Commentary

Killer at heart

Don't buy the nice guy act: New Clipper Chris Paul is igniting the NBA's next great feud

Updated: August 13, 2012, 3:24 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the Feb. 20, 2012 "Rivalry Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

IN THE SUMMER OF 2010, a few days after being eliminated from the playoffs and facing the specter of free agency, LeBron James sought advice about his future from Chris Paul. Back in the day, they had played together in the McDonald's All-American Game and Jordan Classic. And as their stars grew in the NBA, their bond strengthened.

Paul had watched James' series against Boston and remembered the criticism LeBron took -- not just for losing but for seemingly losing interest in the last minutes of the finale. Paul looked up and down the Cavaliers roster and concluded that James didn't have enough support to justify remaining in Cleveland. Paul asked James the same question Paul had been asking himself: "Are they asking me to do too much?" Over the course of several phone calls, he and James dissected the decision. Well before the rest of the world knew, Paul knew that James had to go -- and would.

TwitterHappy for my brother @KingJames and sis @SavannahRB on their engagement!!! Extremely happy for them and the good times to come #HappyNewYear --CP3

One year later, when trade rumors swirled before the start of Paul's final season as a member of the Hornets, Paul confided in the Heat's Dwyane Wade, a man who had already won the championship ring that Paul covets. As Paul's anxieties regarding the trade mounted, Wade told him that a deal was never a deal until it was done and that, regardless, he'd have little say in the matter, except in where he chose to re-sign. When it became clear to Paul that the Celtics were interested, he thought back to his talks with James and decided the rebuilding required in Boston to replace its Big Three was considerable. He resolved that he would not agree to sign an extension with the Celtics, and that position ultimately killed the deal.

TwitterHappy 30th Bday to my bro @DwyaneWade ... a GREAT friend, even better father, and GREAT person ... oh yeah and he can hoop a lil bit too lol!!! --CP3

In the 2009 playoffs, the Hornets fell in five games to the Nuggets in a physical, foul-laden opening round, losing games by 15, 21 and 29 points, as well as a humiliating 58-point loss to Carmelo Anthony's team. Paul, who shot a woeful 41 percent for the series and scored a mere four points for the Hornets in that 121-63 drubbing, was devastated. Two years later, he toured China with Anthony for Jordan Brand, posing for obligatory pictures with panda bears on their laps, just two pals on a silly vacation.

TwitterMe and @carmeloanthony had a GREAT time here in Hong Kong! Next stop Chengdu...our bro @DwyaneWade meeting us there!!! #Epic #TeamJordan --CP3

When Paul was in New Orleans, his condo hosted a parade of overnight stays by visiting players like James, Rudy Gay, Tony Parker, Josh Howard and Jarrett Jack -- with Paul providing so many free rides to morning shootarounds that if the Hornets had put a meter on his car, they might have had the cash to re-sign him. Now that Paul has purchased singer Avril Lavigne's $8.5 million mansion in Bel Air, Hotel Paul will surely reopen soon.

TwitterBig Happy Bday S/O to my brother, my homie @Rudygay22...yall send him some love plz!!! --CP3

Paul calls Wade one of his best friends, but in a 95-89 overtime win over the Heat on Jan. 11, Paul and Wade, according to Paul, "nearly came to blows" on the court. The record showed -- as it often does -- that Paul played one of his best games against one of his best buds, tallying 27 points and 11 assists while harassing Wade into shooting a mere 6-for-17 from the field.

TwitterMy bros @carmeloanthony @KingJames @CP3 and me at the #Ducks Game at Autzen http://t.co/xJjAz6VL #night song --DwyaneWade

One afternoon following a recent Clippers practice, Paul took offense to the suggestion from a reporter that today's superstars have put the traditional idea of rivalries in peril. He arrived for a photo shoot in a Culver City studio and entered the room wearing a sharp black Jordan sweatsuit. "They say that players nowadays are too friendly and back in the day they wouldn't have stayed with this guy or hung out with that guy. But it's a different day," he said. "I don't buy the fact that because we're friends and have relationships we can't compete on the court." A few days later, Dwight Howard, the biggest free agent prize this year, said he was intrigued by the notion of playing in Chicago -- partly because he and reigning league MVP Derrick Rose share the same shoe sponsor in Adidas.

