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On the Cover: Chris Paul
Checking in with the L.A. Clippers point man, who's turned the laughingstock of the NBA into one of the league's most thrilling teams
By Steve Marsh
Photograph by Nathaniel Goldberg
Today's thirtieth wedding anniversary party for Charles and Robin Paul, the parents of NBA All-Star point guard Chris Paul, was originally planned for their backyard in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But it's 105 degrees this June afternoon—"hot enough to make you cuss," Chris says—so instead of Grandma's fatback, potato salad, and corn bread, we're pushing rubbery fried green tomatoes around our plates in a beige banquet room at the local Marriott. But everybody just seems happy to be inside.
Later on, the man known as CP3—Charles is CP1; Chris's big brother, C.J., is CP2—will assure me that despite his NBA fame, "I'm still my father's son." Yet when he arrives, he walks to the head of the main table, strolling to the spot as confidently as when he walks the ball up court for the Los Angeles Clippers. The room is jammed with cousins and aunts and uncles, and once Paul sits down, relatives queue up to josh him about being stranded at "the kids' table," remind him about those tickets to the Team U.S.A. game in D.C., thank him for that trip to Vegas. When Chris's teenage cousin A.J. ambles over, I glance at the kid's outsize Johnny Cash T-shirt and ask him what his favorite song is. Before A.J. has a chance to answer, though, CP3 teases: "Aw, he don't know—he just saw that it says cash on it and decided, I'm wearin' that."
Less than a year ago, CP3 was stuck in the basketball equivalent of a bayou swamp: the New Orleans Hornets, a franchise cursed with ownership that so resembled a confederacy of dunces that the league seized temporary control in 2010. Paul sought a trade out of town to the Lakers, only to have the deal vetoed by NBA commissioner David Stern, who felt New Orleans was getting too little in return for the game's best pure point guard. In the end, Paul still wound up in Los Angeles—only with the Clippers, the dysfunctional plaything of notorious cheapskate/slumlord Donald Sterling. But the Clips already had Blake Griffin on their roster, a real-life NBA 2K12 video-game character, and from the moment he was paired with CP3, the duo transformed the Clippers into "Lob City"—a nightly municipal incorporation chartered on a civic passion for three-quarter-court alley-oops. With CP3 as the mayor of Lob City, the Clippers won only their third playoff series in franchise history.
From his perch at the head table, CP3 assures me that he preferred the Clippers to the Lakers all along. "They had the better pieces," he says, "and winning with the Clippers would be legendary." He says he's surprised by how much he likes living in Bel Air, in a multimillion-dollar mansion formerly owned by Avril Lavigne. But there isn't much more talk of L.A. It's so obvious he loves being back home that it feels like a setup—inviting a GQ reporter to his parents' anniversary party, seating me opposite his wife, Jada, positioning me so that I can't avoid noting his adorable 3-year-old son, Li'l Chris, as CP4 runs around refusing to make his famous "Blake face" because Paul has taught him to only do it for a dollar. Like: I get it, dude. You haven't gone Hollywood.
Chris and Jada have been together since his freshman year at Wake Forest, and throughout the night, Jada will punctuate Paul's cutting one-liners with her textbook eye roll, equal parts coy and dismissive. They're a practiced comedy duo: CP3 to Jada, Jada back to CP3 for the bucket.
Like when he says that his infant daughter will not be allowed to date until she's 40 years old. (Jada eye roll.)
Or when Chris tells me how lonely he was during his sophomore year at Wake Forest due to an absentee roommate. "Oh, please, you were not lonely," she says, prompting Chris to explain that she's just mad because they were broken up that year. (Jada eye roll.)
Or when Chris overhears Jada telling me that she quit her track team in high school because she didn't like the coach....
"Is she blaming the coach?" CP3 interrupts. (Jada eye roll.)
"I'll tell you what," he goes on. "My wife's a quitter."
"My brother's a quitter, too." Now C.J. halts his own conversation and looks in his younger sibling's direction.
"Go ahead and ask him," CP3 says. "If the workout is getting tough? C.J.'ll quit. If you're playing spades and Jada gets the wrong cards? She'll quit."
