul returned to a popular sneaker boutique, he asked, "Why no Clippers hats?" The Flight Club employee replied, "Sold out." Paul exhaled. "There's a big difference," he said later, "between selling them out and not ordering them at all."

The conversion is due partly to Griffin's vertical leap, but mainly to Paul's unyielding will. He told those celebs at the SoHo House, "I'm here to build something different," and he tells reporters now, "The Clippers were always my first choice"—no matter how hard that is to believe. He asked longtime broadcaster Ralph Lawler to inform him when the Clippers were playing in places where they traditionally struggled, and since then they have snapped losing streaks of 17 at San Antonio, 16 at Utah, 10 at Dallas, 10 at Cleveland, nine at Denver and nine at Staples Center when they're the visiting team. They also won their second playoff series since 1976 last May, though in Game 1 they trailed by 24 points with eight minutes left at Memphis. Del Negro was about to yank Paul and allow him to rest an injured groin. "Give me one more run!" Paul hollered, and he uncorked six assists to key the comeback. After the season ended and general manager Neil Olshey left for Portland, Paul recruited free agents with the tenacity of John Calipari, and suddenly the bench is nearly as potent as the starting five. "Go figure," says forward Grant Hill, who picked the Clippers over the Lakers. "Chris made this a destination." Paul's contract expires on July 1, but associates insist he has not discussed signing elsewhere. "Everything Clippers," Paul says.

LeBron James or Kevin Durant will win the MVP because his statistics are more impressive than Paul's (16.6 points, 9.6 assists and a league-high 2.4 steals through Sunday), but nobody's influence on a franchise has been more profound. Paul dribbles downcourt, waving his arms as if he's the conductor of a high-wire orchestra, and he doesn't stop directing when the whistle blows. He touches every corner of the club, from scouting to merchandising, player development to community relations, movie night to day care. He also recently concluded a conference call with his former student council vice president, Sara Yeager, and secretary, Claire Hovis, about the reunion. Paul reserved a site at Wake Forest in Bridger Field House. He picked a date, Aug. 17, after the Finals but before training camp. And he quelled Facebook rumors that his friend Lil Wayne will be there. "I thought there was no way Chris would still want to do any of this," Hovis says.

Paul may be a long way from the West Forsyth student council, but his job description hasn't changed much at all.

On his first day with the Clippers, Paul was barred from practice because several players involved in the trade had not yet reported to the Hornets, and he sat on the sideline with the broadcasters. "I'm going to be far from home now," Paul said to Lawler. "So I'm going to make this my new family."

The son of Charles, a surveillance equipment builder, and Robin, a bank worker, Paul grew up helping out at his grandfather's gas station, Jones Chevron, changing oil and rotating tires. He and his older brother, C.J., raced each other to the full-service pumps for tips. On Sundays the boys piled into their parents' 1971 Chevy truck and drove from their home in Lewisville to Dreamland Park Baptist Church, 17 miles away in Winston-Salem. Then they joined about 30 aunts, uncles and cousins at their grandma's house for chicken and corn bread, with mashed potatoes and gravy, washed down with jugs of sweet tea. Charles rewarded them for good behavior with trips to Celebration Station in Greensboro, where they rode go-karts and bumper boats. But he punished them for missteps with equal fervor. "Sometimes you have to celebrate these boys," Charles says. "And sometimes you have to give them a piece of that belt." C.J. watches his brother guide the Clippers with a hand both gentle and firm, and he is transported back in time. "It's just like how it was done in our family," says. C.J., Chris's business manager.

The Clippers rent out movie theaters on the road, go to UCLA games when they're at home and celebrate every birthday with cupcakes on the practice court. (Rookies handle the singing.) When Hill was recovering from a bone bruise and didn't feel like part of the team, Paul invited him to his house in Bel Air for dinner. When Odom was working back into shape, Paul offered daily pep talks. And when sixth man Jamal Crawford's wife gave birth in February to a baby girl named London, players posed for a picture, with Paul and forward Caron Butler holding a sign that read: WELCOME TO THE CLIPPERS FAMILY LONDON! Soon enough, London will be attending Lob City Day Care, as the alley-oop-happy team refers to its kid-friendly locker room. Paul and his wife, Jada, have two children, three-year-old Chris and seven-month-old Camryn. After home games it's not uncommon to see Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan babysitting Lil Chris. The juxtaposition with the Lakers, sniping in the locker room and scrapping for the No. 8 seed, is jarring.

