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Maybe you've heard
about 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 comment
from Knicks president Isiah Thomas, who, after watching Paul torch New York for
27 points and 13 assists in a 109-98 Hornets win on Jan. 21, said, "I was
never that good." Or caught the words of Knicks coach Larry Brown that same
night: "He's as good as we've had come into our league in a long, long
JANUARY 30, GAME DAY
8:45 A.M. | As usual, J.R. Smith is still asleep. A lanky 6'6" guard, Smith is Paul's best friend on the Hornets and lives one street over from him in a northern suburb of Oklahoma City, the Hornets' new home after Hurricane Katrina drove them from New Orleans last September. Though Smith is a second-year player, he's four months younger than the 20-year-old Paul and considers the rookie to be something of a big brother. So Paul drives by Smith's place every morning--as Paul puts it, "J.R.'s without a license right now [it was suspended for multiple speeding violations]"--and if Smith isn't awake, Paul honks, calls or uses the garage code to enter and rouse him. On this morning only three honks are necessary; the teammates head to the Hornets' 10 a.m. shootaround in Paul's black BMW 750Li.
5:15 P.M. | Having had an afternoon nap, Paul is back at the Ford Center and getting his right thumb wrapped. He tore a ligament in a Jan. 6 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, and the team estimated he'd be out at least two weeks. He missed one game, then persuaded coach Byron Scott to let him play the next one; the Hornets won four of their next five. Paul's coaches relish his toughness. "He's a warrior, man," says assistant Jim Cleamons. "Don't be fooled by his demeanor and his little cherub smile. He's a quiet assassin."
7:15 P.M. | Game time against the Milwaukee Bucks. Even though it's a Monday night, a near-sellout crowd of 18,197 is on hand; that's a far cry from what the Hornets drew in New Orleans, where they ranked last in the league in attendance last season. These newly minted Hornets fans are lively and loud, if a little confused 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 league franchise in one season. Says Paul, "It's like being back in college."
7:45 P.M. | The Hornets are up 21-17, and the 6-foot, 175-pound Paul is controlling the game's pace. He throws geometrically correct bounce passes, hits midrange jumpers, plays the passing lanes for steals. He is the rare rookie who arrives in the league 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--numbers comparable with those of New Jersey Nets star Jason Kidd. "He has an uncanny 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. | The Hornets lead 43-39 at halftime, which pleases Oklahoma City's mayor, Mick Cornett. Long before Katrina, Cornett had lobbied David Stern for a franchise so persistently that the commissioner nicknamed him the Mayor Who Wouldn't Go Away. It paid off; within a month after the hurricane the Hornets moved their operations north, then pulled in 14,475 fans for a preseason game, the NBA equivalent of a movie theater packing the house to show a trailer. Forward Desmond Mason, who played at Oklahoma State, was the early fan favorite. Now Paul receives the loudest ovations, and his jerseys sometimes sell out at the pro shop before they can even be put on hangers. "They've fallen in love with Chris," says Cornett, looking out at the crowd. "If this team does make 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. | The Hornets are losing 93-92 with 7.1 seconds left. On a high pick-and-roll forward David West takes a feed from reserve guard Speedy Claxton and swishes a jumper to 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., another indication that the world is starting to notice the Hornets, and Oklahoma City feeds 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 that killed 168 people. "It's really been invigorating for us," says Clay Bennett, 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 a validation that we have reached a national level."
JANUARY 31, OFF DAY
11:30 A.M. | At the end of practice Paul engages in a good-natured shooting contest with veterans 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 does not gloat, which is part of why his teammates love him. "He gets it, on and off the floor," says Brown. "Most rookies think they know it all. He's all ears and no mouth. Everybody around here likes him."