HOUSTON -- Chris Paul had just walked out of the interview room at the Toyota Center holding his NBA All-Star Game MVP trophy in one hand and his son’s hand in the other.
Waiting for him in the hallway was Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his wife, Shelly, along with Clippers president Andy Roeser.
It was a moment Sterling had long waited for and Paul could see it in his eye as Sterling touched the trophy and gave Paul a hug.
Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1981 and had never been able to congratulate one of his players after a trophy presentation. It may not have been the NBA Finals, but Paul’s 20-point and 15-assist MVP performance on Sunday was certainly one of the high-water marks in Clippers franchise history.
“I’m so proud of you,” Sterling said. “What a great honor.”
Moments later, Paul’s family entered the hallway and embraced the Sterlings as if they were a part of their own family.
“We did it!” Paul’s mother, Robin, told Shelly Sterling.
“We did!” Shelly said as she gave Paul’s mom a big hug.
It’s no secret that Paul will become a free agent after this season. It wasn’t a topic that Paul or Sterling wanted to address Sunday night, but the more you watched the Pauls and the Sterlings interact in the hallway Sunday night, the more it became apparent that Paul’s decision may already be a foregone conclusion.
Paul has not only come to accept Los Angeles as his home and the Clippers as his team, but Donald Sterling as the man that writes his checks. For years, that last one was always a big stumbling block for players, but it no longer appears to be one for Paul.
He has changed the identity and the culture of the Clippers from the moment he arrived in Los Angeles and the Sterlings will be the first to admit that.
“He changed it,” Sterling said.
“It’s been incredible,” Shelly said.
The Sterlings have seen their fair share of bad teams and bad locker rooms, so it must be somewhat of a surreal experience to see what Paul has done to their team. He has made it a destination franchise for players like Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill, who chose to finish their careers here, and for sought-after free agent Jamal Crawford, who chose to sign with the Clippers and come off the bench. It has a lot to do with Paul’s ability to blend different talents and egos.
But on Sunday the spotlight was on Paul, as he became the first Clippers player to ever win the game’s MVP and the first player since Gary Payton in 1995 to have 15 or more assists in the All-Star Game. After his 15-assist and four-steal performance on Sunday, Paul also raised his career All-Star Game averages to 12.4 assists and 3.4 steals, which are the best all-time.
“This is pretty special,” Paul said. “It’s something I’ve never done and it’s something that I definitely didn’t try to come in trying to achieve or thinking that it might even be possible.”
It’s something Sterling didn’t think was possible as he stood in the hallway after Paul left with his family.
“I’m just so proud,” Sterling said. “The smallest guy on the court, and everybody in America can relate to a small guy that can make it amongst the bigs, right?
“These are achievements that are rarely made. Everybody is so proud of him and so proud to be a Clipper. It just gets better and better and better.”
Sterling then paused before answering another question about Paul’s impact, remembering that the Clippers’ turnaround actually began one year earlier with Blake Griffin, who had 19 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 blocked shot on Sunday.
“We have to give Blake some credit, too,” Sterling said. “That was the beginning.”
Sterling’s wife nodded as he spoke. She has sat beside her husband courtside for 30 years but has never previously witnessed anything with the Clippers quite like what Paul and Griffin have accomplished together.
“The two of them together are like best friends,” Shelly Sterling said. “They just know each other’s mindsets. You know how when you live with someone for a long time, you just know what they’re thinking and what they want to do. It’s just fabulous. They help each other. They’re not selfish.
“There are some players that are selfish,” she said. “They want to score all the points and they don’t care about sharing the ball. But [Paul and Griffin] do. They do; they love to share. I love it. I’m just so proud of them. The whole team feels that way. It’s so much fun to watch.”
As the Sterlings prepared to leave the Toyota Center, Shelly smiled as she looked at her husband.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life,” she said. “Well, at least most of my life.”
It was certainly a significant moment in Clippers history. But it likely won’t be the last one as long as Paul is on the Clippers.
“There’s going to be many memorable moments before this season is over,” Roser said. “This is just another nice step.”