A shuttered gas station sits at the eastern end of a busy Winston-Salem road that's lined with convenience stores and fast-food joints. Its pumps are wrapped in black garbage bags; the garage window is boarded with plywood. Outside the dusty office, yellow stuffing oozes from torn brown-vinyl benches that tremble in the stiff fall breeze. Above it all, the blue-shingled canopy has faded, except for where the proprietor's sign was once affixed.
Not that long ago, this place bustled. When Jones Chevron opened in 1964, it was the first black-owned service station in North Carolina. Sometimes customers gassed up before copping to not having the money to pay. The owner would tell them to get it to him when they could. Some did, some didn't. It didn't seem to bother him.
Chris Paul first worked here 28 years later, when he was 7. He liked to help change oil and wash windshields, but that's not why he came back, day after day, year after year. He came back because he loved hanging with the owner, his granddad, Nathaniel Jones. The family called him Papa Chilly.
As Paul grew up, he discovered his hoops talent, which promised to take him farther than pumping unleaded ever could. But he never turned in his oil rags. During those sticky Carolina summers, Chris, who lived a town over in Lewisville, often spent the night at his granddad's house so the two could wake at the crack of dawn to share a cup of coffee before heading to work. In the fall and winter, Jones closed early so he could attend his grandson's games at West Forsyth High. Every Sunday, they sat side by side at Dreamland Park Baptist Church before heading to Meta's, a local eatery. There, over ribs, fried chicken and muffins, they'd talk about where Chris' game would take him.
"He was my best friend by far," Paul says.
On Nov. 14, 2002, family, friends and classmates gathered at the West Forsyth gym to watch Paul sign his letter of intent. The kid's game wasn't taking him too far just yet: he was heading to Wake Forest, the hometown school. After the "CP3" chants faded and the crowd dispersed, Jones took off his own Wake baseball cap and placed it on Chris' head. Their eyes were moist as they left the gym. "Christopher Emmanuel Paul," Chilly said, "I will remember this day for the rest of my life."
When Paul thinks of those words now, he can feel the love as warmly as he did that day. And he thinks of them often, especially when he takes the floor with Wake. Because Granddad's not around to watch anymore, and everything about that hurts- the senselessness of his death, knowing that no one would be more thrilled by his success.
"Be strong and play your heart out," Chilly used to say. To Paul, each shot and assist, each jaw-dropping move, is a message back.
CHRIS PAUL hits the light switch and steps back. In front of him, in the basement of his parents' two-story, redbrick house, stands a pair of seven-foot-high glass cases that are crowded with hardware and surrounded by all kinds of souvenirs. As humble as the kid is, he can't help but admire the rewards of his handiwork. His thick-lashed mahogany eyes bounce from memento to memento. A framed jersey from the McDonald's All-American game. Another from the Jordan Capitol Classic. A plaque commemorating Chris Paul Day in his hometown last spring.
There, anchoring the bottom of the case on the right, is his most prized possession: the ball he used to score a career-high 61 points for West Forsyth. "My cousins got it for me after the game," he says. "The ref thought they were trying to steal it."
On this lazy Sunday in October, Paul really should be back at school, resting up for Midnight Madness week. But after attending last night's Jay-Z/R. Kelly show in Greensboro, he decided to take a detour. Turns out the hottest commodity in college hoops still counts on Mom to do his laundry.
His friends rag on him, calling him country, and in a way they're right. Lewisville is a model of New South suburbia: rural roads sprinkled with Baptist churches; plastic newspaper mailboxes all down the line. But it's a 10-minute car ride from Winston-Salem. During his senior year, Paul made the trip so often to watch Deacon practices that folks around campus would come to dub him The Mayor. So when he enrolled last fall, he already had a crew in place to watch over him. Guard Trent Strickland accompanied Paul to church; backcourt mate Justin Gray took him on in video games and Nerf hoops. Taron Downey, who started every game at the point as a sophomore, liked Paul so much, he'd helped recruit him even though the freshman's arrival meant Downey would be sent to the bench.
