Michael Jordan is feeling it. Clutching a cue stick—an unlit cigar wedged between the second and third fingers of his right hand—he surveys the pool table with his trademark swagger. His head bobs to the beat of the music, and for a moment, his shoulders shimmy.
Chris Paul is to Jordan's left, absorbing it all. The Jordan Brand protégé and his boss are partners tonight in a different enterprise: an All-Star Weekend celebrity billiards tourney. They flash their perfect teeth, trading quips as if they'd grown up together in North Carolina, not a generation apart. Their easy friendship is far more entertaining to witness than the game they're playing. Paul raises Jordan's confidence by setting him up for easy shots. Jordan points in appreciation the way Dean Smith taught him. An attaboy shoulder tap is currency exchanged for good shots and smart play. This is what chemistry looks like.
Then the wheels come off. Balls carom in the wrong direction. Jordan scratches. Paul becomes distracted by the three-deep crowd. The teammates stop communicating, taking shots without consulting and standing at opposite ends of the table. This much is clear: Each one is convinced that he alone is good enough to win this game.
Last shot. Jordan's brow furrows, and his eyes have an intensity that has frayed the nerves of a thousand foes. But the stroke is not his. Across the table, Paul leans in. Steadying himself, he calls a bank: corner pocket, near side. When he misses, badly, Jordan seethes. Michael Bivins, of Bell Biv DeVoe fame, easily knocks in the eight ball. Game over.
"This one's on you," says a semi-serious Paul, the better player down the stretch.
"Bulls—," Jordan replies through a forced smile before darting to his VIP cabana, a river of expletives left in his wake.
As Paul lowers his head, he is consoled by Tony Parker as if he'd just lost a playoff game. Eva Longoria pats his shoulder. "It's okay," she says, like a concerned older sister. "You played really well."
Fellas, it's only a friendly game. But just try telling that to MJ. Or Paul, for that matter. The combination of fire and affability that once made Jordan the world's most famous athlete is helping Paul become the league's fastest rising star.
Take it easy. We're not saying Chris Paul is the next Jordan. But the 22-year-old point is doing a pretty good impression of an MVP. The Hornets weren't even projected to make the playoffs in the ultracompetitive West, but at the All-Star Break, they had the conference's best record, and Paul had the season's best stat line: 42 points, nine assists, eight steals and five boards in a 132-130 double-OT win at Phoenix on Feb. 6. That, by the way, made him the first player to get 40, nine and eight since Jordan did it, in 1989. "There's nothing he doesn't have—heart, talent, knowledge," says Allen Iverson. "He knows when to shoot and when to get others involved. He has a complete understanding of the game."
Adds Chauncey Billups: "Night in, night out, he's one of the toughest guards you're ever going to play against. I love everything about what he does."
It's a common refrain. In his third season, Paul has become the Will Rogers of the league, racking up friends and admirers like a walking MySpace page. When the Hornets moved back to New Orleans after a two-year, post-Katrina exile in Oklahoma City, Paul didn't know where to live. So he called Reggie Bush—whom he'd never met—for suggestions. Before long, Paul had bought adjoining, 2,700-square-foot pads (one for him, one for his brother/business manager, C.J.) three floors below Bush's in a Mississippi riverside condo. Now it's not unusual for Bush, and occasionally his girlfriend, Kim Kardashian, to pop in for some Xbox and a meal made by the personal chef the two players share.
Paul's enthusiasm for creating and maintaining friendships is as much a part of who he is as his daring forays to the rim. "Some days he'd call and be like, 'Come on over, it's gonna be great,'" says the Mavericks' Brandon Bass, a former teammate. "He'd always make it seem like so much fun."
His attitude has started a trend among the NBA's young elite that must make old-school ballers bite their tongues in disgust. The Paul brothers' condos are a virtual bed-and-breakfast for visiting players. Each apartment has a 52-inch flat-screen. Chris' pad has a 20-person sectional; C.J.'s has the billiards and poker tables. LeBron, Rudy Gay, Josh Howard and Jarrett Jack have all been guests of Hotel Paul when their teams were in town. During All-Star Weekend, Parker and Longoria bunked in the spare bedroom. It's a full-service experience: Paul drives his NBA guests to their shootarounds on gameday. Sure, he has to be there anyway for his own pregame prep, but imagine Rodman putting up Oakley for the night or Bird giving Magic a lift to practice. Says Gay: "It's an opportunity to hang out with guys you might not get to see much during the season." When Paul is on the road, he stays with Howard in Dallas and Gay in Memphis. And he's already working on bringing Kevin Durant and Brandon Roy into his fabulous clique by calling them regularly.
