LOS ANGELES -- It was just a hat but it represented so much more to Chris Paul.
When Paul arrived in Los Angeles with his family in December, he wanted to buy a bunch of Los Angeles Clippers hats. He wanted to give one to everyone in his family so they could represent his new team when walking around in his new city.
Little did he know how little his new city represented his new team.
Paul's wife, Jada, drove around L.A. and went to a handful of stores looking for a Clippers hat, any kind of Clippers hat, before coming back empty handed. Even a month after his arrival, the first thing Paul asked an employee at a local Foot Locker where he was making an appearance was, "Where can I get Clippers hats?"
"I've been here awhile and I can't find any," Paul said. "I've been asking my wife. She went everywhere and there were no Clippers hats anywhere, and I don't like that. I don't like that at all. She was at every store and they didn't have any. We have to do better than that."
The hats, or lack thereof, represented a smaller aspect of a larger issue for Paul, which was reshaping the image and changing the culture of the Clippers. Paul knew the perception of the Clippers was bad around the league and the country but had no idea before he arrived in L.A. how bad it was within the city and even within the walls of the team's arena.
"We didn't know it was this bad," said Paul's dad, Charles. "Especially playing in the same building as the Lakers and seeing all their banners. You see it on TV but we didn't really realize how bad it was until we got here."
Everyone in Los Angeles runs late. It is as much a part of the city's fabric as palm trees and face lifts.
Paul, however, isn't from Los Angeles and hates being late. It's a lesson he learned from his coach at Wake Forest, the late Skip Prosser, who told him, "If you can't be on time, be early."
That's why, when Paul arrived 45 minutes late for an interview earlier this season, he started with an apology rather than an excuse.
"First of all, I want to apologize for being late," Paul said. "I have a complex about being late. I hate to wait on people and I hate for them to wait on me, and I just wanted you to know that my time is not more valuable than yours, but this L.A. traffic is no joke."
When the story was relayed to a couple of Clippers employees, they simply smiled and nodded their heads. Earlier this season, when Paul's new shoe was released, every employee at the team's training facility in Playa Vista found a T-shirt and an invitation to the shoe's launch party that night in West Hollywood sitting on their desks.
"It's different working for the Clippers in Los Angeles," one employee said. "People don't always react the same way toward you around town as they would if you worked for maybe the Lakers or the Dodgers. I think he understood that pretty quickly and wanted to change that perception not only from the outside but from within. He wanted to bring a family atmosphere to this organization, and he has."
That night, following an overtime win over the Miami Heat, Paul and his teammates overtook Greystone Manor in West Hollywood and not only partied with the likes of Rihanna and Jamie Foxx but also with the Clipper Spirit Dance Team, Clipper Darrell and team employees ranging from group sales managers to account executives.
"It was the first time a lot of us really felt proud to be a Clipper," the employee said. "We really felt like we were part of something special."
No one has witnessed the Clippers' futility over the years more closely than play-by-play announcer Ralph Lawler, who has been with the team for the past 33 years.
Lawler has been with the team long enough to remember every player that was supposed to turn the franchise around, from World B. Free and Terry Cummings to Danny Manning and Elton Brand. He has seen them all come and go without registering much outside of maybe a short-lived postseason run.
He knew Paul was different from the moment the point guard arrived, and before the Clippers played the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City he walked up to Paul after a shootaround and said, "Thank you, you've changed the whole franchise just by being here with your professionalism. I've been waiting 33 years for this, which I know is before you were born, Chris."
As Lawler was walking away, Paul said, "Ralph, come here. Can you confirm something for me? Is it true we haven't won in this building since 2003?"
Lawler said, "Yeah, I'm afraid it is. It's been 16 straight losses here in Salt Lake City."
Paul shook his head and told Lawler, "Do me a favor: Any city we go to where we have a long losing streak or bad history, you tell me. We'll use that as motivation."
Lawler agreed and informed Paul of similar losing streaks around the league. Before the lockout-shortened season ended, Paul had helped the Clippers end losing streaks in Utah (16), Denver and Orlando (nine games each), San Antonio (17) and Dallas (10).
"In years past we would purposely avoid talking about that kind of stuff in front of our players because it would bring the players down, defeat them and discourage them," Lawler said. "This group with Chris feeds off it and it really characterizes how different this year's Clippers team is with him."
There are countless statistical measures and historical breakdowns to show how much Paul has helped the Clippers on the court this season. His challenge, however, was so much greater than simply helping the Clippers finish with the best regular-season winning percentage in franchise history or leading them to their first Game 7 win (on the road no less) and second playoff series victory since 1976.
He had to get the team to believe that whatever curse or jinx or cloud that was hanging over this franchise was gone. He had to get people to believe that this was a family and develop a sense of camaraderie that had never been seen with this team. He took teammates out to dinners on the road, rented movie theaters for movie nights and encouraged players to bring their wives and kids to the practice facility and to his house.
"It's exciting. It's part of the journey," Paul said. "There's a process. You have to learn everybody and get to know their families and get to know their kids. It's part of the journey. There's going to be ups and downs on this thing, but it all makes it all sweeter in the end."
Regardless of when the Clippers' run this postseason ends, perhaps the greatest difference Paul has made in changing the culture of the team and its perception around L.A. was resting atop his son's head after the Clippers' last playoff win at home last week.
"He loves that Clippers hat," Paul said. "It's not too hard to find those around here anymore."