Chris Paul embraces Basketball HOF as a worthy finish line

Chris Paul sees relatively remote Springfield as the rightful home of the game's shrine. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBA/Getty Images

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Chris Paul admits it -- he viewed his trip to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last week as a bit of a nuisance.

After all, he lives in Los Angeles now, and with the final precious days of the offseason ticking down, a cross-country trip here was not atop his to-do list. Yet Paul agreed to come to the Hall last Thursday during induction weekend to receive the Mannie Jackson Human Spirit Award for his work surrounding the Chris Paul Foundation.

It wasn't the first time the Hall had reached out, but it was the first time the nine-time All-Star finally acquiesced.

"They ask,'' Paul conceded to ESPN.com, "but you think, 'I'm busy' or 'Oh no, it's too far,' or 'I have too much other stuff going on.'''

During his tour of the birthplace of basketball, Paul was moved by the stories of African-American pioneers who were banned from hotels and restrooms that welcomed their white teammates. He delighted in locating the plaque of Clarence "Big House" Gaines, the legendary African-American college coach at Winston-Salem State, just miles from where Paul grew up.

It prompted a reflective Paul to deliver one of the most memorable and impassioned speeches from an elite player who wasn't actually being inducted.

"Today was my first day having the opportunity to come here, and it was kind of touching,'' Paul told the audience upon accepting his award. "If not for this game, I am not here. If not for this game, my family is not in the situation we are in. And so I'm grateful for this game and what it has done for me and my family ...''

With his voice breaking, and tears welling, Paul pressed on.

"It really hit me today being here around all the history that we take so much for granted,'' he said. "And I know I do [that] a lot of times.''

Before long, as Paul shared the story of how he pressured his parents to buy him a pair of Allen Iverson's signature shoes, he had Iverson -- a 2016 Hall of Fame inductee -- weeping, too.

"To be here on his special day ... man, this game has taken me places I never imagined,'' Paul said. "Guys, you gotta come see this, because it's bigger than any of us."

After his emotional speech, Paul took a moment to explain why the visit affected him so deeply.

"I haven't never been here before, and as I walked in I actually felt bad about it,'' Paul said. "It hit home today, in a big way, what this game has done for me, and the people I love. You walk in and you see all the history and you realize, 'I need to support this.'

"I'm one of those people who, my wheels get turning. You want other people to see this. You think, 'Maybe it would be better if this was in New York or L.A.,' but that doesn't make sense. The game was invented here. There is where it has to stay.''

Paul's comments resonated with Jerry Colangelo, the chairman of the Naismith Hall of Fame. Debates have raged for years whether the Hall should relocate to a more accessible and vibrant part of the country, but Hall of Fame president and CEO John Doleva, in conjunction with Colangelo, has developed some innovative Hall of Fame programs outside the Springfield area to widen its scope.

"I'm one of those people who, my wheels get turning. You want other people to see this. You think, 'Maybe it would be better if this was in New York or L.A.,' but that doesn't make sense. The game was invented here. There is where it has to stay."
Chris Paul

Yet Colangelo acknowledges it remains a challenge to draw current NBA stars to the Hall. Some, like Shaquille O'Neal, another 2016 inductee, stayed away because of superstition.

"I call it spooky wook,'' Shaq explained. "I didn't want to jinx it. I wasn't setting foot in this Hall of Fame until I was actually being inducted.''

O'Neal, who said he was "very impressed by this fabulous event," pledged to do more for the Hall going forward.

The trick, said Colangelo, is to find a way to have current players throw their support behind the Hall while they are still in their prime.

"I think there's a sentiment where some guys don't want to feel like they're politicking for the Hall of Fame by being engaged,'' Colangelo said. "But let's be realistic about it: Very few of them actually get there.

"I also think the interest level of the current players in the Hall is not where I would like it.

"That's an attitude we're hopeful of changing. If you are blessed with the ability to earn a living off this game and you recognize how blessed you are to have that opportunity, your giving back should start right there.''

LeBron James made his first trip to Springfield in 2012 when Nike magnate Phil Knight was inducted and, according to Hall of Fame officials, experienced an emotional response similar to Paul's. Colangelo fervently believes once he gets the NBA stars into the building, they will appreciate its history and support the holding tank of their legacy.

Colangelo wondered aloud why NBA teams don't make a side trip to the Hall when they are in town to play the Celtics (Springfield is an hour and half west of Boston). While acknowledging the time constraints of teams that are searching for ways to rest their players, not add to their workload, Colangelo said, "It could be done, and it would have great value. They could hold their shootarounds at the Hall, right on the court.

"It's something I intend to pursue.''

Colangelo has another plan to lure some of the NBA's current elite to Springfield, perhaps as soon as 2017. Next year's potential Hall of Fame class likely will be underwhelming compared to the star power of Shaq, Iverson, Yao Ming and Sheryl Swoopes. Colangelo said the Hall is discussing the possibility of honoring the USA Basketball organization.

"It's just a thought in the back of my mind,'' Colangelo said. "Think of it. If you honor USA Basketball as a whole, you will be bringing back all the gold medalists, both men and women, and you will end up [with] a terrific group of former and current players.''

Before induction weekend, the Hall had raised $16 million of its $20 million capital campaign fundraising effort. Colangelo said they picked up "another $2 million or so" in pledges following the induction ceremonies. The monies have been targeted to renovate the facility, upgrade the technology of the exhibits and shore up the Hall's bottom line.

The current facility opened in 2002 to great fanfare but came with a price tag of more than $7 million of debt. By 2003, the Hall of Fame was in crisis and contemplated selling off some of its priceless memorabilia. Declaring bankruptcy also was discussed.

Doleva and Scott Zuffelato, the Hall's vice president of philanthropy, approached Colangelo and asked him to take an active role in helping them generate revenue for the Hall.

"They needed to raise some money really quickly in the worst way,'' Colangelo said.

Colangelo dialed up each NBA owner, asking them to match his personal pledge of $250,000. He said all but two complied; only former Clippers owner Donald Sterling and former Pistons owner Bill Davidson balked. Sterling has since been removed as Clippers owner by the league, while Davidson, who exhibited a long history of philanthropy during his lifetime, died in 2009. His family sold the team two years later.

"I'm not sure what happened with Bill,'' Colangelo said. "I always had great respect for him. Had I seen him face to face, I think I would have been able to convince him, but I never really did get the chance to address it with him.''

Even with the infusion of cash, the Hall needed a way to pare down its debt. Colangelo tapped commissioner David Stern to assist, and when Adam Silver succeeded Stern in 2014, Colangelo went back and tapped Silver as well.

The Hall of Fame now is on solid footing and enjoyed one of its most robust months of attendance in August, yet its continued success would be significantly buoyed by the generosity of the men and women who are immortalized there.

Paul, who is also president of the players' union, said he plans to go back to his NBA brethren and encourage them to see for themselves how the pioneers of the game paved the way -- and to spur them to give back.

"Every experience is different for every person, but this place? It got me," Paul said. "I can't wait to bring my son.''