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A FEW DOZEN of Chris Paul's business associates and family members have gathered at the sleek BOA Steakhouse on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. It's July 2013, and Paul is seated at a table in front of his guests, with his 4-year-old son and 11-month-old daughter taking turns sitting on his lap. In moments, he'll set in motion a course of events that will ultimately change the NBA. He picks up a pen and signs the biggest contract of his life: a five-year, $107 million deal
with the Clippers.
Amid dinner and drinks and toasts, Paul rises and speaks, giving thanks. At every seat he's placed a Moleskine journal, with a simple, handwritten message inside. "On the first page, I wrote 'More,' and that was the only thing I wrote in there," he says. "The message was, a lot of times in life we all think that we've done enough or we do enough to just get by, and this wasn't just a challenge to them, it was a challenge to myself, just to do more."
One month later, after Paul quietly put his name on the ballot for union president, the NBA's player representatives gathered in Las Vegas, where they voted Paul to be their leader. The move had been a long time coming.
Two years earlier, in 2011, Paul had felt the weight of the NBA's power -- and hadn't much liked the experience. The Hornets, who had been taken over by the league to bail out struggling owner George Shinn, had arranged to trade Paul to the Lakers, but then-commissioner David Stern vetoed the deal. To this day, Paul still doesn't like discussing it. But his older brother, C.J. Paul, characterized it as a wake-up call. Chris, C.J. recalls, began working the phones, getting Stern on the line: "Stern said, 'Go to practice tomorrow and be prepared to play the season in New Orleans.'" Chris, C.J. says, laughed -- and called the union.
Paul was sent to the Clippers instead, making him lead dog on a team that would soon become one of the NBA's best. But the situation left a mark. "The league has a power that not many people are aware of," C.J. says. The botched deal "pushed Chris to get more involved in the union, to stand up for player rights."
It's mid-September now, a different year, a different restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, inside the Luxe hotel, and Paul is sitting at a small table. He's clearly been here awhile. There's no party and no guest list, just his publicist, Karen Lee, who's seated to his left. We're supposed to meet at 2, and I'm 10 minutes early. In front of him is a salad, half finished.
"I hope you don't mind," he says. "I started eating already."
The archetypal union leader is blustery and bombastic, full of righteous venom for management. Paul is not this way. He is quiet, purposeful, poised to deflect. He tenses when asked anything he deems private, addressing issues carefully, even evasively. One could read this as a sign that he's in over his head, doesn't know the issues or is merely a show horse, lending his big name to the cause.
Or perhaps his reticence is canniness, an early strategy in what might well be the most epic sports labor battle in decades. The NBPA recently engaged in the tentative, early stages of negotiations with the league, but owners know what's surely coming -- the revenge of players past.
The last time the union negotiated a labor contract, in 2011, it took the equivalent of a forearm to the chin, agreeing to a
7 percent cut in shared revenue after the owners closed their doors for 16 games and threatened to shutter them for the season. In retrospect, both owners and players saw gains, as average franchise valuations and revenues have ballooned and, by 2016-17, average player salaries will be nearly 50 percent higher from where they were in 2010-11.
Talks were contentious; many players at the time felt owners had cooked the books to show losses that did not exist. "It was outrageous to suggest the books were cooked," says NBA spokesman Mike Bass. The league says it demonstrated huge team financial losses at the time.
Today, the stakes are even higher. A nine-year, $24 billion TV contract with ESPN and Turner starts next year. While 51 percent of the gross revenue from that new deal is earmarked for players, how to split that TV money after the 2016-17 season may compel an opt-out discussion. The NBA-NBPA deal runs through 2020-21, but either side can opt out in the summer of 2017, setting the stage for the third work stoppage in 18 years. Paul and his union won't reveal their plans, but opting out seems a likely scenario if fundamental changes like an expanded share of revenue and a loosened salary cap aren't made. And Paul, one suspects, is not a man who is all that inclined to get played.
"You know how tenacious he is on the court?" says Cavaliers veteran James Jones, who serves on the NBPA's executive committee. "It's no different behind the scenes in our meetings. Chris starts the conversation and finishes the conversation."
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
PAUL GREW UP in a churchgoing, working-class family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina -- the kind of family in which you knew your role, minded your manners and followed the loving and sometimes stern dictates of your elders. "If I talk about the No. 1 leader I ever met," he says, "it's my dad."
In the 1980s, when Chris was a toddler, Charles Paul ran an assembly line building circuit boards for AT&T, a workplace organized by the Communication Workers of America. Twice, his union went on strike, ultimately winning pay raises, better health plans and stronger pensions. But it wasn't easy.
"I was at home awhile, and there was no money coming in," Charles says. "We had to take on loans to pay our bills and make ends meet. But our union was trying to make a point."
Chris Paul Will Not Be Played
In this audio adaptation of ESPN The Magazine's cover story by Kurt Streeter, the Clippers guard dishes for the first time on Michele Roberts, Donald Sterling and the players' looming battle with owners. Listen »
Chris was too young at the time to remember the strikes now. But a tone in the family was set: Being a member of a union is something to be proud of. Being a leader is even better.
In football, Chris played two positions: quarterback and the quarterback of the defense -- middle linebacker. On the court, he played one: point guard. "Distributing," he says, "making everyone better." He was also the senior class president at
West Forsyth High School. "It has definitely been in his nature to always be a leader," C.J. says.
