For Paul it's all about ball now

For most of us, Facebook and other social networking sites have taken some of the allure out of the high school reunion. There are few big surprises or developments that haven't gotten out on the internet in one way or another by the time you hit a 10- or 20-year reunion anymore.

But while his classmates from the Class of 2003 at West Forsyth High in Clemmons, N.C., most likely know what Los Angeles Clippers star point guard Chris Paul has been up to since graduation, he's genuinely curious about what they've been doing.

"I'm helping to plan it," Paul said. "It's going to be great."

After signing a five-year, $107 million contract to remain with the Clippers this offseason, these are the types of details Paul is thinking about now. Three years of speculation about his future are finally over.

"It feels great to have that behind me because now you can just play basketball, and there will be more questions about the games and not about what's going to happen," Paul said in a wide-ranging interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com this week. "And I think it gives our team, and the free agents coming to the team, more consistency. They know what to expect now."

But while most players who've come through such a protracted process would feel a noticeable sense of relief, Paul really doesn't seem all that different from before.

In fact, even calling his free-agent process anything more than a process feels weird. Outside of the manic week back in December 2011 when he was traded to the Lakers, then cast into purgatory when NBA commissioner David Stern canceled the deal (while acting as the governor of the league-owned New Orleans Hornets), before ultimately being traded to the Clippers, there really hasn't been that much drama surrounding Paul at all.

Sure, he's taken a few hits for his perceived role in the team's decision not to retain former coach Vinny Del Negro and his influence over the Clippers' push to hire Doc Rivers. But that's nothing compared to the endless drama surrounding his free-agent counterpart this summer, Dwight Howard, or the two superstar free agents from last year -- Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams.

And in Paul's case, that lack of drama really is something.

Because of the way the NBA's collective bargaining agreement was set up in 2011, a superstar player essentially has to get himself traded to the team he wants to sign with in advance of the summer he'll become a free agent in order to sign the most lucrative, long-term contract possible.

For example, a superstar player like Paul could not do what LeBron James and Chris Bosh did back in 2010, when they signed six-year contracts with their previous teams, then were traded to the Miami Heat. It's why Howard had to leave an extra guaranteed year and $30 million on the table to sign with the Houston Rockets over the Lakers.

Changing the CBA to favor incumbent teams was a deliberate act by the NBA to help small-market teams retain their best players. It also created a difficult situation for the league's most marketable players -- who have to ask for and, in some cases, force a trade in order to sign a longer, more lucrative deal with the team they want to.

At best, it's a risky proposition for the NBA -- which has risen in popularity due to the popularity of its superstars.

In the past three years alone, James, Howard, Anthony and Williams have all seen their reputations take a hit because of the way they went about their free-agent process.

All of which makes Paul's behavior that much more impressive. Why was he able to come through the same set of circumstances relatively unscathed and far more marketable and popular than before, while the others didn't?

Talk to him for five minutes and you'll understand why. The man just gets it. The game, the process, all the things at stake. He sees all the variables as well as he sees the basketball court and reacts to them just as coolly.

"I pay enough attention, I know what was going on," Paul said. "You sort of get used to it. I'm fine with it because it's part of it. You can't control all the 'sources said' and such. The only issue I ever have is when somebody says I said something that I didn't."

He also never tried to fight the system or the media machine that covers it. He simply sized up the court and tried to make the right moves.

"It's drama," Paul said, when asked if he ever resented the difficult position he and other superstars were put in by the new CBA. "Drama sells. People always want to know or think they know where the next person is going.

"And then, with our world now, it's always about exclusivity. Even when it comes to shoes. I had an event the other day in Portland and everything is about one-on-one. Like on Twitter. Everybody wants to break it first.

"At the end of the day, you just have to live with it."

He lives with it, he says, because he's strong and centered enough in himself to know what's important in his life.

While Howard has been soul-searching on the public stage for the past three seasons, Paul is pretty much the same guy he was back in New Orleans. He kept his business in a tight, close-knit circle and set it aside until he could deal with it this summer.

"I tell you the truth," he said. "I'm so lucky to have a simple support system. I don't have an entourage. I've got my wife, I've got my brother, I've got my parents . . . so all the speculation that people want to talk about . . . these are the people who are with me every day."

Ask him about his plans after basketball and the answer is just as clear cut.

"I love basketball more than anything, but when I'm done, it's about my kids," Paul said. "I grew up with my mom and dad, who didn't miss anything I did as a kid. Like anything. I never had to look over my shoulder to see if my dad was at my game or my mom was at my recital. So when I'm done playing, I don't know what business venture I'm going to go into, but I hope and I pray that there won't be as much traveling."

During the summer, Paul and Howard did have several conversations. They are friendly with each other. So are their parents. And yes, there was a theoretical discussion about trying to sign with the same franchise, so they could team up.

"I don't know," Paul said, when asked how real the possibility of he and Howard playing together was. "We talked, and ultimately, we figured out that he had to do what was best for him and I had to do the same."

The difference is, Paul's always had a very clear sense of what that was.