Paul has unearthed pride in the Clippers that lay dormant for decades. He invited every employee to his shoe release party at Greystone Manor in West Hollywood last year, allowing sales managers to mingle with Rihanna, and he helped defuse a dispute between the organization and its most loyal fan. "WE GOT YOU!!!" Paul tweeted at Clipper Darrell when the club was trying to force him to change his nickname. The relationship was repaired, and Clipper Darrell is as vociferous as ever in his custom red-and-blue suit. "Chris is reachable, he's touchable," says Clippers guard Willie Green. "When you call him, he answers his phone."

Paul is usually the one punching the numbers. When Green was a free agent last summer, Paul called and said, "Willie G, I need you here." Green came in a sign-and-trade. Then he called Hill and asked, "What are you thinking?" Hill also signed. During a pickup game at the Clippers' practice facility, Paul spotted forward Matt Barnes and said, "You're going to be tough with the Lakers next year." Barnes explained that he too was a free agent. "Then you're going to be a Clipper," Paul declared. Even the team's new p.r. director, Dennis Rogers, came from New Orleans and was courted by Paul. Los Angeles eventually promoted front-office fixture Gary Sacks to general manager last September, but for a while agents joked that Paul was the G.M.—in which case he should be up for Executive of the Year. Thanks to their new reserves, the Clippers have the most prolific bench in the NBA and also the most enthusiastic, responding to every dunk with an impromptu dance party.

If the Clippers are a sorority, as they sometimes seem to be, Paul is both rush chair and pledge trainer. While he's invariably giving—no one donates more courts to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans or invites more underprivileged teens to Staples Center—he can be raw and ruthless. "He's a pit bull," says Green, "with a little man's complex." When Paul played Pop Warner, he once displaced a boy's Adam's apple trying to recover an onside kick, and the game had to be stopped for 30 minutes while an ambulance was summoned. When Paul was briefly called up to the West Forsyth varsity as a 5-foot freshman for the Frank Spencer Holiday Classic, a 6'3" guard immediately tried to pressure him, and he reflexively swung the ball at the giant's chin. Even conversations with C.J., who told his brother he had no chance at a major-college scholarship, turned into brawls. "I'd be trying not to hurt him and he'd be trying to kill me," C.J. says. "He'd bite." Paul's shoe line with Nike includes a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde edition, to match his split personality. "He becomes a demon," says Odom. "A Tasmanian devil."

Paul often spends the first three quarters establishing everyone else, as he did in elementary school, when his dad allowed him to score only on offensive rebounds. Guard Chauncey Billups has to tell him, "It's time!" The Clippers are most effective when Paul goes Hyde. The metamorphosis usually starts with a turnover, a questionable call or a defender reaching toward his mouth. Paul talks the entire game. He tells Green to stand in the corner and stay there. He tells Jordan to body up on out-of-bounds plays. He tells Griffin to "Watch the slip!" He used to shun mouthpieces for fear his teammates wouldn't be able to hear him clearly. "But I kept getting hit in the lip," he says. "Every time it healed, I'd get this terrible canker sore and I couldn't eat."

He now wears a mouthpiece but still feels a surge of rage whenever an opponent brushes against his bottom lip. Suddenly, his expression turns to a snarl and his tone to a bark. He shoots more and passes less. His Southern accent emerges. In February at Indiana the Clippers let a 17-point fourth-quarter lead shrink to four with 2:45 left. Paul's mouth was fine, but the game was in jeopardy. Enraged, he scored six straight points and the Clips escaped. "Best point guard in the universe," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. Even late in the All-Star Game, Paul told Western Conference teammate James Harden, "Can't be cool right now. We gotta win." The West prevailed, and Paul was voted MVP.

Some players have told Paul, "You can't talk to me like that," after he eviscerates them for a sloppy screen or a weak box-out. He tries to tailor his message to the individual, but it's hard to sugarcoat in the fourth quarter. "I have to tell guys, 'Don't listen to the tone, listen to the message,'" Barnes says. "Because he's always right."

When Paul was on jayvee at West Forsyth, he went to varsity practices so he could learn the plays, and when he was on varsity after he signed with Wake Forest, he went to Demon Deacons practices so he could learn their plays. When he was drafted No. 4 by the Hornets, he requested a DVD of the Princeton offense the team ran and mastered it by training camp. "He has good quickness, not great quickness," says Dave Miller, a former Hornets assistant. "He has good speed, not great speed. He's a good shooter, not a great shooter. What makes him great is his mind."

