Chris Paul is happy to talk about why you might not like him. He’ll touch on the barking at officials, the demands he puts on teammates, even the ways his limbs occasionally seem to fling themselves toward the genitals of players on opposing teams. He has no problem getting into that stuff. But it’s going to have to wait a minute, because right now, sitting on the edge of the court in Salt Lake City’s Vivint Smart Home Arena, a day after his Houston Rockets went up 3-0 on the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, Chris Paul wants to talk instead—animatedly, passionately, in a fair amount of detail—about the card game Uno.
“Uno?” I ask.
“Uno,” he says.
He’ll explain. At his home in Houston, they have a nightly game. Paul, his wife Jada, his two younger cousins, the family’s nanny and her brother, and Paul’s son. Every night follows the same pattern. The longer the game goes, the longer Paul remains competitive, Paul says, and the more everyone else at the table roots for him to lose.
Sometimes they switch up the routine. They play Connect Four, or Sorry, or Trouble. On his phone, Paul keeps 15 simultaneous games of dominoes going with friends. He golfs often with his father and his brother. After practice, he hunts for teammates to put money on shooting contests. No matter the arena, Paul’s opponents seem bonded by their thirst for his failures.
“They know how bad I want to win.”
Paul is the greatest pure point guard of his generation. He is a nine-time All-Star and a four-time selection for first team All-NBA. He ranks in the top 10 among all players in league history in assists and steals, and he has the highest all-time offensive rating of any player, NBA or ABA. He earned and maintained the nickname “Point God” because he has long perfected the position as basketball purists demand that it be played. He is capable of getting any shot he wants, but he always looks first to pass. He crouches low and slides hard on defense, anticipating plays as they unfold. He is small but quick, his game built around intelligence and angles. “He’s a wizard,” says his former teammate Alan Anderson. He has played 14 seasons and his current contract runs through 2022. Whether he decides he’s finished then or continues several years longer, whenever he’s done, he will wait the requisite three years before marching directly into the Basketball Hall of Fame. And yet, right now, his name remains on the list alongside the likes of Charles Barkley and George Gervin—NBA greats who never won titles. “Hopefully he has five, six, seven years left,” says Idan Ravin, his friend and longtime trainer. “But maybe he’s at, say, the 70-yard line in his career. You know? Time is of the essence.”
On this Easter Sunday afternoon in Utah, I’ve received a few minutes with Paul in the middle of the playoffs to discuss his intense, never-waning, often inspiring, and sometimes destructive competitiveness. To discuss what it’s like to be the person who cares the most about the stakes of any competition, whether it’s on the court in these playoffs or back at home, playing cards. The intensity that pushed Paul to these heights has pushed some of his teammates away. And as he nears the middle of his second decade in the league, the victory he most craves still remains beyond his reach.
“No matter what it is,” he says, “whether it’s Uno or Connect Four at the house or some type of shooting game, I just have to win. I have to.” Sometimes, this is his superpower. Through much of Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against Golden State, Paul functioned as the Rockets’ steadying metronome, helping to keep Stephen Curry in check and working to get his own points while keeping James Harden and Eric Gordon well fed. Other times, it’s his undoing. As the clock wound down, Paul’s berating of an official earned his second technical foul and an ejection, erasing what little chance Houston then had of a Game 1 win (and earning himself a $35,000 fine in the process).
Paul is known for being prickly with some teammates and ruthless toward some opponents. He is a superstar who sometimes carries himself like one of the league’s professional irritants, with the résumé of Jason Kidd and the temperament of Patrick Beverley. “When I play,” he says, “I go into a different world.” The approach has its benefits. “He’s a great role model for our guys,” says Gersson Rosas, Rockets executive vice president of basketball operations. “He doesn’t take anything for granted.” It has built him into who he is and pushed him deep into a banner career, but it can also explain the ways he seems to sidle up next to officials after damn near every call that goes against him, the ways he cranes his neck to catch glimpses of replays that might exonerate his most recent fouls. And it can explain how he grates on some teammates and even some coaches, how he’s inspired YouTube videos like “Chris Paul: Nut Puncher” and “Chris Paul’s Dirtiest Plays,” and how, even gathered around the Uno table in his own home, he finds himself surrounded by people who ache to see him lose.
