LAS VEGAS – The elders of USA Basketball had come to believe that Chris Paul was still too much of a follower, too wrapped in worship of LeBron James to be taken seriously as the point guard for the Americans. No one ever told this to his face two years ago, but word reached Paul. His nature is to be forever respectful, but privately he seethed over the suggestion.
“I didn’t buy that,” Paul says now.
Looking back, officials probably did Paul a favor on his way out of the summer of 2006, when the United States crumbled to a bronze medal at the World Championships. USA Basketball officials gave him something of an unspoken homework assignment to bring back to the New Orleans Hornets. For Paul, he was obsessed with never giving them a reason to doubt him again.
Between the issues of leadership and those of a 6-foot guard who had struggled with the physicality of international basketball, the breakout star of the NBA season had something of a jagged journey to reach the final U.S. roster that started training camp Monday for the Beijing Olympics.
In a high school gymnasium off the Strip, Paul returned to the national team with a stature, a standing, that has been transformed over two years. For now, the Team USA point belongs to Jason Kidd, but Paul is the young superstar who has systematically obliterated every excuse created to hold him off Team USA.
At 23 years, he’s polishing himself into the best point guard on the planet. His MVP runner-up season and fabulous Western Conference playoff performance made his candidacy impossible to deny for Team USA GM Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“His first season, he acquiesced to some of the older guys,” Colangelo says. “He wasn’t quite there yet. But his maturity has been enormous in the past couple years. He might have looked in awe at some guys two years ago, but I think today that might even be reserved a little bit.”
As he constructed his credentials as a leader these past two years , Paul held together the Hornets as they bounced between Oklahoma City and New Orleans. He’s made the franchise a championship contender and saved pro basketball in Louisiana. Whatever the issues of two summers ago, real or imagined, they’ve lost legitimacy.
Nevertheless, Kidd has a credibility with Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and James that is difficult to duplicate. He’s turned into something of a security blanket for Krzyzewski, who desperately wanted him once the coach had been embarrassed in the World Championships’ loss to Greece in 2006. For USA Basketball officials, the lingering image of Paul in the 2006 tournament had been him needing two and three spin dribbles to get the ball past midcourt. At times, older, stronger defenders manhandled Paul.
“The game is different and speed isn’t so much of a factor,” Kidd says. “You can grab and hold onto dear life, if you want.”
This is the reason that Paul’s broken foot made it easy for Krzyzewski to bring Kidd, Deron Williams and Chauncey Billups as his point guards in the 2007 FIBA Tournament of the Americas. Billups is gone now, and Krzyzewski and Paul have had to work hard to develop a bond. As much as anything, the reasoning goes back to Paul’s days as an All-American at Wake Forest, when he had been the target of a stunningly small-time stunt out of Krzyzewski at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 2005.
Krzyzewski started a Duke walk-on, Patrick Davidson, on Paul, a move that was unmistakable in its intent to incite a physical reaction. After committing two fouls in two minutes – including feverishly bumping Paul until the whistle blew – Davidson left the floor and thrust himself into a creepy sideline embrace with Krzyzewski that revealed so much of the intent.
The late Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser had never been so furious, one of his former assistants says. As for Paul, he had watched a Hall of Fame legend lower himself to something that junior high coaches had tried on him. “He wanted me to smack (Davidson) back,” Paul said then.
Paul had to get over it all to play for Krzyzewski and insists he’s let it go. “It all went out the window when I came here to play,” Paul says. “That was a long time ago.”
Those lingering campus grudges aren’t worth his time now, because there are few players in the sport with the momentum belonging to Paul. Maybe the best move Paul made this year was passing on the overtures of LeBron’s marketing company, LRMR, which made a feverish bid to take over his endorsements.
Maverick Carter, the childhood friend whom James elevated to his business manager, worked Chris and his brother, C.J., hard for months. Carter was selling James’ platform, his access to the biggest and best deals in sports marketing. Around the league, people were privately asking: Why would Paul let James’ company shape his image and solicit his deals? Why did Paul need LeBron’s company to hang his own star?
For some players in the league, living on LeBron’s leftovers would be a good life, but Paul is too far past that, too big to let himself be eclipsed in that way.
As Paul’s star has grown, his agent, Lance Young of Octagon, and business manager brother, C.J., have deftly developed Chris’ wholesome, All-American image for endorsers. Paul has such a natural charisma, a disarming way. He’s a marketing dream, and it’s hard to believe that David Stern would’ve ever let him be kept off this Olympic team.
“He the clean-cut, no tattoos, no ear rings, image,” C.J. Paul says. “He’s moving into the top tier now, competing for the same deals with LeBron and Kobe.”
For now, they’ll chase a gold medal together. This is the year that stopping Chris Paul turned into one of basketball’s most treacherous tasks. No way they could keep him out. No way they could ever doubt him again.