Spotlights have a way of erasing your surroundings. The intensity blinds you, turns whatever’s not right in front of you to black. When Chris Paul was named the Most Valuable Player of this year’s NBA All-Star Game, he accepted the award with his four-year-old son at his side.
“I’m not who I am without my family,” says Paul, 27. Lots of professional athletes say things like that. Paul, the starting point guard and undisputed leader of an invigorated Los Angeles Clippers franchise, means it.
Seated on a folding chair at the team’s practice court in Playa Vista, the sounds of skidding sneakers and thumping basketballs filling the room, Paul explains his game day routine to a reporter. Normally, this is when he’d pick up his son, nicknamed Lil’ Chris, from school in Santa Monica, on his way home to Bel Air for lunch. But this is an off day. So the architect of Lob City — the swaggering team nickname coined upon Paul’s arrival in L.A. during last season’s lockout — and his son are playing putt-putt.
At a shade over six feet, Paul isn’t physically intimidating. His father taught him to play basketball more like a quarterback calling plays in football. He controls the floor — directing movement through shouts and gesticulations, dishing passes through unexpected holes, and of course, setting up outrageous, emphatic slam dunks that are more like touchdowns than two-point buckets. Before home games, while his teammates ham up for fans during the starting lineup, he scopes the referees and susses out his opponents for signs of low energy.
“I’ve always tried to play as unselfishly as possible,” says Paul. “My big thing is, make sure everybody gets the ball.”
When Paul was traded from New Orleans, his original destination was the Lakers, where he’d be the set-up guy for a superstar who plays as selfishly as possible. The trade was infamously scuttled for “basketball reasons” and Paul agreed to join a team who’d been underdogs for decades. Recognizing a potential franchise player, the front office solicited his input to build a team that could be a contender.
He was excited to come to L.A., but the move was rough.
“For two months, I was living in a hotel in the Marina,” he recalls. “I did Christmas in that hotel, and my wife was so depressed. We had a tree, like a little tree, and we had just found out she was pregnant with our daughter.”
Since he joined the league eight years ago, Paul and his wife have always lived in condos. In L.A., he bought his first house. He admits it’s a little “weird” living in a ritzy neighborhood, but when his friends and family visit from North Carolina, they stay at his place and shoot hoops on the neighborhood court. His agent just took him to his first Oscar party. And he eats healthier here. “You can’t just walk into a restaurant back home and order something gluten-free,” he says.
And when he takes Lil’ Chris to birthday parties, are the other parents Clipper fans?
“They are now.”