“He’s always had this in him,” says Ravin, “but when he’s 19 he’s this amazing competitor, but now that he’s in his 30s, he’s petulant; he’s chirpy; he’s dirty. But he’s always been the same guy.”
For the Rockets to advance, they will need his competitiveness properly channeled, his edge sharp but not self-wounding. They will need Paul as he can be at his best—body pushed to its limits, mind steps ahead of his opponents’, intensity nearing but never entering his buried wells of on-court rage. They will rely on the impulses that overtake him both on the court and around the card table, the willful disregard for anything but his desire to win. “I know it’s a game,” he says, “and people probably can’t stand to watch me play. But I don’t give a damn.”
Through the rest of this series and whatever may come after it, the Rockets will be led by their offensive savant and MVP candidate, James Harden, but they will be driven, at least for long stretches, by Paul. By his energy and defense and his acumen running the point, by his ability to explore cracks in a defense and to find the best shot—whether for himself or for others—on possession after possession, in game after game. They will be driven, too, by his competitive intensity, and perhaps by the fact that, 14 years into his career, Paul is still chasing the title that so many of the Warriors already have.
In a series that features three MVPs (not to mention professional nuisance Draymond Green), Paul might still be the most ruthless player on the floor. “There’s absolutely nothing that he’s not insanely competitive about,” says Rosas. “He’s never satisfied. Nothing is good enough. Drills, shooting, film study, pregame, pre-practice, post-practice, everything. He never lets up.”
When I talk to Rosas he’s standing on the edge of the court just a few minutes before Game 4 of the Rockets-Jazz series. “He’s all about maximizing his talent,” says Rosas. “That makes him perfect for the culture we want.” For a moment, Rosas looks just past me, and he smiles. “You want to know who made Chris this way?” he asks. Then he nods in the direction of a man in his mid-30s, wearing a bright polo shirt.
“Talk to him.”
He is C.J. Paul, Chris’s older brother, who doesn’t really think he made his brother this way. Some of it, surely, has to be innate. But yeah, he admits, some must have come from Chris’s status as the little brother. C.J. tells a story. Once, when they were small children—C.J. 5 years old, Chris 3—their father put up two Fisher-Price basketball hoops on each end of the basement in their North Carolina home. Then he put down tape, marking off the lines of a full basketball court, custom made for preschoolers. Chris and C.J. would play each other, full-court one-on-one, toddling up and down on the cement floor. “He took most of the beatings,” C.J. says, “because I would just play bully ball.”
Once, C.J. says, he dunked on his brother and knocked him to the ground, right there on the cold cement. As C.J. turned around to run back to the other side, 3-year-old Chris stood up, chased his brother, and punched him in the face. Moments later, when they walked back upstairs and out of the basement, Chris pushed him down the stairs. “I just had to laugh, man,” C.J. says.
C.J. has a theory. What you have to understand about his brother, he explains, is that he’s always been smaller than his peers, whether as a 6-foot NBA player or as a late-blooming kid. He didn’t hit a growth spurt until his junior year of high school. Until then, he was 5-foot-6, still playing JV basketball. “He had small-man’s complex,” C.J. says, and he shrugs, as confident as a physician communicating a medical diagnosis. “And then he grew, but he never let it go. So his whole life he’s been acting the same way.”
The thirst for competition followed him to Wake Forest, where Paul and his roommate played two-on-two against the coaches, hacking each other on game point, playing until blood was drawn. Sometimes, they caught the attention of their head coach, the late Skip Prosser. “He would demand that the game stop,” says Pat Kelsey, a former Wake assistant and now the head coach at Winthrop. “And as soon as he was gone, Chris begged us to keep playing.”
It followed him to the NBA. After a practice with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets during his rookie season (the team temporarily relocated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina), Paul never wanted to go home and relax. “All he wanted to do was bowl,” former Hornet Speedy Claxton says. His father had often taken Paul and his brother bowling when they were children, and now in the NBA, Paul remains obsessed. He has claimed to bowl a high of 256. Once he became a star, he began hosting an annual charity bowling tournament. “He’s serious about it,” says Claxton. “He’s there to win.”
