NEW ORLEANS – Chris Paul stepped onto a private jet here around 5 a.m. on Dec. 15, 2011 for a flight to a new start in Los Angeles. As soon as the ex-New Orleans Hornets star sat down in his seat, the reality of the departure from a city that he loved and a franchise that frustrated him set in and he broke down into tears just before the wheels went up.
"We got on the plane and I laid my head on the window after saying goodbye to the guys at the airport that I used to see all the time. I was emotional," Paul told Yahoo Sports. "You think you were going to have some time to let it set in. But as soon as it happened, all the memories, just leaving…
"The trade happened at night so it wasn't like you got to tell people bye. It happened and we were gone."
On Sunday, Paul will receive the spotlight here again when he plays in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Paul's memorable Hornets tenure with a bitter ending started nearly nine years ago when he was the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft. Though Hurricane Katrina left Paul and the Hornets dispatched to Oklahoma City for most of his first season, the 2006 NBA Rookie of the Year quickly became one the league's elite players.
Hornets fans came back to games in large part to cheer Paul, who led the franchise to a near second-round playoff upset of the reigning world champion San Antonio Spurs in 2008 and a near first-round upset of the two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in 2011. Ex-Hornets forward David West called Paul the franchise's first big star in New Orleans. Paul also represented the Hornets in his first All-Star appearance in New Orleans in 2008 and has earned the honor every season here after that.
"He just re-energized and brought life back into the organization," West said. "We knew that he'd lead us to the right direction with the things he brought to the table."
The Hornets returned full-time to New Orleans during the 2006-07 season. Paul not only gave the locals something to get their mind off the tough Katrina recovery with his play, but he also made a strong impact in the community. Paul headed the CP Foundation that benefited programs in New Orleans affected by Katrina, including opening an after-school youth program.
"No matter the request, Chris always gave 100 percent while in New Orleans," ex-Hornets owner George Shinn said. "He was always the first to volunteer and that was just a part of his great leadership. We all see his leadership on the court, but I was always just as impressed with his commitment to the community off the court."
Paul also fell in love quickly with New Orleans, too.
He bought a high-rise condominium on the downtown-area waterfront that included such neighbors as then-Saints running back Reggie Bush. Paul threw beads from floats during Mardi Gras, danced to the tunes at the ESSENCE Music Festival and had his favorite restaurants like NOLA. The Dallas Cowboys fan also became a Saints enthusiast and celebrated when they advanced to and subsequently won the Super Bowl in 2010.
"I was really a part of that city," Paul said. "I honestly can't say one negative thing about the city. If it were not for the city of New Orleans, I'm not who I am now. They just embrace you as family."
Privately, there was a lot that Paul could say negatively about the Hornets.
The Hornets oddly practiced in a temporary facility called the Alario Center that held concerts, community events and comedy shows in suburban New Orleans about a half-hour drive from downtown. Nobody could ever truly divulge to the players when the new and promised practice facility would be built. There was constant talk about the Hornets moving in the post-Katrina era due to poor attendance. Paul was once told that the team could be moving to San Diego. Shinn also wanted to sell the team.
"I went through a lot there," Chris Paul said. "They were talking about moving our team here, moving our team there. All kind of different types of stuff."
The Hornets had a talented young trio with Paul, West and center Tyson Chandler. New Orleans, however, traded Chandler to the Charlotte Bobcats for center Emeka Okafor in July 2009. West said after the Chandler trade that he and Paul began privately discussing the possibility of leaving New Orleans.
"[Paul] knew I was going to leave because I knew he was leaving. We had open conversations about that," West said. "The writing was on the wall probably the season, two seasons before that last year."
Within a year of the Chandler trade, Hornets coach Byron Scott and general manager Jeff Bower were fired. They were ultimately replaced with Monty Williams as coach and Dell Demps as general manager. By the end of 2010, Shinn embarrassingly sold the Hornets to the NBA because he couldn't afford to maintain the franchise.
"The toughest thing was the instability. You just never knew what would have happen," Paul said.
C.J. Paul, Chris Paul's brother and personal manager, said the "final straw" for his brother was when West told him he wouldn't be re-signing with the Hornets. West ended up signing as a free agent with the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 14, 2011 after the NBA lockout ended.