There is always a debate over the NBA's premier point guard, and the names always change, from Steve Nash to Deron Williams, Derrick Rose to Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo to Tony Parker. But Paul remains fixed atop the list. Player Efficiency Rating is a widely accepted pace-adjusted metric, devised by Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations and former ESPN analytics expert John Hollinger, which takes into account a player's positive and negative accomplishments. The average PER is set to 15. Paul's career PER is 25.5, the highest in NBA history among point guards (Magic's was 24.1), and now in his eighth season he has led all point guards in the category for each of the past five years. He trailed only James in PER last season and was behind only James and Durant at week's end. In the first five games of March, Paul dished out 56 assists with just four turnovers, and he isn't exactly playing it safe. He tossed a 70-foot lob to Griffin and an off-balance lob to Jordan, which he dunked with such force that Pistons guard Brandon Knight wound up on his back and splashed across cyberspace. "I played against John Stockton," says Thunder point guard Derek Fisher. "That's what it's like playing against Chris."

Paul's first game with the Clippers was against the Lakers, appropriately enough, last preseason. He kept running the pick-and-roll with Jordan, but it wasn't working, and during a timeout he pulled the young center aside. He instructed Jordan to turn his body slightly, just a few degrees, when setting a screen. On the next possession they ran pick-and-roll again, and Jordan caught a lob for a dunk. "There are a lot of things he does that I never used to understand," Jordan says. "Now I'm like, O.K., that's why." Sometimes, a play requires that Jordan set a high screen for Paul, but he calls for Griffin instead. "What are you doing?" Jordan asks. He realizes later that Paul wanted to be isolated against Griffin's defender, who was not capable of stopping him.

Paul has made the Clippers tighter and tougher, but also smarter. Point guards facing deficits late in games typically let the ball roll toward half-court before picking it up, to conserve time. Paul lets it roll almost all game, to save seconds on the shot clock. When the Clippers are in the bonus, he tells an official exactly what he plans to do, in hopes of coaxing a call. Paul knows the rule book as well as a referee. He has lobbied Stu Jackson, the vice president who handles discipline for NBA, to penalize perimeter players who keep one foot inside the three-point line during free throws, a common violation that's rarely called. If Paul were a baseball player, he'd be stealing signs but not throwing spitballs. "He takes it to the legal limit," says Laton, his high school coach, who remembers when Paul used to eavesdrop on opposing benches.

Whether or not the Clippers reach the Finals for the first time in the franchise's 43-year history, they have discovered a little man with a boundless spirit who relates to their plight and takes up their cause. Paul's backup, Eric Bledsoe, averaged 3.3 points and 1.7 assists last year. Through Sunday he was up to 9.0 points and 3.2 assists. "There are times Chris will be sitting down, and he'll see a play where Bled should have attacked a guy, and he's just itching to get up and get into him," says Robert Pack, an L.A. assistant coach. "He wants so badly to teach him." Pack played point guard for USC in 1989--90 and '90--91, when Johnson was a Laker, and he didn't miss a game, whether at the Forum or on TV. "Magic would yell at his guys, 'Go hard, big fella! Roll hard! I'll get you that ball!'" Pack says. "He'd get on them, but then he'd pat them on the back. It was just like Chris."

Modern athletes often claim to lead by example, which usually means they don't lead at all. Of course, Bledsoe can improve if he is watching Paul, but he can improve more dramatically if he is watching and hearing him. "Chris wouldn't talk so much," Bledsoe says, "if he didn't care." So Bledsoe listens, Odom runs, Green braces, Jordan screens, Griffin leaps, Darrell hoots, and afterward they all feast on cupcakes.

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"Go figure," says hill, who spurned the Lakers for the Clippers. "Chris made this a destination."

Says Fisher, "I played against John Stockton. That's what it's like playing against Chris."

TABLET EXTRA

Find out which point guards have been the NBA's most efficient, on the digital edition of SI—available free to subscribers at SI.com/activate. (Spoiler: Lil Chris isn't on that list. Yet.)

PHOTOPhotograph by WALTER IOOSS JR. FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDTHEY'RE LOOKING AT HIM Though he now hobnobs with admirers such as DeNiro, Paul hasn't let go of his North Carolina roots—which is why he could really use the name of a good high school reunion deejay. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SI (CLIPPERS)FIGHTIN' TITAN An undersized Pop Warner linebacker (near left), Paul has settled into a more size-appropriate role: the NBA's most efficient playmaker. PHOTOCOURTESY OF THE PAUL FAMILY (FOOTBALL)[See caption above] PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDGOOD NEIGHBORS Fans have embraced Chris (and Cliff): Since Paul came to Los Angeles, attendance at Staples Center for Clippers games has been 100.8% of capacity. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDGOSPEL ACCORDING TO PAUL The Clippers' point guard, who always practices what he preaches, isn't afraid to take a brusque tone to get teammates such as Griffin to play at their peak.

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)