And it followed him to the Los Angeles Clippers, where former teammate Alan Anderson remembers Paul lurking on the edges of the practice facility, sporadically poking his head in the gym, where he hoped to see someone there he could challenge to a shooting contest. Post- or pre-practice shooting games are custom between NBA players, and they often come with money on the line. Anderson played for five NBA teams, and for quite a few more in the G League and abroad, yet he remembers few players who hunted for shooting partners like Paul. He didn’t even care if they bet money, Anderson says. He’d be just as happy betting push-ups or sprints. As long as a winner was rewarded and a loser punished, Paul was satisfied. “It would start with the first one to miss,” says Anderson. “Then maybe it’s first one to hit 10 shots. Then it’s ‘Well you can’t hit it if I’m guarding you.’ Then the next thing you know it’s a full game of one-on-one.”
All of this, of course, carries over into actual basketball. Monty Williams remembers getting hired as head coach in New Orleans in 2010. They started the season hot, winning their first eight games and 11 of their first 12, and at some point, on a road trip, Williams decided to reward his players. He wanted to give them the day off. “I’m a young coach,” says Williams, who was 38 at the time. “Obviously I want to practice every day. But I’m trying to do the right thing.” He remembers flying on the team plane—to where, he doesn’t recall—and looking up to see Paul and fellow Hornet David West walking together to the back, looking at him the whole way.
“We need to practice tomorrow,” he remembers them saying. “We can’t afford a day off.”
I ask West about this. “Yeah,” he says. “I remember that. I don’t know where we were going, but maybe it had something to do with the city. And it was probably a situation where a couple guys were really rolling, and we didn’t want to give them a chance to let down.”
I tell Paul about this, about the fact that Williams mentions it as a formative memory in his coaching career, and that West, too, remembers it well. I ask if Paul remembers it too.
“I don’t,” he says. “But I believe it.”
“You got to enjoy the work,” Paul says. The moments his intensity matters most are the quieter ones; in the weight rooms, pushing through extra reps, or on the team plane, long after dark, his face lit by a screen playing film of the next point guard he’s scheduled to face. He relishes the quiet victories he’s earned over the course of his career: perfecting a new way to dribble around a screen, managing not to gain weight while rehabbing an injury. He points to Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook as kindred spirits, players who know his familiar burning, who can’t or won’t put out their own flames.
While these obsessions may push Paul toward his own goals, they can push others away. “On the court,” C.J. says, “he is an asshole.” He shrugs, then grins. “There’s just no other way to say it. That’s who he is.”
Among fans and media, it’s a popular opinion. Superstardom runs in cycles; Paul’s played long enough to cycle into villainy. This is the point that C.J. and Ravin emphasize: Paul never changed; only the perception of him did. “If he was a nice guy,” C.J. says, “I don’t think he ever would have made it to the NBA.” He has always carried burn-the-world-down intensity inside a package of polish and politeness. The same thing that earned him family-friendly State Farm commercials has caused him to don the NBA’s black hat.
I mention to C.J. how many people I’ve spoken to who talk about Paul with reverence, who talk about his character and his love for his family, about his sense of dignity and respect. “Off the court!” C.J. says. “Off the court, yes. On the court, no.”
Skip Bayless once called Paul the dirtiest player of his era, perhaps even the dirtiest in the history of the NBA. This was back in October, after a mini-brawl between the Rockets and Lakers. Spittle flew, fingers jabbed in faces, and eventually, punches were thrown. It all ended in ejections and suspensions for Paul, Rajon Rondo, and Brandon Ingram.
“Everyone wants to believe Chris Paul is a good guy,” Rondo said in the aftermath. “They don’t know he’s a horrible teammate. They don’t know how he treats people. … They don’t want to believe he’s capable of taunting and igniting an incident.” In the wake of Rondo’s comments, former Clipper Glen “Big Baby” Davis posted his assent on Instagram, calling Paul “a very bad teammate.”