"We had talked about possibly sticking together. But once he realized that I was gone, I knew he was definitely going to check out," West said. "It was time for us to find new space."
Said Chris Paul: "I missed David West. My partner. My right hand man."
Then-Hornets forward Carl Landry said none of the players had a problem with Paul wanting a trade due to the franchise's drama.
"There was a [second-year] GM, a team where you didn't know if it was going to be in the city tomorrow or next year as well as we didn't have an owner," Landry said. "You're owned by the rest of the 29 teams in the NBA. Chris deserved to have better. It's a game, but we all understand that it's a business.
"To not have any stability in anything was tough. That's what Chris was going through at that time as well as all of us."
Fearing Paul would depart as a free agent in 2012, Demps openly engaged in trade talks and allowed the guard and his agent, Leon Rose, to speak with other teams. The Los Angeles Lakers and the Clippers were amongst those to meet with Paul.
As word trickled out that Paul wanted out, there were mixed feelings in New Orleans about it.
"Some people had hard feelings for us," C.J. Paul said. "But most people understood the state we were in. Everyone kind of knew it was rebuilding. Chris didn't want to wait. Chris wants to compete for a championship every year."
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The Hornets struck a blockbuster sending Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers to join Kobe Bryant in the backcourt post-lockout on the afternoon of Dec. 8, 2011. An hour later, the NBA-owned Hornets were told that NBA Commissioner David Stern nullified the deal for "basketball reasons."
Stern, who retired earlier this year, didn't respond to an email in regards to that nullified deal. But new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said: "[Stern] was acting in the best interest of the franchise at the time when he made the decision and did what he felt was right for the team."
Paul responded on Twitter simply with the word, "Wow," after the Lakers trade fell apart. C.J. Paul said his brother expected to play the 2011-12 season in New Orleans and become a free agent at season's end.
"When his deal got rescinded to the Lakers, I knew he was very disappointed," West said. "He just wanted to find a new home and have a chance to start over."
Once the Lakers' bid failed, fellow Staples Center tenant the Clippers immediately pushed to get a deal done for Paul. After complicated negotiations, Paul was dealt to the Clippers the following week for guard Eric Gordon, center Chris Kaman, forward Al-Farouq Aminu and the Minnesota Timberwolves unprotected first-round pick in 2012 (Austin Rivers). The NBA had no problems with this deal that validated the Clippers franchise after many years of struggle and ridicule.
"It put us on the map," said Clippers forward Blake Griffin, who signed a contract extension the next summer. "For him to even want to come to the Clippers says a lot. Ever since then we've been to the playoffs and we're making strides to where we want to be."
Paul opted into his contract through the 2012-13 season and signed a five-year extension paying $107 million last offseason. Paul was primarily cheered in his first return back to New Orleans with the Clippers.
The Pacific Division-leading Clippers (37-18) are now a title contender with first-year coach Doc Rivers. New Orleans hasn't made the postseason since Paul departed.
"As good as we thought Chris Paul was from afar we found out he was better than that," Clippers president Andy Roeser said. "The whole thing exceeded any expectations we had going into it."
But life post-Paul is improving in New Orleans.
Tom Benson, who also owns the Saints, purchased the Hornets in 2012. Benson changed the team name to the Pelicans, who have a new practice facility, are in a lease in New Orleans until 2025 and now play in Smoothie King Center after naming rights to New Orleans Arena were recently purchased. Second-year Hornets forward-center Anthony Davis was named a first-time All-Star as a replacement for an injured Kobe Bryant. The injury-plagued Pelicans own a 23-29 record.
So would Paul still be in New Orleans if such stability under Benson were in place before his departure?
"I can't say what would have happened," Paul said. "I don't know all that stuff. But I had a great time there and I love and enjoy where I am now."
Paul expressed excitement to return to New Orleans for basketball and personal reasons. His infant daughter and his brother's infant twin son and daughter were christened in New Orleans on Thursday morning. In the afternoon, he went to KIPP Central City to check on his still running after-school program.
Paul said he played the best basketball of his career in New Orleans. What the All-Star did in New Orleans and how he departed will never be forgotten. So should the Pelicans retire Paul's Hornets jersey one day?
"That's tough. That's completely up to them," Paul said. "For me, New Orleans will always have a special place in my heart."