Rock­ets guard Chris Paul acts on his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as fa­ther, player and role model as few pro ath­letes do

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SPORTS SUNDAY - BRIAN T. SMITH twit­­bri­an­smith

Fa­ther, hus­band, brother and son.

All-NBA — over­all and de­fense — face of two fran­chises and the new hope of a third.

Role model, union pres­i­dent, re­spected voice for so­cial change and a young boy at heart.

Les­lie Alexan­der has al­ways loved his su­per­stars. Since The Beard was brought to Hous­ton in 2012, Daryl Morey’s Rock­ets have re­made them­selves over and over, all while be­com­ing an ideal des­ti­na­tion point for the NBA’s elite dur­ing an un­for­giv­ing era of su­per teams.

James Har­den. Dwight Howard. Go­ing hard af­ter Chris Bosh and twice flirt­ing with Carmelo Anthony.

But the mod­ern Rock­ets have never had any­one like Chris Paul. And the city of Hous­ton has rarely pos­sessed any­one in his league.

“From when he first started sports, he re­al­ized there was a re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with be­ing an ath­lete,” said Charles Paul, Chris’ fa­ther.

Lead­ing play­ers’ union

You couldn’t give away the ti­tle of Na­tional Bas­ket­ball Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent in the chaotic time af­ter for­mer com­mis­sioner David Stern won the 2011 lock­out and teams be­gan to di­vide into haves and have-nots. Two years later, Paul proudly took charge, guid­ing the union to­ward in­creased wealth and la­bor peace, which re­cently net­ted Har­den the largest con­tract ex­ten­sion ($228 mil­lion) in NBA his­tory.

Last sum­mer, you couldn’t scroll through Twit­ter or turn on the TV with­out be­ing over­whelmed by the cur­rents of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal change. Protests and state­ments. Civil­ians ver­sus cops. Con­fu­sion, frus­tra­tion, ha­tred and cries for to­geth­er­ness, all against the scorch­ing back­drop of a con­tro­ver­sial pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Paul stood and shared a na­tional stage with Le­Bron James, Dwyane Wade and Anthony, em­brac­ing the present and at­tempt­ing to bring the di­vided closer to­gether.

“We stand here tonight ac­cept­ing our role in unit­ing com­mu­ni­ties to be the change we need to see,” Paul said last July at the ESPYs, link­ing the names Trayvon Martin, Jackie Robinson and Muham­mad Ali. “We stand be­fore you as fathers, sons, hus­bands, broth­ers, un­cles and, in my case, as an African-Amer­i­can man and the nephew of a po­lice of­fi­cer, who is one of the hun­dreds of thou­sands of great of­fi­cers serv­ing this coun­try.”

Paul, 32, traded Los An­ge­les for the coun­try’s fourth-largest city to reach the NBA Fi­nals for the first time in 13 sea­sons, give Har­den the su­per­star coun­ter­part he needs, and hand Alexan­der the third tro­phy he has spent the last 22 years seek­ing.

Paul gets it — the depth of life; his plat­form, role and place in the sports world — like few do.

“When he started hav­ing kids, then his ma­tu­rity re­ally started to come, be­cause then it was more than about bas­ket­ball,” Charles said.

Part of com­mu­nity

Paul can be so com­pet­i­tive it’s nasty. But he’s big­ger than that.

You can men­tion lead­er­ship, com­mit­ment, drive and a burn­ing de­sire to fi­nally play on the NBA’s big­gest stage. But Paul al­ways has been de­fined by more, re­fus­ing to set­tle for the trap­pings that limit so many pro ath­letes.

When for­mer Clip­pers owner Don­ald Ster­ling was brought down, Paul was at the cen­ter of the fury. When Paul left Los An­ge­les af­ter six sea­sons of lift­ing the once-for­saken Clip­pers — only to fall short in the play­offs year af­ter year — he spent part of his in­tro­duc­tory news con­fer­ence Fri­day in Hous­ton giv­ing a heart­felt shout-out to the Brother­hood Cru­sade, a grass-roots or­ga­ni­za­tion that ben­e­fits low­in­come and dis­en­fran­chised peo­ple in Los An­ge­les.

“I don’t take this role lightly,” Paul said. “Some peo­ple say, ‘You’re not a role model,’ this and that, and I’m not per­fect by any means. But I also un­der­stand the re­spon­si­bil­ity. I know how my kids look at peo­ple that they see on tele­vi­sion, whether it’s the Dis­ney Chan­nel or whether it’s other guys that’s in our league. My son sees James, he goes nuts.

“When you have kids, you start to un­der­stand how they look at others and I un­der­stand that I’m in a role, as such. And so you try to be mind­ful of dif­fer­ent things that you do or what you say and stuff like that, but also re­mem­ber that ev­ery­one’s hu­man, just like ev­ery­body else.”

Ac­tive in so­cial is­sues

That’s what has al­ways sep­a­rated Paul — he isn’t like ev­ery­body else. He be­came a hero in New Or­leans in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. He cre­ated Lob City with Los An­ge­les’ other NBA team, af­ter Stern played God and pre­vented CP3 from be­com­ing a Laker.

“With who? I was only with them for like an hour or two,” said Paul, show­ing off his bite, af­ter a me­dia mem­ber con­fused the Lak­ers and Clip­pers.

Howard reached out to the com­mu­nity and at­tached his name to so­cial is­sues while he was a Rocket. But the sin­cer­ity was al­ways sur­rounded by silli­ness, and it never felt like Su­per­man truly wanted to carry all the weight. Howard’s on his third team in 15 months — even his home­town Atlanta Hawks dis­carded him — and his su­per­pow­ers are at an all-time low.

Har­den, who has long been de­fined by his beard, be­gan grow­ing into his new role last sea­son as the face of a fran­chise. He can be a mys­tery, though, and the only time it feels like you’re see­ing the real Har­den is when the ball is in his hands.

Dur­ing his first of­fi­cial day in Hous­ton, Paul was highly charis­matic, at ease and mayor-like. When I say he gets it, I mean he gets it.

The start of his news con­fer­ence was de­layed for 10 min­utes be­cause lines wrapped around his new arena. When Paul walked into the room, his par­ents, chil­dren and fam­ily pre­ceded his ar­rival.

“I roll deep,” Paul said. “I’ve got my whole crew with me.”

In­ter­act­ing with fans

Toy­ota Cen­ter be­came a hip-hop con­cert blended with a wrestling tour­na­ment — scream­ing fans, self­ies, blar­ing speak­ers, prom­ises and procla­ma­tions.

Paul on the fu­ture: “I can­not wait, Hous­ton. I can­not wait.”

The un­beat­able War­riors: “We’re not close enough, to tell you the truth.”

Then it was off to Minute Maid Park and the best team in the Amer­i­can League. Dal­las Keuchel caught the first pitch from CP3. Jose Al­tuve stood next to the new Rocket. Paul’s chil­dren were wrapped in new Astros jer­seys and went ev­ery­where their fa­ther did.

“He doesn’t for­get his bonds,” coach Mike D’An­toni said.

Fa­ther. Son. Pres­i­dent. Point guard. Role model.

Even in the time of Har­den, the Rock­ets have never had any­one like this.

“It’s more than the ring,” Paul’s fa­ther said. “It’s how you get to the ring.”

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

New Rock­ets guard Chris Paul en­gages with fans dur­ing his in­tro­duc­tion Fri­day at Toy­ota Cen­ter. The size of the crowd that greeted Paul and his fam­ily was a tes­ta­ment to his pop­u­lar­ity.

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