NEW ORLEANS – Most summer mornings by 5 o'clock, the sun still waiting to rise on Lewisville, N.C., Chris Paul sipped coffee at the kitchen table with his older brother, C.J., and grandfather, Nathaniel Jones. By his ninth birthday, that caffeine craving of the working man had started its hold on him. Back then, Chris would awake to pump gas and wash windows at the family business, Jones Chevron, and wasn't much older when he started to check the oil and top the fluids on customers' cars.
Long before his point guard gifts blossomed with his relentless drive, before his pipsqueak body had its spurt, there sweated the Hornets point guard under the sultry summer sky, learning the lessons that seldom pre-date his generation's basketball stardom.
"We would be there from the early morning, until our parents got home from work," Chris Paul said. "If we didn't show up one day, we'd hear all about it. My granddad treated us like men, like working men.
As many of his prodigy peers have turned childhoods into professional AAU careers, that family service station turned into the backdrop for a grandfather delivering the lessons that might just save the NBA in New Orleans. These days, it is so risky to pass a franchise over to a young player. All the burdens beyond basketball – the relationships in the locker room and community, the willingness to take the brunt when things go bad – get lost so easily within teeny-bopper worlds that never had to consider anyone but the man in the mirror.
After most of two seasons exiled to Oklahoma City, the Hornets return to New Orleans this season with a far more monumental task than the NFL's Saints did a year ago. They have no history here. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the Hornets had played just two forgettable seasons after owner George Shinn left Charlotte. Now the team returns to a market that has lost tens of thousands of people and still is finding out that the Hornets were ever here in the first place.
Even before Katrina, the Hornets were a bad team in a bad way in the Big Easy. So far, 2007-08 season ticket sales have struggled to push past 6,000. Although there have been strong returns on luxury suites and private boxes, it's going to take something mesmerizing to make it work here.
For now, the best chance for basketball salvation in New Orleans comes with the point guard dribbling across those downtown billboards, crossing over into those television and radio spots. Here comes the 22-year-old point guard that no one in the NBA dares take their eyes off.
"When they told us we were coming back, people started to say that this was going to become a Chris Paul and Reggie Bush city," said C.J. Paul, Chris' older brother and business manager.
Yet here's how the Hornets were welcomed back to New Orleans for a public practice a week ago: 263 true believers in a suburban practice facility, and 7,700 for the first preseason game at New Orleans Arena a night later. Before the Hornets ran through the tunnel and into that empty building for the Pacers, Paul implored them: "We have to give these people a reason to get behind us."
Over dinners in the building that Paul and Saints running back Reggie Bush share, they find themselves talking about the disparate journeys that have delivered them to this uncommon professional destination.
Even so, despite a relentless marketing crush, Bush will long be trying to elevate his performance to honor the hype that's preceded him. He wasn't the NFL rookie of the year last season, but Paul was the NBA's in 2005-06. As Paul kept hold of the Hornets through their vagabond existence between New Orleans and Oklahoma City, he scored 17 points and passed for nearly nine assists a game last season. And that, too, despite missing 18 games with a stress fracture in his left foot and returning to play through the pain in the season's final month in a desperate bid to make the Western Conference playoffs.
"He belonged playing with us in the '80s," said Hornets coach Byron Scott, Magic Johnson's old running mate with the Showtime Lakers. "He's more the exception than the norm with young players now. But I do wish he was the norm because our game would be a lot better."
These days, the Hornets wish the people of New Orleans could meet Paul for a few moments, see the smile, sense that sincerity and understand that all alone he's worth the investment of a city's trust. For now, they'll have to see him on the court, where his blurring speed meets an innate understanding of making the right play, the right choices.
"You just love to play with him," teammate Tyson Chandler said.
The Hornets GM, Jeff Bower, had been an old friend of Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser, back to the late coach's days as a high school coach in West Virginia. Two and a half years ago, Bower was determined to remake the franchise with a bright-eyed young point guard to replace the embittered and eventually exiled Baron Davis. The Hornets were starting over, and Bower, just promoted to run basketball operations, had the fourth pick in the 2005 NBA draft and had Paul and Illinois' Deron Williams on top of his board.