West, who played with Paul for six seasons, says, “That man got down every night. And so when he got into it with guys, it’s because they weren’t bringing it. They weren’t as invested as he was.” He describes Paul’s thinking. “I’m gonna run hard, so you better run hard. I’m diving on the floor, so you better dive on the floor.”
Much of what Paul discusses in our conversation—the card games, the golf outings, the relentless need to better himself—sound like solitary pursuits. He is dependent upon no one while choosing his next move in dominoes. But Paul makes his money in a team sport, playing the position most responsible for elevating the games of others—including many who reached the NBA less because of their competitive intensity than their athletic ability. What makes Paul a natural leader in one setting makes him a pariah in others. The man labeled a “bad teammate” was voted president of the players’ union. The game’s “dirtiest player” mentors young guards like Donovan Mitchell and Trae Young. Coaches call him a leader; teammates a wizard. Fans and opponents and even his brother think he can be an asshole. None are wrong.
Paul points to assistant coach Brett Gunning, standing near half court. “See him?” he says. “One of the things he talked to me about all the time—he’s like, ‘You’ve got to figure out how to deal with and be with people who may not care as much as you do.’” Paul admits that this has always been a challenge. “Some guys, you’ve got to pull it out of them, that will,” he says.
In Los Angeles, Paul’s teams famously failed to get the most out of their talent. Paul was joined by two athletic marvels, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and a rotating supporting cast that never reached the conference finals. Paul and Griffin famously clashed, and by the 2017 offseason, when Paul wanted to go to Houston, no one seemed particularly sad to see him go. (“We had too many individuals,” says Anderson, who spent the 2016-17 season with the Clippers. “Too many great individuals. It’s really that simple.”) In Houston, Paul feels like the blend is right. “We all have our different personalities,” he says. He thinks Gerald Green “works humbly” while P.J. Tucker carries the same energy as himself. “But I think we mesh well.”
C.J. sees the “bad teammate” conversation as the result of a certain truth: “He will do whatever it takes not to lose. And if that means jumping all over you, well, that’s him.” At this point Rosas, the Rockets executive who has been standing on the periphery of our conversation during warm-ups, jumps in: “To me,” he says, “guys making a statement like that are saying it because they just don’t want to work that hard.”
C.J. laughs when thinking of his brother. “I just don’t understand why they don’t want to win,” he says, imitating Chris, and he laughs some more. “How can you not just want to be the best?”
The charged conversations around Paul run much deeper than just a few salty ex-teammates. Rondo didn’t lash out because Paul chided him for being lazy. He ripped Paul because Paul stuck a hand in his face. Paul’s reputation as a dirty player bothers some of his friends—“Shit, I’m dirtier than him,” says Anderson, “and I think I just play hard”—but it didn’t arrive out of thin air. I start to ask Paul about these accumulated incidents, and I stumble over my words a little, reaching for euphemisms, not quite getting to the point.
“You can say it,” Paul tells me.
“All right,” I say. “Julius Hodge.”
Paul nods, knowingly. “Julius Hodge.”
Hodge played at NC State when Paul was at Wake Forest. In March 2005, Paul and Hodge were their teams’ respective stars, both former McDonald’s All Americans, both months away from going in the first round of the NBA draft. Hodge was from New York, Paul from right there in Winston-Salem. “They were two very similar, nasty competitors,” says Kelsey, the former Wake assistant. “Those dudes probably talked more crap to each other than anyone in the history of ACC basketball.”
Paul, by this point, had already taken on a mythical status. Glowing profiles had been written, filled with quotes calling him an even better person than he was a player. He was brilliant and kind, his high school’s senior class president, a college sophomore who still went back home to mow his parents’ lawn. And then, late in the game against NC State, Paul, well, he punched Hodge in the balls.
Sitting by the court, Paul points to my recorder. “Can you turn that off for a second?” I do, and he goes on to tell a story of what he remembers being said in that moment. He doesn’t want it on the record, he says, because he doesn’t want to sound like he’s making excuses. But back on the record, he makes it clear: The punch was intentional. “You think I go crazy during a game now?” he says. “I used to really go crazy during the game.” And he doesn’t really regret it. “I made a mistake or whatever,” he says, “but my only regret is that I had to miss the next game.”
