J. A. Adante | March 23, 2012
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NEW ORLEANS -- It's not that Chris Paul left the Hornets, it's that he left here, this city of severely wounded sports-fan psyches and badly damaged infrastructure.
And it's not that Chris Paul has returned, it's that he has returned now, right after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell decimated the beloved Saints by suspending coach Sean Payton for the season and general manager Mickey Loomis for half a season and swiping two second-round draft picks as part of the punishment for the team's bounty program.
To top it off, over the past two days New Orleans has been plagued by Old Testament-style rainstorms and rising water, with all of the memories that combination stirs up for this region.
So that's the setting into which Paul descended when the Los Angeles Clippers' chartered plane touched down and he tweeted "Back in the N.O.!!!" shortly before 1 a.m. local time Thursday. He's here to face the Hornets, the team he represented for the first six years of his NBA career, until December when the team sought to pre-empt his inevitable free-agency departure by trading him -- first to the Lakers, then, after David Stern voided that deal, to the Clippers.
Paul has quickly become as integral to his new team as he was to the Hornets. The Clippers are about Blake Griffin's aerial adventures for the first three quarters, but turn strictly into a series of Paul's deft ballhandling and feathery jump shots in the fourth quarter. But he keeps getting served up reminders of his old team. Fans ask him to sign No. 3 Hornets jerseys. He recently received a shipment of his signature Jordan Brand shoes in Hornets colors. And he avidly follows the Hornets, texting his former teammates to compliment them on good plays or following one of their infrequent victories.
"I'm emotionally connected to that team forever," Paul said this week.
"I still love that city. I always will. It's going to be crazy to be in a different uniform, especially playing against them. I'm so emotionally attached to the city and that team."
There's a fondness for Paul here as well, but let's be clear: This city's heart belongs to the Saints. They dominated any discussion Wednesday, and they had the town emotionally rattled. The best way to summarize the local mood is to recount the story a bar owner told me about a regular customer who gave up drinking alcohol for Lent and stuck to his vow -- even on St. Patrick's Day -- until he learned of the Saints' penalties and came in for some Jameson whiskey.
New Orleans residents see themselves in the Saints, a franchise that suffered four decades of futility before winning the Super Bowl in 2010. And now the most glorious moment in the city's sports history has been tarnished, with the Saints forced to acknowledge that their championship came amid a bounty program that offered cash incentives to injure other teams' star players.
"We've been thrown a lot of bad breaks in the past and we keep getting up and we show up every September," said Sean Tate, the program manager at the KIPP Central City school, just a few blocks from the Superdome. "It's going to be tough without our coach on the sidelines and our draft picks.
"It's tough to hear. That [Super Bowl] year, just thinking about watching that game and how awesome it was, when it was finally apparent that, 'Wow, the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl' -- it takes a little bit away from it.
"Now people will always look back and say 'They had this bounty system.' People will always look with this cloud."
That doesn't mean he will get rid of the copy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune's championship coverage edition, with the front-page headline "Amen!"
"That's something that can never be taken away," he said.
Paul feels the same way about his bond with the city. A trade doesn't eradicate the connections he made with New Orleans, including his partnership with Chase Bank to donate $1 million to fund the afterschool program at the KIPP Central City Primary school, where I met Tate on Wednesday. Through his CP3 afterschool program, kids learn everything from nutrition tips to Zumba dance workouts.
Paul didn't just write a check; he has been there to play basketball with the kids, make sushi rolls with them and help them sell lemonade at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for a dollar a cup.
"I think he truly had a genuine commitment to the people and fans of New Orleans," said Korbin Johnson, the principal of the KIPP Central City Primary school. "Although the business side of things can lead us in different directions, he was coming from his heart. When he repaved basketball parks and redid parks, when he invested in our program, his commitment was truly from his heart. That may sound a little cheesy -- but man, especially in New Orleans, we see through that. Unless it's real and genuine, we're able to detect what isn't real very quickly. I don't think anyone ever got that impression from Chris."
It's why he is expected to get a warm reception from the fans at New Orleans Arena on Friday (and perhaps, he hopes, even a Ric Flair "Whoo!" that they used to play over the loudspeakers when he scored). Fans recognize what he did for the city. And they appreciate the way he handled his departure.
There was no anguish-inducing public wavering like Dwight Howard put the Orlando Magic through this season. There was no LeBron James-style televised special when he left.
Paul consistently expressed a desire to be a Hornet, saying things like, "Right now my position is to win a championship right here in New Orleans." That became untenable, though, when the team's financial prospects were so shaky that the NBA had to take over the team when no local owner stepped in to buy it from George Shinn. How could Paul commit to being an employee when no one committed to being the boss?
"Not having an owner played a major part in it," said C.J. Paul, Chris' brother. "Anything could happen."
And when David West, Chris' close friend and fellow All-Star, left as a free agent last summer, "That was probably the last straw," C.J. said. "If D-West would have come back, he might have thought about it a little longer."
Chris had always maintained a good relationship with Hornets general manager Dell Demps, and he let Demps know that he wanted to leave. He would opt out of his contract at the end of the 2011-12 season unless the team traded him to a preferred destination.
"I wasn't trying to leave and 'I'll just go do whatever,'" Paul said. "I wanted the team to be in good hands."
Demps crafted a three-team trade with the Rockets and Lakers that would have brought Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a first-round draft pick. Then Stern, acting as the team owner (but widely believed to be channeling the wishes of other owners as the league commissioner) struck down the deal that would have brought the league's best point guard to its most glamorous franchise. Instead, the Hornets wound up trading Paul to the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round pick. (In the ensuing weeks the LSU Tigers lost the BCS title game to Alabama in the Superdome and the Saints lost to the 49ers in the NFL playoffs. That's a tough sequence for any fan base to endure.)
The way the Paul trades went down left more people angry with Stern than with Paul.
"Business is business" is how one fan described Paul's decision to leave.
That explanation doesn't always trickle down to the third-graders at KIPP Central City Primary, who might not understand all the nuances of free agency and life in the NBA.
"He betrayed us," said a third-grade girl named Derenise Buckley.
"I think that Chris Paul doesn't care about us anymore. I thought he cared about us and he would never betray us."
Another third-grader, Carter Mayberry, was quick to defend Paul.
"He's the one who made this whole program," he said. "He picked this school out of all the schools in New Orleans."
Carter said Paul has inspired him to play sports. He even remembers the time he got to test out his karate skills against Paul, and he wants a rematch.
Perhaps the kids will be unanimously on Paul's side again after they go to the Hornets-Clippers game courtesy of the tickets Paul bought for more than 100 students and administrators from the school. And perhaps when they get older they'll understand why he left when he did.
Or maybe they'll understand that being let down by sports teams just comes with the territory here, where even champions are subject to punishment.
Sometimes it feels as if the city of New Orleans is being held accountable by a higher power for its laissez-faire culture, for its civic corruption and dysfunction. Yet you'll find no other populace that cares so much. The people care about cooking that legendary cuisine and maintaining the city's legacy as the birthplace of jazz. They care about being good hosts to the numerous visitors who pass through town for conventions and music festivals and major sporting events such as the NCAA Final Four that's coming next week.
Chris Paul fit right into that caring culture when he was here. And, if you think about it, it's why losing a guy like him fits right into the New Orleans sports narrative.
Especially this week.