"He gets it," Prosser kept telling Bower about his All-American.
"This kid gets it."
Less than 24 hours after Paul signed his letter of intent with Wake Forest, the Wake coaches watched him endure the excruciating nightmare of his grandfather, Nathaniel, getting robbed, tortured and murdered by a gang of teenagers as he unpacked groceries in his driveway. The coaches still marvel over the way Paul somehow never let it embitter him or twist his joyful, inviting disposition into something far darker.
Between his grandfather and his parents, Charles and Robin, he had been instilled with the fiercest of determinations. Always, Paul's dream had been to play basketball at the University of North Carolina, but his older brother and his buddies teased him as a teenager, suggesting, come on, get serious, you're still playing junior varsity as a sophomore. Well, Paul transformed himself into one of the nation's best high school point guards, and, for a time, the Tar Heels told him, feel free to come walk on in Chapel Hill.
Finally, North Carolina offered him a scholarship, and Paul reveals now, "Actually, I sort of waited just so I could know that I could've went to (UNC) if I wanted. Once I got my offer from Carolina, I went ahead and committed to Wake. That way, I knew I could've gone there."
His loyalty had been to Prosser, and the program that believed in him the longest, had invested the most into his recruitment. Before Paul ever stepped on the floor for Wake Forest, one of the assistant coaches, Pat Kelsey, found Paul harried between a fall conditioning workout and a mandatory evening study hall. The best freshman point guard in America had to leave campus but promised to return on time for a 7 o'clock study hall.
"Where are you going?" Kelsey asked him.
"I've got to get the grass cut before tonight, or my dad is going to kill me," Paul pleaded.
Paul and Prosser grew so close in the point guard's two seasons in Winston-Salem, and to lose that man who helped him through his grandfather's murder, over the summer, just crushed Paul again. At Prosser's service, Paul was one of the family's choices to speak. For days, he tried to write the words to a eulogy, "but they wouldn't come," he said.
In the end, Paul spoke straight from the heart. There's so much of his grandfather, so much of his old college coach, that stays with him. These Hornets are short on payroll and budgets, scouting staffs and fancy practice facilities. They're shorter on fans and momentum in New Orleans. As much as ever, the Hornets need resolve and resourcefulness and faith. They needed the truth that Chris Paul has never changed, never spoiled, on them.
After that Rookie of the Year season, the Hornets privately laughed and counted blessings when Paul rented a modest three-bedroom, two-bath home for $1,400 a month in Oklahoma City last season. His brother, C.J., lived with him, and his parents stayed in the third bedroom on trips into town.
This was the way the team's PR people lived, never mind one of the league's most popular young players. Chris Paul might make Team USA for the 2008 Beijing Games, but at this rate, he'll never get onto MTV Cribs.
"What's comforting thing about Chris are the voices that he heard growing up," Bower said. "Those voices have talked about things that are important to winning, things that are important to being successful in life. We're the benefactors of all those people who've shaped him."
On the way back into New Orleans this season, the Hornets have the emerging 7-footer Chandler, the best rebounder in the NBA last season, and burgeoning young forward David West on the floor, too. They're trying to get Peja Stojakovic, the $64 million free agent, to get his back straightened and return to being a deep shooting threat.
Paul won't stop talking about his teammates, about the playoff promise awaiting a healthy Hornets season. All along, Paul has refused to play that young star's game of holding the threat of someday leaving unless circumstances are made perfect for him. This is his team, his town, and you should see the way his eyes comes alive when he's talking about the NBA arriving for 2008 All-Star weekend in New Orleans.
"No matter where you are," he said, "you can make it work. If we come out and play well, this city is ready."
The Hornets have a long way to go in New Orleans, and it starts with that baby face on the billboards and television spots. It starts with the kid point guard with the old soul, the little boy who gulped coffee at his grandfather's kitchen table before the engine steam and sun rose over Jones Chevron on those North Carolina summer days. Chris Paul has the biggest job in basketball now, and he just smiles and nods and tells you, "I've worked for everything I've ever gotten in my life, and you know, I still get up really early every morning."