NYT - Sports

The Phoenix Suns Are Chris Paul’s Latest Project

There are nights when Chris Paul will drive for a layup, toss a no-look pass to a teammate for a 3-pointer and crash to the court trying to sell an offensive foul to the officials — all before the game is minutes old. And then when the game goes to its first commercial break, he will try to sell you some home, life or auto insurance, too.

Paul has been inescapable for 16 N.B.A. seasons. One of the league’s great point guards and an 11-time All-Star, he has entered the renaissance phase of his career, guiding the Phoenix Suns to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Phoenix, which is making its first playoff appearance since the 2010 season, will face the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, starting Sunday.

Paul’s impact on the Suns has been profound. So much leadership, according to his teammates. So much passion. So much “tough love,” as Mikal Bridges, a Suns forward, said in an interview.

Of course, there has always been so much of everything when it comes to Paul, stretching back to his two college seasons at Wake Forest, through the high peaks and low valleys of his Lob City days with the Los Angeles Clippers. Now the Suns have flourished in his painstaking, perfection-demanding wake.

Paul, 36, has spent years cluttering box scores, filling television screens and polarizing opponents, fans and sometimes colleagues. Is he a winner or a whiner? Is he entertaining or irritating?

Ahead of the playoffs, six people who know him from different facets of his life — from the bargaining table to the basketball court — reflected on their experiences with a star whose drive, at least, has never been questioned.

Fitness coach

David Alexander, a strength and conditioning coach based in Miami, was introduced to Paul at the 2012 London Olympics by LeBron James, who was among Alexander’s high-profile clients at the time. Alexander and Paul quickly became friends — dinners, golf — but they didn’t work together until December 2018, when Paul, who was then playing for the Houston Rockets, injured his left hamstring in a game against the Miami Heat.

Paul was nearly 34 at the time. He had chronic injuries in his hands and his legs. A strained right hamstring had sidelined him for the last two games of the previous season’s Western Conference finals and may have cost the Rockets a championship. The chorus was growing louder: Paul, who could not stay on the court, was on his way out. Alexander invited him to his facility.

For a week in Miami, and then for several more in Houston, Alexander and his colleagues worked with Paul, identifying and correcting imbalances in his body. Alexander was struck by his determination. Paul returned to the Rockets’ lineup by the end of January.

“There are certain people who work hard because they’re actually trying to improve themselves by 1 percent every day — if not 2, 3, 4 or 5 percent,” Alexander said. “They’re really trying to improve. They’re not just going through the motions.”

A few months later, after an off-season trade sent Paul to the Oklahoma City Thunder from Houston, Paul was on a football field with Alexander, running sprints in the midsummer heat and repeating a mantra of sorts: Someone’s got to pay. Someone’s got to pay.

“Keep that energy all season,” Alexander recalled telling him. “This is an opportunity to show the world that Chris Paul is very far from retiring.”

With the Thunder last season, Paul was injury-free and an All-Star for the first time since 2015-16, leading an unsung team to the fifth-best record in the West.

Alexander has continued to work with Paul, having him do some of the “most intricate biomechanical movements.”

“And if Chris isn’t able to do it perfectly on the first set, he’ll study the video to understand what he was doing wrong,” Alexander said. “It’s almost like he approaches it scientifically.”

Actor

Kevin Miles, 30, is the red-shirt-wearing actor who portrays the character Jake in State Farm Insurance commercials alongside Paul. He recalled putting in three straight 12-hour days filming a series of spots when Paul, the part-time thespian, said he was heading back to the gym for another workout. Miles started to question himself.

“You’re kind of like, ‘Well, what am I going to do now?’ ” he said. “ ‘Should I go read a script? Should I write something? Should I go work out?’ There’s something about being around him that makes you want to try even harder.”

Paul, who has been appearing in commercials for State Farm since 2012 (occasionally as Cliff Paul, his policy-hawking twin brother), met Miles early last year when they did their first batch of ads together. Miles kept his cool.

“I didn’t want my first day with him to be like: ‘Oh, my God! CP3! Lob City!’ ” Miles said.

Paul, though, seemed genuinely curious about Miles’s career path, asking him how long he had been acting (since age 9) and about his move to Los Angeles from Chicago after college.

“And I’m telling him how I lived in my car for a while when I first came out here,” Miles said, “and he’s looking over to his son, saying, ‘Are you listening to this?’ I think he respects people who push through and persevere.”

When they worked together again in November, Paul greeted him like they were old friends. Miles introduced him to his father, also named Kevin, whom he had brought on set. “Is this Papa Kev?” Paul asked.

The process never felt rushed to Miles. After a series of rolling takes, Paul and Miles joined the director in front of a bank of monitors to review the footage.

“He sees the same thing that I see from our performance,” Miles said, “and we’ll go back and change it, and it’ll look the way we want it to look. We can give each other that eye that says, ‘Yeah, that was the one,’ or, ‘No, we’re redoing that.’ ”

Paul wanted to make sure they got it right, and it didn’t matter if he was running late for a flight or if he was on a conference call with Adam Silver, the N.B.A. Commissioner, which he was, more than once.

“He would do the scene and then go back to his call,” Miles said. “It was kind of amazing how he was able to lock in and compartmentalize everything else that was going on in his life.”

Executive director of the National Basketball Players Association

It was the coldest day of Michele Roberts’s life. A lawyer, she had been interviewing in the early weeks of 2014 with board members of the National Basketball Players Association for a position as its executive director. By the time she arrived in Chicago on a blustery morning to meet with Paul, the union’s president since 2013, her nerves were frayed.

