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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.