The newest Los Angeles Clipper, Chris Paul, isn't fitting in.
Exhibit A: In L.A., you can't talk on the handset of your cell phone while driving. Paul learned that lesson from a cop the other day leaving practice in El Segundo. He got a ticket.
Exhibit B: In L.A., when the Clippers play the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center, the location of the benches changes depending on who's the home team. During a timeout the other night, he headed for the Lakers' bench.
Exhibit C: In L.A., the Clippers are expressly forbidden to beat the Lakers at any time (city ord. 373-c). It's the Lakers' town, their arena, their world. Lakers vs. Clippers is no more of a rivalry than whale vs. krill. As rapper Ice Cube says, "The Clippers will always be the JV squad in Los Angeles."
But Paul is a scofflaw on this, too. He and his Swiss-Army-knife hoops game seem bent on U-turning one of the most lopsided un-rivalries in the NBA. The Clippers not only lead the Lakers in the standings, but they beat them in both preseason games, then again in the first regular-season meeting between the two. And when the Clippers finally lost to them Wednesday night, Paul kept bucking. He got chippy with 7-foot Pau Gasol, slapping Gasol's long arm away from his head and snapping at him.
Wrong. Clippers are supposed to shake Lakers' hands and whisper, "Any way you can work a deal for me?"
Who the hell does Chris Paul think he is?
"I didn't choose to come here," says Paul, a four-time All-Star at only 26. "I got traded. But I looked at it as an unbelievable opportunity."
The Clippers? An opportunity?
"I've always liked this franchise!"
Paul especially likes L.A. now that he bought singer Avril Lavigne's $8.5 million house in the hills above the Wilshire district. Closed in three days. Life is suddenly the best damn thing.
What Paul has learned about L.A. is nothing compared to what L.A. has learned about Paul. For instance, L.A. now knows that off the court, he's St. Paul. On the court, he's 6 feet of hate.
"He's chippy," says Paul's new Clippers teammate Chauncey Billups, who considers Paul a little brother. "Very chippy. And dirty. Man, we've been in all kinds of fights in this league."
Paul slaps his forehead. "Half the things I do, I got from him! I used to come around a ball screen and he'd be holding on to my wrist!"
Remember Paul's nasty dust-up with Kobe Bryant in Game 4 of their playoff series last year? The bumping and the yelling? Now his locker is 100 feet down the hall from his. Awkward.
"Kobe's my friend, but for those 48 minutes, I don't care who it is, I ain't buddy-buddy with anybody," Paul says.
But he was teammate-teammate with him -- for 30 minutes.
On the night of Dec. 8, 2011, he was out to dinner in New Orleans with his family and teammate Trevor Ariza. His phone was buzzing like a hive: He'd been traded from the Hornets to the Lakers.
Paul wasn't believing it. "I didn't send anybody any texts because it was all so up in the air. It was the craziest dinner ever."
Thirty minutes later, the other shoe dropped. NBA commissioner David Stern killed the deal.
How did it feel being Kobe's teammate for half an hour?
"Well, I never WAS a Laker, really, so I don't worry about it."
Kobe should. A young, athletic, insanely competitive point guard like Paul is exactly what the sagging Lakers need.
Typical example of how Paul makes you rub your eyes to see if you're really watching the Clippers:
The Clippers are up two, very late, against the Portland Trail Blazers until Paul, who's no taller than me, drives the lane and makes a preposterous arching rainbow banker over the pterodactyl arms of Portland 7-foot center LaMarcus Aldridge. Clippers by 4.
On the other end, Paul insists on switching to guard 6-5 Portland star Jamal Crawford, who's hot. No way should he be guarding Crawford, but he is. Crawford gets it on the wing and pump fakes a 3, only to find the ball isn't coming with him. Paul has it tied up down by their knees.
"I learned that right here in L.A., when I was a rookie," says Paul. "[Former Clipper] Sam Cassell schooled me. It was one of those Welcome to the NBA moments. Three times Sam faked me off my feet and then jumped into me for fouls. I thought, 'Why am I trying to block these shots? I'm not a shot-blocker!' So now I keep my feet."
Jump ball. Paul, almost half a foot shorter, steals the tip. Game over. Paul 1, Blazers 0.
How'd you do that?
"P.J. Brown taught me," he says. "I'm never telling. Nine times out of 10, I win the tip. The only one I didn't win was against Ron Artest. He hit me in the eye with his elbow and I got stitches."
So there you go. Between Gasol, Kobe and Not Always About Metta World Peace, the Lakers are Paul's real enemy now. And even though Billups told me, "We're not quite ready to take them on yet. We've got a ways to go," Paul wants to win the season series like you want your next breath.
"Look, we're not trying to convert Lakers fans," he says. "We're just trying to give people who've been Clippers fans all this time something really good to cheer for."
Exhibit D: In L.A., nobody has been a Clippers fan all this time.
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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "Monday Night Countdown," "SportsCenter," and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.
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