“I had difficulty getting a car from the airport to the hotel, and I was frozen and then his practice was late, so I had to wait for 45 minutes,” she said.

They were meeting in a small hotel conference room, and as soon as Paul showed up, he opened his notebook and started peppering Roberts with questions: What experience did she have in sports and with unions and with the league’s various stakeholders? What did she know about group licensing rights and intellectual property?

The interview lasted more than an hour, Roberts said. She came away impressed. “He made me want the job even more,” she said.

Roberts and Paul have worked closely since, steering the players’ union through a period of growing player empowerment — and numerous challenges. Roberts recalled the emotional meeting that players and coaches had last season after the police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man in Kenosha, Wis. The temperature in the room was rising, Roberts said, when Paul found a way to restore order.

“I hope his children find him fun, because he’s a serious guy,” Roberts said.

Referee

When Bob Delaney became an N.B.A. referee in the 1987-88 season, opposing players were rivals, he said.

“You weren’t helping anybody up off the court if they weren’t wearing the same uniform as you were,” Delaney said.

By the time Paul entered the league in 2005 with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, the dynamic among players had evolved, Delaney said. Many had been friends since high school, when they would travel in the same circles on elite summer circuits. As N.B.A. stars, they filmed commercials together, dined together and even vacationed together. (Banana boat, anyone?) The atmosphere for games tended to be less emotionally charged.

“For lack of a better term, there’s a lot of love between N.B.A. players these days,” Delaney said. “So how do you get that edge for players who need that feeling? Well, it’s natural for some to find that edge through the referee.”

To be clear: Paul has seldom appeared to be overly sociable with opposing players during games. (He will even spar with his own teammates.) But he seems to reserve a special brand of venom for officiating crews. He moans. He argues. He complains. He glares.

“These guys are so competitive, and they see a referee’s call as getting in the way of a win,” said Delaney, who retired as a referee in 2011 and from the league office in 2017. “Their will to win is so strong. You can’t take it personally — it’s business.”

Early in Paul’s career, Delaney bumped into Paul and his brother, C.J., at a summer fund-raiser for the 13th Avenue Community Center in Bradenton, Fla.

“C.J. would be very vocal during games from his seat along the sideline,” Delaney said, laughing. “So, there’s this little awkwardness when you see each other in a different type of setting.”

Delaney recalled having a quiet conversation with them about the community center. They steered clear of talking hoops — and that was probably by design. Delaney suspects that Paul wanted to compartmentalize that part of their relationship until the next time he needed to yell at him.

“Each player,” Delaney said, “finds motivation in his own way.”

Wake Forest teammate

Paul was a junior at West Forsyth High School in Clemmons, N.C., when, in 2002, he made his official recruiting visit to Wake Forest. Taron Downey, a freshman guard, hosted him in his dorm room and showed him around, not that Paul was unfamiliar with the school, or that anyone at the school was unfamiliar with him. He was considered one of the top prospects in the country, and he had grown up about 10 miles away.

“I remember there was this buzz around campus,” Downey said. “ ‘Chris Paul is coming!’ Yeah, it was a big deal.”

Downey’s impression of Paul was that he loved to play basketball and talk about basketball and watch basketball and play basketball some more.

“I just thought that this guy was the real deal,” Downey said, “because when you love basketball and you’re all about it, you can’t hide it.”

And that translated into a hypercompetitive approach when Paul arrived as a freshman. He was demanding, with mixed responses from teammates. (Little, of course, has changed over the years.)

“Sometimes you have to be a bit of a — I don’t want to say ‘jerk,’ ” Downey said. “But you’ve got to be tough on people, and that can be hard to deal with. But when you’re a winner, that’s what it takes. You have to be ready to kick some guys in the butt.”

Paul spent two seasons at Wake Forest before entering the N.B.A. as the fourth pick in the 2005 draft. Downey had a long pro career that included stops in France, Cyprus, Belgium and Poland.

“The thing about Chris is that he doesn’t wow you with his athleticism,” Downey said. “But he has all the small things you want from a point guard times 10: the competitive edge, the savvy to keep defenders off balance, an I.Q. that’s through the roof.”

Some players make distinct impressions. Paul, for example, does not go unnoticed. Mikal Bridges can remember matching up against Paul for the first time in February 2019, when Bridges was a first-year guard for the Suns and Paul was with the Rockets.

“He was talking a lot,” Bridges said. “Him being him. Hilarious.”

Last season, when Paul was playing for the Thunder, Bridges was defending him when Paul pulled one of his classic offensive moves — the old swipe-through before a shot to draw contact and a foul. That time was not so hilarious. “He got me benched,” Bridges said.

Now one of Paul’s teammates, Bridges has gotten an education in reading the game, attacking pick-and-roll coverages and bracing for the unrelenting nature of competition. Bridges said that the team’s younger players were listening.

“There’s always back and forth because we’re trying to win and improve,” Bridges said.

The Suns went 34-39 last season and missed the playoffs, despite a strong showing at the N.B.A. bubble. There is no question, Bridges said, that Paul has elevated them into contention.

In late April, the Suns were coming off back-to-back losses and facing the Knicks at the end of a five-game road trip. Phoenix was weary but in need of a morale-building win. Paul delivered in the game’s late stages with a series of long jump shots, one after another. “He lives for those big moments,” Bridges said.

Paul has talked openly with his Suns teammates about winning a championship, Bridges said. He has not tried to hide his ambition or his high hopes, and his approach has affected the entire franchise. Why not the Suns? Why not now?

“That’s our mind-set,” Bridges said.

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