Chris Paul passes along lessons on the importance of family

From Philadelphia — You hear about someone and how impressive he is as a person, solid and all that.

It has to be just a good show for the cameras, doesn't it? No one is too good to be true until you talk to Chris Paul.

He has it, whatever it is that allows someone to have such an impact on those around him.

It's one thing to feel chills while watching the Clippers' peewee guard go razzle and dazzle on everyone on the court. It's quite another to be moved and feel what his coach and teammates have been saying all along: He's special.

He's talking about the national anthem when we get together for the first time. He begins each game the same way, he says, hand over heart and head bowed.

"I say a prayer — and I've never told anyone this before — but this is how it goes: I begin by thanking God for bringing our team here safely; their team as well.

"And I tell God, 'I know you know already who the winner is, but I ask that you will let it be us.'

"I thank him for my entire family back home, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and I thank him for my parents, brother, wife and son.

"Then I say, 'My Lord, I want to thank you for Papa Chili and my Grandma Rachel. I know they are in heaven smiling down on me.' That's how I end the prayer every time."

Early in his career he would hold a laminated picture of his grandfather Papa Chili in his hands during the national anthem. Now it's enough to just hold him dear in his heart.

"Most kids have a teammate who might be their best friend," he says, "but it was my Papa. He was the first black man to open a service station in North Carolina."

Paul worked every summer in Nathaniel Jones' garage, proclaiming proudly, "I can change oil. I can rotate your tires. I know cars."

When Paul had a game, his granddad would close the garage early.

"He taught me so many values," Paul says. "I always remember him saying he couldn't work for anybody; he owned the garage. That way he could leave when he wanted.

"And I just knew he was going to be there at my game in his light blue top, dark blue bottoms, 'Jones Chevron' on his chest, dirty hands and dirty fingernails," he says. "And cheering for me."

When Paul signed his letter of intent to play for Wake Forest, it was his Papa who took the Wake Forest baseball cap off his own head to give it to his grandson.

The next night his Papa was murdered.

His hands had been tied, tape put over his mouth, and he had been beaten to death by five youngsters wielding pipes.

"I was on fire with anger," Paul says, "and for a long time. Here I am a senior in high school, it's the best time of my life and my granddad is part of the reason I'm going to Wake Forest because I'll be staying around home."

One of his aunts suggests he play a basketball game as scheduled and score 61 points — one each for every year his Papa Chili lived.

So Paul scores 61 points.

Sentences, meanwhile, are passed down. Everyone goes to jail; two of the youngsters get life.

"I think a lot," Paul says. "As mad as I was at those kids, I don't feel I could go to prison because I need my family so much.

"Some of those kids were 13 and 14; I believe people have to have consequences for their actions. But I think about how life changes. You want people to have an opportunity in life, and at 13 they won't have the opportunity.

"That's why I had to find forgiveness in my heart. And no question I have."

How special do you have to be to dig so deep?

"I don't know how I got to that point," he says. "But I just know as bitter and as angry as I was, I couldn't get my granddad back."

He pauses to gather himself, the next question doing him no favor: If you had one more chance to speak to him, what would you say?

"It almost brings tears to my eyes to think about it," he says. "The crazy things that have happened to me since then — I wish my granddad could be a part of them.

"In fact, my aunt just found a picture of him and sent it to me. I have it on my BlackBerry. I look at it and it is like, 'Papa, I miss you.' "

He knows it sounds corny as he continues, but if you're going to really get to know him, corny is what he is at times.

"The most valuable thing I have is family," he says. "I can't wait to get to Charlotte [on Saturday]. I have hundreds of family coming to the game. They'll be wearing CP3 T-shirts."

Maybe no one else notices it but a born leader, but early this week Paul gets on the team bus and sees Mo Williams isn't himself.

"He just looks down," Paul says. "He tells me he just found out his grandfather died. We talk all the way to the arena and then we talk about how much we love our parents. We can't imagine the day when they will pass.

"And we're telling each other we need to be older before they pass away. We don't want anything tragic to happen because we don't know how we would handle it."

He excuses himself to fetch a plate of food from the hotel buffet. On the way he stops when spotting a youngster.

"Hey, what's up, man?" he says, while enlisting another young fan for life.

Ordinarily they come in pairs. He wears a rubber band on each wrist so that after every game he might make the night for two more kids. The rubber bands are inscribed with the birth date of his son: 5-24-09.

"I have the best wife anyone could ask for, and it's a privilege to do what I do for a living," he says. "I'm fortunate and I'm so happy to be playing here."

He's reminded he's a Clipper, and he says, "There's a difference between arrogance and confidence. Let me just say I'm confident that whoever I play for, I can make a difference."

He gets no argument.

"I give my parents a lot of credit for who I am," he says. "You know how a lot of people in this league will say in an interview: 'Hey, Mom, I love you?'

"I'm fortunate enough to say, 'Mom and Dad.' And my Dad truly loves my Mom; that's what I know and what I've always seen."

Tell me you don't feel the chills as well.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World