Paul seems like the kind of kid who could use a few more big brothers. He can come off as eager and wide-eyed, frequently punctuating sentences with his favorite adjective, "unbelievable," as if he can't quite fathom his good fortune. Like any teenager, his enthusiasm can get the best of him. On the bus trip to Wake's NCAA Tourney opener last season, his teammates and coach Skip Prosser blasted him for bringing along a video recorder. "What do you think this is?" Prosser asked. "A school trip to the state capitol?"
In his first-ever ACC game last December, Paul was so awed at taking on North Carolina at the Dean Dome that after the opening tap fell into his hands, he looked up court-and realized he couldn't see. "Everything was blurry," he says. "I guess it was the adrenaline rush." When did he regain focus? "After Raymond Felton ran past me three or four times." Paul regrouped to put up 18 points and eight assists in a 119-114 triple-OT win.
That's the other side of Paul. When Prosser introduced a play earlier in the season, Paul asked, "Didn't we call this something different last year?" That's when the guys saw that the overanxious exterior was just a cover for a kid in complete control. "From the first day," says center Eric Williams, "we knew what he was capable of doing."
Paul did play the role of deferential point guard to a fault at first, even as Prosser prodded him to let it fly. But then he let loose with 19 second-half points in a mid-February win over Duke, which moved several teammates to insist he change his nickname to The President. Over the next six weeks, he ran a near-flawless campaign, dropping 30 and nine on Maryland in the ACC tournament and 29 and six in Wake's second-round NCAA win over Manhattan.
It wasn't long before NBA scouts were touting Paul as a future top-five pick, but he pays little attention to the hype. Once the games are over, he returns to his happy-to-be-here self. "He doesn't take himself too seriously," says Prosser. "He knows that while everyone tells him he's the greatest thing since Cheerios, he's still got to cut the grass on Saturday."
A few minutes after showing off his trophy case, Paul wanders to the other side of the basement, where his mom, Robin, and dad, Charles, are watching their beloved Dallas Cowboys on a big screen. Before this room was furnished, it was where the hoops star was created. When Chris was 2, Dad lined a court on the concrete floor with red tape and put a Fisher-Price hoop at either end. The Pauls have video of C.J., now a senior guard at D2 South Carolina Upstate, schooling his baby bro.
Chris dished out his share of punishment too. Back when he was still in a walker, his brother locked him in a room. Soon after being liberated, Chris found C.J. at the top of the basement stairs and shoved him off. Usually, though, his brother got the better of him. One time, seeking to escape what he says was his first butt-whipping at the hands of his parents, Chris hid in a closet. From the musty darkness, he heard footsteps, then a small voice outside the door. "He's in there," C.J. whispered.
"He sold me out," Chris says now. He's heading up those basement stairs again, smiling as he recalls the brotherly battles. Often, he says, his parents ended them quickly with a wooden paddle, one side of which read "Board of Corrections," the other, "Victim Sign Here."
There was plenty of discipline in the Paul household, and there were unyielding rules: video games only on weekends, and only after homework; no swearing; yes sirs and no ma'ams. There was discipline on the court, too. Charles, a security equipment designer, pushed Chris relentlessly. When his son was 10 or so, Charles began tying Chris' right arm behind his back to force him to learn how to play, not to mention eat and brush his teeth, with his off-hand.
Sometimes the tough love was too much. Whenever Chris reached a breaking point, Granddad was there to lean on. At the gas station, after games, at Meta's, Papa Chilly listened to Chris go on about the unfairness of it all. And then he'd gently tell his grandson to suck it up.
Of course, he was right. Paul now sees the benefits of his upbringing. He made dean's list at Wake Forest. Video cameras aside, Coach says Chris is one of the most mature leaders he's ever had. And have you seen that right-to-left crossover? Says Mom: "He knows where his strength comes from."
His laundry, too. As Paul walks through the kitchen with his short visit winding down, he eyes his quarry. "This is what I came home for," he says, grabbing the sack of neatly folded clothes. But before he takes off, there's one more stop on the tour. Rounding a corner to his room, he gestures to a set of framed pictures, snapshots from the day he signed with Wake. There's one with his mom, one with his dad, one flanked by Mom and Dad. And there's one more, which he points to for a couple of beats longer than the others. "That's Papa Chilly," he says.
