STATE of the UNION
Slam|November - December 2020
CHRIS PAUL HAS BEEN A NATURAL LEADER SINCE AS FAR BACK AS HE CAN REMEMBER. BUT THROUGH 2020, AS THE PRESIDENT OF THE NBPA, PAUL HAS LED ALL 450 NBA PLAYERS THROUGH THE MOST TURBULENT OF TIMES—THROUGH A PANDEMIC, A SOCIAL JUSTICE MOVEMENT, A BUBBLE, AND A SEASON THAT SOMEHOW STRETCHED 355 DAYS—AND THOSE LEADERSHIP ABILITIES HAVE BEEN MORE CRUCIAL THAN EVER. WE SPOKE WITH CP3 ABOUT THE LEGACY OF THE PAST YEAR AND MUCH MORE.
ADAM FIGMAN

IN LATE SEPTEMBER, I watched a presidential debate in which two men stood in front of a moderator and brazenly yelled at each other on national television for a couple of hours. The lack of civility clearly came more from one side of the stage than the other, but it was still hard to watch the night unfold and not think one thing: This can’t be what actual leadership looks like. It just…Nah. It can’t be.

I thought a lot about the concept of leadership over the next week or so. You can’t really teach it. There’s no “AP Leadership” in high school, and any “Leadership 101”-type college courses are focused more on famous leaders throughout history than learning to be the best leader you can be. I know you can become a better leader—there’s a hundred-million-dollar category of the book industry to prove it—but there’s innateness to leadership like you’re either someone who’s naturally interested in bringing people together and uplifting the people around you or you aren’t. Maybe that’s a little too rigid of a way to look at it; there’s clearly some gray area here. But I wasn’t sure.

So I decided I’d ask someone who would know.

Fast-forward two weeks to a blazing-hot Tuesday in Los Angeles. I’m sitting in an airy photo studio when Chris Paul walks in to take some photos for the cover of this magazine. He cycles through a few looks curated for him by his stylist Courtney Mays, then sits down to talk about the past year. Obviously, the first thing I ask about is leadership—is it innate or taught? Nature or nurture? Born with or learned?

“I think there’s a combination of both,” he says. “I say the best teacher is experience. I don’t know if it’s fortunately or unfortunately, but I’ve been in a lot of crazy situations.”

Let me pause Chris right there to zoom into that fact. Not only has Chris been in a lot of crazy situations—he’s basically the Forest Gump of the post-2005 NBA. It’s also the first thing his brother CJ says when asked about the evolution of Chris’s personality over the course of his playing career. “It’s nothing that he hasn’t already seen at this point in the NBA,” CJ says.

To run through it quickly: Chris is drafted to New Orleans but spends huge portions of his first and second seasons playing home games in Oklahoma City because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Then he becomes an All-Star, becomes friends with local NOLA hero Lil Wayne, becomes the best point guard in the League and makes the playoffs a few times. Then he’s traded to the Lakers, immediately un-traded from the Lakers when David Stern vetoes the trade on behalf of non-existent Hornets ownership, then is traded to the Clippers where he forms Lob City with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers become a perennial playoff team, Chris becomes president of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), and signs a fat contract to stay in L.A. for a while. But drama follows—tapes of Donald Sterling saying horribly racist things are leaked to TMZ, and CP, Griffin, and Doc Rivers lead the team through what would eventually be a lifetime ban of the franchise’s now-former owner. Eventually, Chris is traded to Houston, where he plays alongside James Harden, and two seasons later he’s traded to Oklahoma City in exchange for Russell Westbrook, landing back in the city he spent so much time in as a rookie.

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