There's no eye roll now—it's more of an awkward silence—but neither puts up much of a fight. Aunt Rhonda comes to the rescue.
"They're just very...elective," she explains.
Everyone at the table cracks up.
"Elective," Jada repeats, smiling as she explores each syllable. "I like that."
I first met CP3 earlier that day at the Wake Forest practice facility to watch him play some pickup ball. CP3 plays pickup like he's Peyton Manning anticipating a blitz: The gesticulation is ceaseless. He was talking to everybody in the gym: the guys on his team, the guys on the other team, even the guys waiting for next. The only person CP3 never talked to was the guy guarding him, because CP3 says he doesn't believe in talking junk. "I feel like I've worked so hard to get good," he would tell me later, "I'm expected to score on you."
In that way, he's a southern gentleman: He has a code. "Practice doesn't make perfect," he says his old college coach, the late Skip Prosser, used to say. "Perfect practice makes perfect." In high school, CP3 was a huge Tar Heels fan, but North Carolina didn't offer him a scholarship. In fairness, CP3 didn't play high school varsity until he was a junior, when he finally broke six feet. He says he really wasn't a great player until he got to the NBA, where the speed and quality of the game suited his IBM Deep Blue of a basketball mind. His exhaustive control reminds me of how a grand master described facing the chess champion Garry Kasparov: "Playing a game against Kasparov is like playing three games against anybody else."
After Paul was done playing for the afternoon, I walked out of the gym to C.J.'s big pickup truck with Charles, who coached his boys when they were in middle school. I asked him which of his sons was easier to coach. "This one," he said, motioning toward C.J. "Chris asked too many questions."
Later that night, back at the Marriott, Paul's parents have given their toast, Chris has paid the tab, and everybody's gone home. Now it's one-on-one at the bar. I notice I'm a few inches taller than Paul, who is 27, and it reminds me of the time last season when CP3 lost his cool: In the waning seconds of a close game, Lakers seven-footer Pau Gasol gently patted CP3 on the head after the two had exchanged words. Paul's ensuing freak-out led SportsCenter that night. Gasol made a tepid apology; six months later, Paul is still annoyed. "We call that sonnin', " he explains to me. "Like when I take Li'l Chris to the bathroom, I'll walk with my hand on his head. That's my son. You know what I mean? I understand that Gasol is that tall, but don't do to me what I do to my son."
Then CP3 says something I've never heard any man, let alone a basketball player, say before: "I've been fortunate to be short my entire life." I look puzzled, and he explains. "There's only one position I've ever had to play, and that's point guard. So I've always had to be that leader. And that was my job: you know, to talk." CP3 is looking me straight in the eye. "I'm a big-time people person, too. Like, I love people. I hate to be by myself." He repeats the phrase to himself, quieter each time: "I hate to be by myself. I hate to be by myself. I hate to be by myself."
It's hard to overstate how famous CP3 is along Tobacco Road. It all goes back to a single game during his senior season at West Forsyth High, when he scored sixty-one points—a tribute to his grandfather who was murdered the week before, at the age of 61. "Papa Chili" opened the first black-owned service station in North Carolina in 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement; Chris and C.J. used to work there as kids, changing oil for customers. Papa Chili was Chris's favorite person on the planet. One evening in 2002, he was beaten to death in the driveway outside his home. It was Aunt Rhonda's idea for Chris to try putting up exactly sixty-one points. "I thought it was crazy," Paul says. Until then, he had never scored more than thirty-nine in a game. Afterward, he was flown to New York and interviewed on Good Morning America. The game ball is still his most cherished trophy.
Sitting at the bar, it dawns on me that Paul's decision to invite me here for this day, for this event, was not calculated in quite the way I had thought. He's not pulling a con, not trying to prove anything. He just wants the people he loves to be in this story.
"I realize that I'm not going to be doing interviews for the cover of GQ for the rest of my life, know what I mean? I'm on TV because I play basketball really well. But when all this is over with—say something crazy happens, God forbid, and I can't perform anymore. All those people that were in there? They're still gonna be there."
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