I ask whether he has any other regrets, from any other similar moments in his career. He says the only regret he’s ever had in his basketball life is that he wishes he’d taken rehab more seriously after his first major injury, a meniscus tear in 2010. “But as far as the way I play? No. If anybody doesn’t like the way I play, I don’t care. I don’t care. I play that way, and if you don’t like it then …” He trails off, then shrugs. “If I’m not on your team, then don’t pick me. Don’t play with me. That’s all there is to it.”
C.J. tells one more story. Back in 2008, Paul was in his third season in the league, leading a New Orleans team that had returned home from its two years in OKC. Paul led the league in assists and in steals, and he made his first All-Star team and been named first team All-NBA. The Hornets won their division and finished as the second seed in the West, just one game behind the Lakers. They entered the playoffs with title aspirations, even if most fans and media believed the league was headed for an NBA Finals featuring Boston and L.A.
They beat Dallas in the first round, then faced San Antonio in Round 2. The Hornets, led by Paul and West and Tyson Chandler, held home-court advantage. The series went according to form. The Hornets won three games at home and lost three on the road. In Game 7, Paul played all but 25 seconds, and he played them fairly well—18 points, 14 assists, five steals. But the Spurs got hot from 3 and the Hornets went cold, and Manu Ginobili’s 26 points carried San Antonio to a Game 7 win on the road.
Afterward, C.J. stood outside the locker room, waiting. Chris sat inside, sobbing. And C.J. remembers a teammate—someone older than Paul, someone perhaps more jaded, perhaps not consumed by the same needs—walking out of the locker room and saying to him, “Man, your brother’s in there crying. What’s the matter with him?”
The other player didn’t get it. “He’s young,” the player said of Paul. “He got way more time.”
Eleven years have passed. Now Paul stands in the middle of these playoffs, somewhere a little bit beyond the highest peak of his basketball prime; still a force with which to be reckoned, still strong enough and quick enough to make ample use of his drive and his mind. He has passed through most of his prime in an era dominated by superteams, franchises that have stacked so much talent they make this Houston team’s collection of a mere two Hall of Famers seem quaint.
And now, even down 0-1 to the greatest superteam ever assembled, Paul might be looking at his last best chance to win a title. “We’re in this window,” says Rosas, “where we’ve got this monster we’re trying to overcome. But nobody’s going to feel sorry for us if we don’t do it. You know? We’ll either do it or we won’t.
Earlier this month, Paul took a night off to fly to Brooklyn, where he joined his close friends LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at the Barclays Center to watch the fourth member of the Banana Boat crew, Dwyane Wade, play his final NBA game. Back in Utah, Paul brings it up, offhand. “It hits you,” he says. “Like, man, D-Wade is the closest person to me who’s retired.” Wade recorded a triple-double in his final game. Paul felt thrilled to watch his friend walk away on his own terms. But in Wade’s last steps off the court, Paul couldn’t help but see his own. “When that day comes for me,” he says, “it’s going to be really, really hard.”
He goes quiet for a second. “I mean, luckily I still play golf,” he says, and now he laughs, just a little. Yes, it’s true, he’ll still have golf, where his brother and father gang up on him, each rooting for the other, never for him. He’ll still have Uno, where the rest of his family gathers around the table and does the same. He’ll have his domino games, and his odd bets; Anderson says Paul still owes him 12 push-ups after he took the Rams to win the Super Bowl. (They bet 25, to be paid in installments at the victor’s choosing. Anderson tries to call Paul and demand a few push-ups when he knows he’ll be surrounded by people but unable to say no.) He’ll still have the AAU team he and his brother run, and maybe his bowling tournament, and whatever new forms of competition he devises against himself.
He points out to the court. “There’s no competition like this, though,” he says. Part of it is the sense of camaraderie, the bonds formed with teammates over a shared goal. “I do love that,” he says. But that’s not really it. That’s not the thing that enraptures him, not the force so intoxicating he allows it to consume his life. “It’s really like, this is the only way to simulate some type of pressure.” The game provides a certain emotional intensity, fully manufactured but no less real. He nods, as if affirming his own words.
“I think I just really like the feeling of the pressure.”