Still, when Paul's cell rings, it's usually James on the other end. They met at a high school tournament in 2002 and stayed in touch while Paul was at Wake Forest. James often sends Paul a brief text—"10 p.m. game time"—a friendly challenge to meet online for some NBA 2K. Paul says their skills are even, it's just that "they made LeBron too good."
During the playoffs last spring, Paul stayed at James' for three weeks and used The King's floor seats for the Eastern Conference finals. During the NBA Finals, Paul was at James' house when LeBron's girlfriend went into labor. While waiting for the baby to be born, Paul, LeBron and his crew played cards at the hospital and ate from the buffet. When Bryce Maximus finally entered the world, James handed him to Paul. "He's more than just my friend," says James. "He's a member of my family."
It's not just A-listers who get attention from Paul. Last October, he invited Trey Johnson to stay with him while the undrafted free agent tried out for the team. Paul even lent Johnson his playbook so he'd have a better chance. (Didn't help; Johnson was cut in camp.) In January 2006, when Hornets big man Chris Andersen was banished for two years for violating the league's drug policy, Paul called it the worst moment of his career. Yeah, he'd been in the league only a few months, but it's that kind of empathy—and maybe the 20 points, 10 assists and nearly three steals he averages every game—that gives the young Paul the credibility he needs to get in the face of teammates who get in the way of his winning.
Early in the third quarter of a December game against the Sonics, Paul stole the ball at halfcourt and raced in the opposite direction. After being cut off at the rim, he zipped the ball to rookie Julian Wright, who was trailing at the foul line. Wright rimmed a jumper despite having a clear path to the basket. "Come on, JuJu!" Paul screamed. "Go to the f—ing hole!" After the game, Paul ripped Wright's shot selection within earshot of the 20-year-old forward. "He knows what he did wrong," explains Paul. "That should have been a highlight dunk, not a missed jumper."
Paul says it's his job to help young players like Wright maximize their potential. But he really means all players, not just the young ones. Most of his venom has been directed at Tyson Chandler, a vet with four more years of NBA tread than Paul, his closest friend on the team. Paul knows the Hornets' success rests with the 7'1" center as much as with himself. He also knows that Chandler needs just thismuch more push to become an All-Star himself. Some of their in-game arguments have been so heated that Paul's girlfriend and Chandler's wife brought it up recently over dinner. "People are sometimes surprised that he's so intense because he looks like a 12-year-old kid," says Tyson. "Don't let that innocent look fool you."
Besides, Paul's teammates know that the benefits of his wrath—a pile of wins—far outweigh being humiliated by him. "Kobe and Chris are the two most intense players in the league," says ex-Laker and current Hornet Jannero Pargo. "They are two of the only guys who can literally will their team to win."
Which is why, even before All-Star Weekend, everyone wanted a piece of the de facto host. Two weeks prior to the game, Paul sat through photo shoots, interviews and appearances designed to promote everything from his play to his new shoe to his gate-crashing team to Katrina relief. For a moment, Chris Paul was the face of the NBA. And that was before the weekend arrived.
The night after the pool tourney, Paul walks the red carpet at the Jordan Brand party with his girlfriend. He is treated as if he were the Jumpman logo. Rudy Gay is a few feet behind. Mom and Dad follow. Paul's rented bodyguard stays close, never cracking a smile. Once inside, a reverse Red Sea of fabulousness swallows them all. Paul daps Melo, then Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo and Rip Hamilton. Magic and his wife can't take their eyes off him. Spike Lee makes sure the star notices him.
Then Paul makes his way for the boss. With a Spanish-label cigar in hand, MJ puts his arm around his pal and pulls him close, the pool debacle a distant memory. Paul is surprised, even a bit embarrassed by the attention. "I never thought I'd be in the NBA, never thought I'd have a shoe or meet Michael Jordan," he says. "Sometimes I look at my life and can't believe it."
There is still a game to play, and everyone expects something great from the local hero. He doesn't disappoint. Years from now, few will remember that he had 16 points and a game-high 14 assists in his first All-Star outing. But they will talk about the sweetest dish of the game. Pushing the ball hard on the break in the fourth quarter of a close contest, Paul fakes a bounce pass at the top of the key. He puts so much backspin on the ball, it actually ricochets back into his hands like a giant yo-yo. He then taps it to a streaking Carlos Boozer for a dunk. "Oh, nice pass, boy!" Iverson shouts from the bench. Tim Duncan waves a towel. Even Kobe jumps to his feet, just another fan.
Any minute now, he'll be asking Paul if he can crash at his place.