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Paul's influence felt in New Orleans
When the buzzer sounded, Chris Paul made like a one-man Mardi Gras krewe. As he began along the route from the floor to the locker room, Paul pulled his red jersey over his head, rolled it into a ball and reached up to hand it to a boy hanging over a railing.
Then he shed his wristbands. Next off were his shoes, which he gave to kids who were in an after-school program he sponsors. If Paul had any beads or doubloons, he would have surely tossed those, too.
Chris Paul's abundant charity work brought great hope to New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina hit.Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE
For the last six years, Paul had given much to a city that had needed it — on the court and in the community. His return last week, for the first time since engineering a trade to the Los Angeles Clippers in December, did little to change that.
Paul, who had rented a billboard downtown to thank the city after he was traded, bought tickets for nearly 150 students to attend the game. He shook hands with a security guard, he hugged an equipment manager, talked with former teammates and coaches and marveled at how much the triplets of Hornets assistant coach Bryan Gates, born three months premature last spring, had grown.
When Paul reached the locker room after the Clippers' 97-90 loss, it was easy to wonder: What else do you give when you've already handed over your heart?
Star players angling for a bigger market and a better team has become such a contentious issue in the NBA that it was at the center of last year's acrimonious labor negotiations. But it is one thing for LeBron James to bolt Cleveland, Carmelo Anthony to get out of Denver and Dwight Howard to do his "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" dance in Orlando.
It is another to leave New Orleans.
The notion of abandonment is not so abstract here, where the Final Four is set to begin Saturday night. It lies not far below the surface in the psyche of the city, from the way the local, state and federal government moved so slowly — or not at all — to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. The ponderous response to the oil spill in the gulf only reinforced the belief that you were on your own.
Large swaths of areas that were devastated by Katrina — the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, for example — still lack for basic services such as schools, gas stations and grocery stores. Crime has soared in some pockets and manufacturing jobs have been slow to return. But there has been a surge in the creative arts, volunteerism has boomed and there has been some early success with charter schools in a public system that had been failing.
The recovery, like the city itself, is complicated.
What New Orleans has been looking for is investment — in businesses, in the community, in the long, arduous rebuilding.
The Hornets, now owned by the league, put it succinctly in their ubiquitous marketing slogan: "I'm In."
So, to opt out, as Paul did in the figurative sense when he informed the Hornets he would not sign a contract extension and would become a free agent this summer, carries its own weight.
"Personally, it kind of grabs at you a little bit, especially in New Orleans," said David West, the Hornets former All-Star forward who opted out of his contract last summer and signed with Indiana. "That region of the country is so unique, because the need is always there. The one thing is the genuine nature of the people. You get accustomed to that and you become endeared to that, and then to have to make a business decision maybe when emotionally ... your heart is saying something a little different, is tough. Being attached, being a positive face and a positive spot in that community, especially after Katrina, it was hard to leave."
West, like Paul, was immersed in the community. He would regularly visit local juvenile jails, where he would talk with boys who were as young as 11 years old. He came away certain that sports meant something more here, be it the Hornets, LSU football or the immensely popular Saints. They provided a much-needed diversion for life's hard realities.
Those realities are apparent on the face of Brenda Fletcher, a stocky, ebullient woman in her 50s, who returned to the Lower Ninth Ward last year after relocating to Conroe, Tex., in the wake of Katrina. Fletcher shuffled down Tennessee Street one day last week, dodging rain drops, to check on her brother two blocks away.
The Lower Ninth is New Orleans' equivalent to Ground Zero. About two-thirds of the lots in the neighborhood are empty, filled only with thigh-high weeds. Jumping out amid the desolation are the innovative, eye-catching, eco-friendly, flood-averse homes built by Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation.
"It gets better, but it doesn't get better fast enough," said Fletcher, who said she is disabled and lives off Section 8 vouchers. "I like that it's peaceful and quiet. I don't have a spirit of fear like it used to be. But you don't have no good service. They really abandoned the Ninth — the government and everybody else. Everything is about Uptown and Canal and Bourbon Street. Down here, it's slow, real slow."
When Clippers assistant coach Robert Pack returns to this neighborhood, he hardly recognizes it. Gone is Lawless High School, where he was a star basketball player, along with the home he grew up in and nearly everything else but his memories. There is a K-thru-8 school, but construction on a $40 million high school has not yet begun.
"There's a lot of people saying New Orleans is back, but as soon as you cross the canal, you see things are not the same," Pack said. "You can't say the city has recovered because of the Superdome or Uptown. You take a couple steps over there and you see it's not right yet."