ON NOV. 15, 2002, the day after Paul signed his letter of intent, Nathaniel Jones closed up his gas station at 6 p.m. and headed home. After a five-minute drive, he pulled into the driveway of his modest southside home. Since the death of his wife, Rachel, a decade earlier, Jones had repeatedly turned down offers by Chris' parents to move to Lewisville, preferring to live in the neighborhood where he raised his two daughters. Even when the Pauls offered to annex a wing of their house to him, he said thanks but no thanks.
He brought some groceries inside and walked back to the car to grab the rest of his load. Five young men were waiting. The teenagers tied Jones' hands behind his back, taped his mouth and beat his head and face. They took his wallet and left him in a heap. The bearlike Jones, who had a history of heart trouble, died from cardiac arrhythmia as he lay in his carport. He was 61.
For Chris, the events immediately following his granddad's death remain darkly surreal. He remembers getting a call from a cousin at a high school football game. He remembers the funeral. All the rest, from the viewing attended by nearly the entire Wake squad (though they had not yet become his teammates), to his first game of his senior season, just a day after Papa was laid to rest, are like shards of a shattered dream.
Paul hurt so bad, he contemplated quitting hoops. But at the funeral, his aunt, Rhonda Richardson, hit on the idea of Paul scoring 61 points, one for each year of Papa's life. He thought she was crazy, but "At the same time," he says, "I thought it would be unbelievable if I could do it." Like many athletes, Chris can recall nearly every game he's been in, each missed pumped fake and extra pass. But that night at Parkland High is "a blur." Paul's career high was 39 points. By the end of the first half he had 32. "What surprised me was it was all in the flow of the game," says his dad, who moonlighted as a West Forsyth assistant.
By the end of the third quarter, Paul was up to 46. And with the victory well in hand, the points kept coming until finally, with 2:30 left on the clock and 59 points by his name, he drove the lane, tossed up a scoop shot and was fouled. As the ball dropped through the net, Chris' head cleared. On his back, staring at the ceiling, almost hyperventilating, the number stuck: 61. "I
couldn't believe it," he says.
Paul took the rock from the ref at the line and shot an air ball. Then, crying, he walked to the bench and fell into his father's arms.
CHRIS PAUL had an assignment last spring. For English 111, he had to write a speech about something important to him. A million subjects floated through his brain. Basketball. War. Racism. But when he sat at his computer, he couldn't shake this one. The words flowed like his game.
A best friend? Usually a classmate, a teammate or maybe even a next-door neighbor. Not for me ... my best friend goes by the name Nathaniel Frederick Jones, also known to his grandchildren as Papa Chilly ... In the 17 years I was blessed to have him by my side, he taught me more about life than I could ever learn with a PhD or a bachelor's degree. To him, life was a gift that should be cherished and used very wisely, because tomorrow is never promised.
In August, at the trial of two of the defendants involved in Papa's killing, the assistant DA read aloud Paul's speech, "An Unexpected Best Friend." He wasn't in the courtroom-his parents thought it would be too hard for him-but Paul approves of everyone getting to hear how he feels. "There's nothing good about losing him," he says. "But people realize it wasn't just a loss to our family, it was a loss to the community. That helps me a lot." The defendants, convicted of first-degree murder, got life. (The remaining three go on trial this month.)
The tributes will continue. Just as he did last season, Paul will clutch the laminated newspaper obituaries of Jones and his grandmother during every national anthem. But mostly he'll make a bigger statement with his game. He's heard the talk about maybe being the No. 1 pick this spring if he decides to leave early, but that's not on his mind. Tomorrow is never promised. And so he concentrates on what's in front of him: a loaded team to lead, a brutal conference schedule to conquer and the hopes of the title-starved Deacon faithful to shoulder. Life is a gift to be used wisely.
"I still mourn to this very day," Paul wrote in his speech. "But what keeps me going is knowing that my best friend never gave up on me, so what would it look like if I were to give up on him?"
We'll never have to find out.