TwitterCONGRATS to my bro @carmeloanthony, who dropped his new shoe ... the M8!!! Go get them now!!! #TeamJordan --CP3


CHRIS PAUL IS an on-court assassin with the social network of a sorority sister. He is the NBA's most complicated man. Just ask the many ex-NBA stars who seem so incensed by all his fraternization. To the old guard, the ones who remember when the league's top players were barely able to be in the same room without slugging each other in the face, all this tweeting and texting and bro-cationing and celebrity bowling is a disease sucking the life out of their league. Just ask Charles Barkley.

"I don't think players play for the same reasons we did," says Barkley, camped out in the Staples Center green room with ex-rivals Kenny Smith and Shaquille O'Neal, sounding more than a little bit like an old man yelling at clouds. "For us, it was the journey and the rivalry that came with it. Man, in Philly, we used to fight with Boston in the preseason. Michael didn't want to be Larry Bird's teammate. I didn't want to be Magic Johnson's teammate. I wanted to beat them."

Consider that at a recent Lakers-Mavericks game, there were audible groans from NBA courtside veterans when Derek Fisher gave a long hug at the tip-off circle to his former teammate Lamar Odom. Or listen to the old guard as they toss around the battle stories like they're getting royalties for repeating them: Karl Malone defending John Stockton's honor by knocking Isiah Thomas' block off with an elbow in the lane. Bird and Magic barely willing to shoot their first Converse commercial. Thomas orchestrating the 1985 All-Star Game freeze-out of rookie Michael Jordan.

Where are the rivalries, they ask? Wither the petty hatreds?

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle thinks back to when he was a guard for the mid-'80s Celtics, a perpetually cranky dynasty fueled by grudges and angered by too-tight shorts. "Things were different," he says. "There was just no communication, no informal contact like there is today. Maybe if you were coming to town, you might meet up for a meal, but even that was rare."

Today, between iPhones and Beats by Dr. Dre cans, it's almost easier for athletes to tweet out a shout-out to a player in another arena than to talk to a teammate in the same locker room. Should we be shocked that a new generation of modern superstar is choosing a world without borders? Are you tweeting your co-workers?


Chris Paul
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty ImagesPaul made it clear in a Jan. 25 loss to the Lakers that he does not like having his head patted.

IT'S JAN. 25 in the postgame locker room at Staples, and Chris Paul is not a happy man. His last 11 days have been bookended by games against the Lakers, a home-and-home series that served as the genesis of a rivalry 40 years in the making. Both games brought Paul pain. But the pains were not the same.

The first, a 102-94 smackdown of the Lakers on Jan. 14, was, in the main, a success. Paul dominated all night, tearing down the Lakers defense with a succession of crossovers, step-backs, hesitations, midrange jumpers, floaters, threes and double-clutch runners. But the coup de grāce was a 40-footer he sank as the shot clock expired that all but snuffed out a nascent Lakers fourth-quarter comeback. It was a message game, and that message was clear: The Lakers were now sharing power, sharing the arena, sharing the town they had owned since the heyday of Ann-Margret.

This was heady stuff for a franchise that has finished .500 or better just seven times since entering the league in 1970. Heady stuff for a franchise that in its first 41 full NBA seasons has finished fourth or worse in its division an amazing 34 times. The win was the Clippers' fifth in their last six games. But with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, after sinking a fallback for his final points of the night, Paul pulled up lame, his hamstring tweaked.

