Paul eager to take Clippers from punch line to playoff threat
Chris Paul was traded to the Clippers after a deal with the Lakers was vetoed
He's out to change the Clippers' reputation, though he knows it won't be easy
Paul expresses his enthusiasm, but is hesitant to nail to down his long-term future
LOS ANGELES -- A late-night family dinner was just what Chris Paul needed. At least here he knew the support was universal, the love always there as long as his wife, son, parents and brother were on hand on the 11th floor of the downtown Cooper building. The menu would be inspired by his North Carolina upbringing, the chef preparing more than one kind of fried chicken (buttermilk and Southern) to go with homemade macaroni and cheese, pork sandwiches and a variety of other home-cooking delights.
The spacious scene had been revamped since his Jordan Brand show earlier in the day, the lights dimmed and a long dining table added near the endless windows in the corner. The shoe exhibits that told his life story at the center of the room remained, taking observers from the Carl H. Russell Rec Center to West Forsyth High School to Wake Forest University. And contrary to the event that had preceded this warm and elegant affair, there was an unspoken understanding that Clippers jokes weren't allowed.
Before the city's newest star relaxed over Ninth and South Los Angeles streets, he had taken a break from the daily house-hunting routine to visit with late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel. It was the latest in a round of introductory celebrity appearances, another high-profile chance to tell the world how thrilled he was to have been traded from the Hornets to the Clippers on Dec. 15.
Paul had been influential in the deal, making it known that he would seriously consider staying with the Clippers and exercising his contract option for the 2012-13 season as a sign of good faith that general manager Neil Olshey had required to sign off on the trade.
But Kimmel, a self-proclaimed Lakers fan who was disappointed when his team's three-way deal for Paul was vetoed on Dec. 9, wasn't about to let him share his Clippers enthusiasm.
"Our next guest has been summoned to breathe life into a lifeless L.A. sports franchise ..." Kimmel said before Paul came out.
Paul entered from stage right, and then veered off course to offer a fist pound to the front-row fan who was wearing a Clippers jersey. Kimmel, however, was quick to break up the Clippers love-fest.
"Welcome to Los Angeles," Kimmel quipped. "I wish it were under better circumstances."
It was a less-charming version of his appearance with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show on Dec. 22, when Paul's charisma and comedic timing carried a segment in which he declared that the Clippers bashing must stop. And by the time Paul would unwind later that evening at the Cooper building, he had clearly grown tired of being anyone's punch line.
The Clippers' newest ambassador learned once again how hard his new job is going to be.
The CP3.V shoe was designed long before the trade went down, meaning the slogan that seems so appropriate for Paul now is both fitting and completely coincidental: "Shake Your Shadow."
No shadow looms larger in the NBA than that of the championship-less Clippers, who have reached the playoffs just four times in the 30 seasons since Donald Sterling bought them in 1981 and whose infamy goes far beyond the floor. And even for a player whose elusiveness has helped him earn a reputation as one of the great point guards of his era, helping the Clippers escape those dark days won't be easy.
Paul knows that as much as anyone. It's why he discusses his new life with genuine excitement, but is hesitant to profess a commitment too far into the future.
"We haven't done anything as a team yet," said Paul, whose Clippers were 3-2 at the time and 4-3 after Tuesday's loss in Portland. "We haven't gone on a five-game winning streak. We haven't done anything as a team to start thinking about how we're going to be in the future."
Still, it's not just the Clippers who are invested in this plan. Paul played a huge part in the process, convincing Olshey and coach Vinny Del Negro that he shared their vision during a two-hour phone conversation that took place before the deal. When it was done, Olshey was finally convinced that Paul wanted to be in a Clippers uniform and soon after agreed to send shooting guard Eric Gordon, veteran center Chris Kaman, forward Al-Farouq Aminu and a 2012 first-round pick from Minnesota to the Hornets.
"Everybody knows he's a high-IQ player, but this was more about the fact that he knew our roster, knew our assets, knew what he was going to need to see once he got here to be successful," Olshey said. "And I think that really inspired me to try to get a deal done."
Paul, ironically enough, was the one selling the deal.
"Yeah, I know the game better than just about anybody," Paul said. "I know who's on what team. I know what they're going to look like in the future. I know what their contract situations are and stuff like that. So knowing that it was going to be a possibility to come here, I was looking to come to win right away so I needed to be as informed as possible."
Of course Paul loved the idea of pairing with reigning Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin, but he also saw the re-signing of center DeAndre Jordan and the acquisitions of small forward Caron Butler and veteran guard Chauncey Billups, a close friend of Paul's, as key. Not long after, the deal was done and towering images of Griffin, Paul and Jordan would soon be plastered on the Hotel Figueroa towers blocks away from Staples Center.
For Olshey's part, he knows he must maintain this excitement and momentum to keep Paul's eye from wandering.
"If we continue to do all the right things in this organization and continue to build the culture the way we are, and get Blake hopefully locked up long term and continue to build, then we'll fulfill every obligation that we'd told Chris we would fulfill in order to get him to be here long term," Olshey said. "All I cared about was that Chris committed for as long as he possibly could based on the economics of the new collective bargaining agreement, and that gave me the confidence that this wasn't a lily pad to land on. He wants to be here. He wants to see it work."
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, Paul is here, above all else, to win. For all the stars who seem to value the business over the basketball, he doesn't appear to confuse the perks of L.A. with the real priorities. Still, he's already a rare breed in Hollywood, a dynamic personality who fits into the one-of-a-kind scene without losing the genuineness for which he's well known.
"One thing I've always been able to do is adjust," Paul said. "For me, I'm always going to be who I am, so it doesn't matter if you put me in North Carolina, Oklahoma, New Orleans, wherever. As long as I am who I am.
"The people have been great -- so warm and receptive to me and my family. Basketball always helps. It's a work in progress on the court, but it's fun. It's fun having to adjust and learn new things."
Paul's sneakers typically share his personal experiences, and the latest model is no different.
The 61 small triangles on his newest shoe are in honor of his late grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, who was murdered at that age during Paul's senior year of high school. It's the second time he's paid tribute to him on a shoe, as a previous version bore a Chevron logo to symbolize the man who was the first African-American to own a gas station in North Carolina back in 1964.
Paul acknowledged the loved ones who remain, too. The number of slash marks on each of his CP3.V shoes reflect the date he was married to Jada Crawley (9/10/11) and the day his son, Chris II, was born (5/24/2009). His second sports love, bowling, is represented on the sole, where the size of the shoe is prominently displayed like it is at most alleys.
If the Clippers eventually get their way, the answer to the question of whether Paul is here to stay might be found on the laces of his next model of shoes. In past versions, he has had the area code of his hometown of Winston-Salem (336) written on the tip of each lace to profess his love and loyalty. When asked if he'd be willing to have the next version of his shoes include the Los Angeles area code of 310 so Clippers fan could stop worrying about his possible departure, he embraced the idea that he might bring an end to the laugh track.
"I don't know but that's a great question," he said. "We've been designing the VI ... before this trade happened, so that's something for me and [the Jordan Brand executives] to talk about.
"We haven't had that opportunity yet. We're going to see. ... Why wouldn't I, you know what I mean? I'm here, and I plan on being here."