Pack, who worked with Paul as an assistant for the Hornets, appreciates the significance of Paul rebuilding four outdoor basketball courts around the city, most of them in low-income neighborhoods. It was on those types of courts, Pack said, that he learned to play the game.
The courts, which were once mottled asphalt, are now level concrete and painted with the logos and colors of the teams that Paul has played for: West Forsyth High in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wake Forest, the Hornets and Team USA. The initials C.P. adorn the backboards.
One of those courts sits at Hardin Park, in the Seventh Ward, a few miles from downtown. It is where the renowned St. Augustine High marching band practices, but most afternoons it is filled with people playing basketball, said Tony Bell, whose family lives across the street.
But any hopes that a renovated park, one that looks clean, but not necessarily well kempt, might spark revitalization — a broken windows theory in reverse — have gone unfulfilled.
One of Chris Paul's courts is splotched with puddles after a rainy day in Hardin Park.Billy Witz
"This was a raggedy park, there were drug dealers," said Henry Hines, a retired cop, standing on the porch of his home that borders Hardin Park. "But you've got that corner store over there. You think they've put anything into it? (The Parks Department) hasn't done a thing. You've got grown men using the basketball courts when it should be kids. They should be working, man. Kids aren't going to challenge you to play basketball. Most of the rentals are Section 8, so you don't have a lot of personal pride in the neighborhood."
In an hour-long conversation on Hines' stoop on a warm spring day, it becomes clear just how complicated many things are — the recovery, investment, responsibility, charity and community, among other matters.
Measured against Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Pitt and other actors and musicians, Paul's contributions — while appreciated — are modest, said Hines, who has not seen Paul at the park since a dedication ceremony three years ago.
"It's like campaign politics: once the election is over, you don't see him no more," Hines said. "But I don't hold him accountable. I hold the city. If it wasn't going to be Chris Paul, then who?"
Hines was asked if there is a feeling amongst residents that you can't count on anyone for help?
"Exactly," Hines said. "How can you count on help anywhere in this city? See that house over there (that is under construction)? It's been sitting like that for four months. Did they run out of money? Did they change their mind? Well, the people next door are trying to sell their house, but who's going to buy it? It's like investing in a bad stock. Why would you do it unless you're stupid?"
Paul learned about the importance of community where he learned a lot of his life lessons — at the gas station his late grandfather, Nathanial Jones, operated in Lewisville, N.C.
When he was 9 years old, Paul would stuff a red rag in the back pocket of his jeans — just like his grandfather, who everyone knew as Papa Chili — and get dropped off with his older brother, C.J., to do odd jobs around the station.
The boys drank sugar coffee with their grandfather, and there were days during the summer when they'd rather have been off playing with friends. But Papa Chili paid them for their work, teaching them the value of money. The boys also saw that the service station served as a haven for a group of men — the Junkyard Gang, Paul thinks they called themselves — who'd hang out at the station when they'd get off work.
"They'd get there about five in the afternoon and would sit and talk about everything under the sun," Paul said. "I'd just sit there and laugh. The station would close and they'd just sit there talking and laughing. They'd do it every day."
Papa Chili provided more than a retreat. He also offered a hand out. It wasn't unheard of for him to let somebody run a tab if money was tight, and he organized coat giveaways at the family's church. Those examples stayed with Paul, whose CP3 Foundation is involved in more than a dozen programs in New Orleans and Winston-Salem, N.C., and has begun to put down roots in Los Angeles.
"Once I realized I had more resources and the ability to do more, I said "Why not?" Paul said. "To whom much is given, much is required. That resonates. Every year for Christmas, we take 100 kids to Best Buy and give them $100 gift cards. I tell them don't just run through and buy everything for you. Make sure you get something for your brother or sister. I try to teach kids at an early age that it's not just about you."
Paul said most of his charitable endeavors involve children, a cause he was drawn to before he and his wife, Jada, had their son Chris, who is 2. (They're currently expecting their second child.)
His most ambitious project is the CP3 Afterschool Program at the KIPP City Center School, a purple and white cinderblock fortress located at the edge of one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, where an elderly lady sits in a rocking chair on her front porch under a sign that reads: "Enough!" It is a reference, she said, to the rampant killings.
Paul's foundation and JP Morgan Chase have provided $1 million to start a program that not only keeps children who attend the school sheltered from 3:00 until 5:30 each weekday, but leaves them enriched. There are 15 different classes available, ranging from creative writing to yoga to French to cooking to martial arts and African dance.
"It's not academic," said Andria Reed, site director at the charter school, whose test scores, she said, were among the top three in the city last year. "It's made to be fun. What we're seeing is some kids who are angry and distracted become focused and engaged, and then they become mentors."
