For sportswriters, Chris Paul has two things going for him. He’s playing brilliant basketball. And he’s 36 years old. The next sentences almost write themselves. Paul is turning back the clock. He’s finding his fountain of youth. The valentine to a once-creaky athlete who rediscovered his mojo has a name: The Old Guy Has Still Got It.
Old Guy (or Gal) Has Still Got It stories are tales of a Savvy Veteran outdueling Father Time. They’re sportswriting’s answer to the Red movie franchise. Take Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. In the third quarter, Paul’s nemesis DeMarcus Cousins stuck out his right elbow. After making sure his neck made minimal contact with Cousins’s elbow, Paul dove onto the floor like a child of the Cold War doing the duck and cover drill.
It was a laughable flop. But Paul was roasting the Clippers (41 points, zero turnovers) on the way to his first NBA Finals. In that light, a flop could be repackaged as crafty gamesmanship. Paul’s previous flops became a highlight reel. “Through all of it, he never changed,” a Sports Illustrated story noted the next day. “He never stopped getting under people’s skin.” Translation: Paul has still got it.
The OGHSGI treatment isn’t just a go-to story for sportswriters. Just about every journalist has written a tribute to a veteran having a late-inning rally. We write these stories when Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee make another great movie (or even a half-decent one). We write them when Dan Rather composes a sternly worded tweet about the fate of the republic and when Jean Smart stars in Hacks. Others who’ve received recent toasts include Joni Mitchell, Joe Biden, Anthony Fauci, Fran Lebowitz, Sir David Attenborough, George F. Will, and fashion icon Iris Apfel. Two decades ago, when Jacques Barzun published his summa at age 93, he became the Point God of cultural historians.
Sports is having a Year of the Old Guy, which produced homages to reanimated stars like 50-year-old Phil Mickelson, 43-year-old Tom Brady, and 36-year-old cyclist Mark Cavendish, who’s “rolling back the years” at the Tour de France. Upon winning May’s Indy 500, 46-year-old Helio Castroneves exclaimed, “The old guy’s still got it, still kicking the young guys’ butts!”
Any fallen star who produces one more great piece of work is a candidate for the Old Guy treatment. But athletes make the best subjects. This is because “old” athletes aren’t actually old. Director Robert Altman spent 17 years in the wilderness between the release of Nashville and his still-got-it movie, The Player. That’s one year longer than Paul’s entire NBA career.
With athletes, a millisecond can pass between them being washed-up and having got it once again. In March, a Sports Illustrated feature noted of Blake Griffin, “He no longer imposes his will, because he can’t.” By June, Nets fans were chanting Griffin’s name as he was putting up a double-double in the playoffs.
OGHSGI stories have a few recurring features. The aging athlete is cast as a sturdy locker-room mentor. Paul has been called a “militant” in his desire for perfection. He has been compared to the Buddha. It’s not just Suns teammates like Devin Booker or Deandre Ayton who’ve learned at Paul’s knee. Even the actor who plays “Jake” in the State Farm ads said Paul helped him up his game. “There’s something about being around him that makes you want to try even harder,” Jake told The New York Times.
For an old-athlete story to really work, the athlete can’t have won steadily for years. He must have had an illusory twilight period, when his once-considerable skills seemed to dribble away. Every OGHSGI story has a paragraph that begins, “Just two years ago …”
Just two years ago, Paul’s $40 million-a-year contract was deemed “untradable.” Last week, after finishing off the Clippers, Paul listed the injuries that denied him a chance at previous titles. The hand he broke when it got caught in an opponent’s jersey? “Portland,” he said. The hamstring he strained when he almost led the Rockets to the 2018 Finals? “Houston,” he said. “Yeah, I can run ’em off to you.” During this year’s playoffs, Paul injured his shoulder, contracted COVID-19, and tore ligaments in his hand.
Old athletes enjoying a renaissance fall into two categories. Brady, Mickelson, and George Foreman circa 1994 were ex-champs tasting victory once again. Paul and John Elway had never won a title.
The athlete’s comeback is chalked up to one of two reasons. The athlete changed something (his approach to the game, his diet and exercise regimen). Or they got over the hump by “staying true to himself.” Paul falls into the second category. As many people noted, it’s not that Paul stopped being a noodge so much as he found new teammates who weren’t tired of him.
The athlete’s comeback is offered as a moral lesson. “If you can learn anything from Chris Paul, it’s to keep going,” Suns coach Monty Williams counseled. After winning May’s PGA Championship, Mickelson said the same thing: “I hope that others find that inspiration. It might take a little extra work, a little harder effort, but it’s so worth it in the end.”
The bear hug that writers give to someone like Paul is a giveaway. We were also the ones writing the Old Guy Hasn’t Got It and Is Playing Out the String story—itself an award-chasing genre of sportswriting. But once the old athlete has got it again, the writers won’t desert him. “At this point,” a recent story about Mickelson asked, “how can you possibly bet against him?”
There are a few reasons Old Guy stories are so fun to write. Sportswriters write a lot of stories about athletes condemned to end their careers in limbo. Take Carmelo Anthony, say, or Philip Rivers. This leads to yet a third genre (usually manifested as the contrarian “don’t take him for granted” column, shaming other writers for putting too much stock in championships).
Paul’s story is less complicated, less hedged. Think how much more fun it is to write a Paul column this week than it is to write one about Anthony.
Sportswriters prove again and again that we have no idea what will happen during a given season. This year’s Old Guy stories about Paul have a feeling of genuine surprise—surprise that he made the Finals at last and surprise that a great, feel-good story was dropped in the writers’ laps.
There’s also a far more pedestrian reason to take joy in Old Guy stories. Chris Paul isn’t the only veteran trying to hold off young up-and-comers. So are the NBA writers who are covering him.
When an older athlete becomes the lead story, older writers suddenly find they have an advantage. We saw all 16 years of Paul’s career unfold just like we saw Spike Lee’s best movies in the theater. Indulging in your own nostalgia is usually a sign of being out to pasture. This week, it’s great content. Talk about veteran savvy. When a sportswriter says “the old guy has still got it,” he’s trying to convince you that he does, too.