After sitting out five games to rest his hammy, Paul returned -- to again face the Lakers. But this game was different, a chippy battle featuring six technicals, one flagrant foul by the Clippers' Mo Williams and the ejection of the Lakers' Josh McRoberts. The 16-time NBA champs emerged with a bruising 96-91 victory, reasserting themselves as the city's alpha dog, both on the court and with condescending taunts after. With 1.1 seconds remaining, as seven-footer Pau Gasol walked to the foul line to seal the win, he and Paul shared words, Kobe Bryant sidling between the two, before Paul appeared to yell to Bryant, in reference to Gasol: "He soft!" Gasol, in reply, rubbed the six-foot Paul on the head, as if telling him to go back to the kids table. Paul swatted Gasol's hand like it held a taser, then reached up to head-pat Gasol, succeeding mainly in mussing the Spaniard's curly locks.

After the game, Bynum mocked the upstarts from the visiting-team locker room. "Wheee! Wheee!" Bynum chanted. "We beat the Clippers! Everyone's gonna want to talk to us now!" Down the hall, in the home locker room, it was Paul who was still smoldering, most obviously at Gasol's slight. "He tried to touch the top of my head. I don't like that. I don't know if Pau's got kids, or whatever. But don't touch the top of my head like I'm one of your kids. I don't know if he's got kids, but I'm not one of them."

Gasol, for the record, does not have kids. He's never witnessed the birth of his child. But one could not help think that he was present for the birth of an NBA rivalry.


LAST YEAR, with the clock ticking down on the first half in Game 4 of the Lakers-Hornets playoff matchup, the Hornets down 2 games to 1, Paul laid a crossover on Bryant that aged the onetime wunderkind a decade in a second. Two games prior, Kobe had thrown a shoulder into Paul as the two trotted up the court. This time, Paul got Bryant listing to the right, blew by him to his left, laid the ball in, tying the score at 45, and then -- to ensure that the point was not lost -- barked at Bryant until the ref slapped Paul with a technical.

Paul believes in the warrior class. He believes it exists in the NBA today. Believes he's in it. Is motivated by it. Has plans to rule it. He knows that more than any other active player, Bryant is still the dean of it. The fact that Paul now holds a timeshare on Bryant's home court is a serendipity that no one -- save for David Stern -- could have seen coming. If Bryant senses a laser dot on his chest, at least he knows who's holding the gun.

And according to Paul's older brother C.J., Kobe Bryant, legendary loner, is, in fact, friendly off the court with Chris Paul.

C.J. knows better than anyone how Chris is built. He watched his brother grow up on the playground courts of Winston-Salem, N.C., saw the fierce will that helped him lead Wake Forest to the Sweet 16 in 2004, saw the easy way the competitive fire coexisted with his gregarious nature. "Chris has a million friends in the game but a tight circle: D-Wade. Carmelo. Bron. LeBron was in his wedding. So was Jannero Pargo. There were a lot of NBA guys at the wedding.

"But you know what?" C.J. continues. "He plays better against anyone he's close to. He goes harder at them. He competes every night, but it's an added punch when he goes against someone he's close to, guys like Carmelo. To Chris, being close adds special value to competing. You don't have to hate each other to compete. It's totally different. The old guys don't understand."

It's the afternoon before the Lakers game -- the chippy, heated, head-pat game -- and Paul is attempting to explain how he flips the switch. How can he be a stone-cold killer one minute and a buddy with the megawatt smile the next? "I've been this way since day one," Paul says. "Regardless of who I'm playing against, I've always taken the position that I respect my opponents but never fear them.

"I'm no rookie," he continues, then adds prophetically: "I'm not looking to be patted on the back."

Later, Paul will again consider the summer of 2010, when James announced The Decision and was vilified for everything from playing GM with his friends to taking the "easy path" to a title. Paul rolls his eyes. Laughs it off. "I don't believe any of that. I remember telling Bron to do what was best for him. But I also told him, 'I hope you never win a championship,' because every time he wins, that would be one title I didn't get. That would mean I didn't win."

TwitterAnd BIG Happy 23rd Bday S/O to my homie @KDTrey5!!! Enjoy bro. --CP3

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.