Outside the school, yellow buses are lined up around the block, many to transport kids to the various community centers where the activities are held. Inside, there is a buzz, as teachers and staff unpack t-shirts they will hand out to the kids when they greet Paul at the game in a few hours.
Sean Tate, the program's director, is hopeful the program extends beyond its original three-year commitment, which expires after next year, even if the benefactor is no longer playing a few blocks away. Paul said that is his intention, too.
"He's still a part of the program," said Tate, who noted that Paul stopped by several times last year, to help make sushi with the kids, most of whom are second and third-graders, or sell lemonade at the Jazz & Heritage Festival. "I'm always giving him updates. He's doing more than just funding the program. He's involved. When a lot of athletes leave (their team), everything associated with them leaves. But I think with Chris, even if the city on the uniform is different, he's still here."
Standing at a stoplight under a freeway overpass, not far from the school, a down-on-her-luck woman holds up a sign that reads: Out Of Work Super Model. Need money for plastic surgery.
How very New Orleans. You might lose everything, but not your sense of humor.
So it figures that, as a video tribute to Paul outlining his efforts on the court and in the community came to a conclusion and fans began to applaud, a lone voice could be heard.
"Put a bounty on his ass," a fan yelled with a laugh.
Paul, if he had heard, may have been as amused as everyone else. As decrepit and corrupt as New Orleans can be, one of its endearing — and enduring — qualities is the warmth of its people, who took in Paul and C.J., his brother and business manager.
"This was home for us," said C.J., who along with Chris lived in the Warehouse District, a rare athlete who did not live in the suburbs. "Chris always said, if there was one thing he could do, it was bring the people of New Orleans with him. He got attached to so many people, had so many friends that became family, and it's hard to leave all that."
There was a time not so long ago when Paul would not have thought about leaving. In 2008, New Orleans won 56 games, finishing one game behind the Lakers for the best record in the Western Conference and pushing defending champion San Antonio to seven games in the conference semifinals. Then the Hornets let Jannero Pargo leave as a free agent. They traded Tyson Chandler after the next season to further cut costs. Then owner George Shinn went into bankruptcy, and last year the NBA took over ownership of the team until it could find a buyer. That search is ongoing.
"We felt like (in 2008), we had a championship caliber team," Paul said. "Woulda, coulda, shoulda and all that stuff, but we felt like we would have given the Lakers a run for their money in the Western Conference finals. So, the next year was a big year for us and they started breaking up the team. They traded Tyson and I didn't know about that. The ownership became a shambles. There was so much uncertainty — you don't know who to believe when they're telling you that this person may be buying the team or this or that. Then just the day-to-day decisions, like would you trade for this guy? Would you go over the luxury tax? Does the team need a masseuse? Those are things that are very valuable during a season like this with how your body is maintained. It was tough to deal with."
West and Paul shared enough frustration over the years that they knew where it was headed. West wanted to play for a winner so badly that he opted out of his contract last July despite coming off a torn ACL last March and the specter of a lockout. Paul said he knew then that he wanted out, too.
"It wasn't so much this year, it was a build-up," West said. "The chips keep stacking and stacking and stacking, and all of a sudden it's like 'All right, that's enough.' It started a few years before this last year. In this business, you've got to look ahead a little bit and you kind of saw the writing on the wall. I knew how Chris felt, what he wanted to do, and he knew what I wanted to do there. I think we both kind of knew it wasn't going to work anymore. Ultimately, when it was time to make decisions about where we should continue our futures, it didn't make sense to stay there."
In the end, then, it was a cost-benefit analysis, a business decision. Those are not often accepted, let alone embraced, in a place where industriousness is more likely to be considered a vice than a virtue — Laissez les bon temps roulez.
And that may help explain why Paul was booed so often in his return. It was hard to remember the charity, the commitment and the anchor he once was in the community. New Orleans coach Monty Williams said he was "embarrassed" by the crowd's response, but he understood it.
"It's just a reaction to the girl who broke up with you," Williams said. "People really loved him, and they still do, and it's a reaction to him not being there anymore. There was a lot of respect in those boos. I don't think it was 'We hate you.' I think it was 'We miss you.'"
The feeling, in some ways, appeared to be mutual. After Paul showered and dressed, he went out to the team bus, where dozens of friends, acquaintances and business partners took their turn with him. The sting of the loss did not seem to linger. He shared stories and some laughter before he said his last goodbyes and boarded the bus for the airport, not quite filled with regret, but with an understanding of what it means to miss New Orleans.