In the NBA, Paul has been close to players since his early years in New Orleans, where his condo was a crash pad for visiting teams. And he's still at it. This summer, at his Bel-Air mansion, he hosted a barbecue for a group of rookies. It was a chance to prep them on the NBA -- and get them in line with the union. "He has ties with so many of us, and that means guys naturally just listen to what he says," NBA vet John Lucas III says. "What he says carries real weight."
The weight will be needed. The NBPA has long been led by NBA stars -- it was formed by one of the league's most iconic players, Celtics great Bob Cousy, who led it from 1954 to 1958. The union wasn't officially recognized by NBA owners until 1964, when top players -- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West -- threatened to strike before the All-Star Game. The game's best-known stars would continue to have a strong hand in union affairs for decades, but after Patrick Ewing stepped down from the presidency in 2001, the makeup changed. "The top guys began to clear out of the union because it was run so badly," says David Falk, one of the most prominent agents in NBA history.
In 2013, Billy Hunter, executive director of the union, was fired amid allegations of fiscal mismanagement and cronyism. And Paul -- who started as a player representative for New Orleans -- was on a committee that voted unanimously to oust NBA veteran Derek Fisher as president for, among other causes, acting "in contravention of the players' best interests during collective bargaining."
Picking at his salad, Paul doesn't want to talk about the past. What matters, he says, is the repair work that's being done. There's LeBron James and Steph Curry on the union board. There's the beefed-up executive staff at its New York headquarters, all set to move into a new 47,000-square-foot space featuring a basketball court and training rooms. There's the emphasis on player education: classes on money management and post-retirement careers. There's the constant stream of communication, Paul a regular at union meetings or on the phone with players and agents. "Rebranding the union," he says. "The biggest thing we wanted all the players to know is that this is your union. We are one."
Susan Walsh/AP Images
CHRIS PAUL MET Michele Roberts for the first time at a meeting inside the Chicago offices of Reilly Partners, an executive search firm. It was January 2014, the Clippers were in town to play the Bulls, and Paul was using his spare time to interview candidates for the executive director position that had been dormant since Hunter's departure.
A longtime Wizards season-ticket holder, Roberts was raised in the Bronx housing projects by a single mother before going on to a career as a prominent criminal defense attorney and then as a partner in one of Washington's most prestigious white-collar law firms. She'd been a long shot for the NBPA job, one of roughly 300 candidates, a black woman without experience in labor relations or professional sports, in which no woman of any color had ever held a similar position.
Paul was the only player at the meeting, which was attended by a union executive and members of the search firm. She recalls heading to the sit-down wondering if the engagement of star players would be merely superficial. Would this be the case with Chris Paul? she remembers thinking. Just a few minutes into the conversation, the answer was clear. "Not. At. All," she says, pausing between words for emphasis.
Before asking questions, Paul detailed how unmoored the union had become in the wake of Hunter's regime. "I remember thinking he was personally wounded by that whole experience," Roberts says.
Then he grilled Roberts for nearly an hour, quizzing her on the issues and the collective bargaining agreement. "Chris was essentially saying, 'I am serious about this,'" she recalls. "'If you are not, you need to take a walk, because I am not having it.' You couldn't help but be impressed."
Roberts got the job. Paul calls the hire the most significant thing the NBPA has done on his watch. "At first there was a little bit of, um, hesitancy to elect a woman," Pistons forward and union VP Anthony Tolliver says. "Not because we're sexist, but we just weren't quite sure how our guys were going to react to that. But Chris was adamant. He thought she'd be the best leader. By the end of the process, every single guy on our committee thought she was the best candidate. Chris said that from the beginning. We ended up following his lead."
As soon as Roberts was hired, she came out firing -- questioning the salary cap, shooting down NBA commissioner Adam Silver's proposal that money from the new TV deals be phased slowly into the league, wondering aloud about how much time the media should be allowed in locker rooms and why age limits exist. But over the past few months, the rhetoric has calmed, as if the early, aggressive stances were part of a strategy: Come out guns blazing, retreat, negotiate. Paul and Roberts have agreed to play nice. "I made a promise to the commissioner, and he agreed to reciprocate," Roberts says. "We would try to avoid discussing specifics in the media." Silver too is adhering to the agreement, calling Paul "smart, thoughtful and inquisitive."
Today, the union's official stance is that it would like to get a deal done before 2017 -- maybe even this season -- ahead of the time that talk of a work stoppage would pick up steam.
"Over the next six, seven months," Paul says, "we'll have the opportunity to have those conversations with the NBA and Adam and see where we go from there."
PAUL FEELS COMFORTABLE discussing many things -- anything, it seems, other than union business. He's at ease talking family. Or charity work. Or friendships: the mentoring he's received from Lions coach Jim Caldwell, from Jay Z, from Disney chairman and chief executive Bob Iger. (Disney owns ESPN.) Ask about the odious beliefs of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, though, and conversation stalls.
"Whenever somebody brings it up, my mind just starts going in circles," he says. He doesn't discuss how he worked behind the scenes to calm teammates. He doesn't mention his call to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, asking the former NBA star to be the union voice on Sterling while the Clippers focused on the playoffs. Nor does he talk about the demands from players to Silver that Sterling be stripped of ownership.
When I ask about his relationship with Silver, Paul is guarded. "I know Adam really well. We communicate at different times and different things like that."
When I ask what he'd like to work on with Silver, he leans back and grimaces. He looks at Karen Lee, the publicist. He wants to cite an issue that came up during a recent season -- but not on the record. Lee asks that my recorder be turned off.
Paul recounts an innocuous vignette showing that he and Silver have a good relationship. It casts both in a positive light. I urge him to tell it on the record, but he doesn't want the details known. Private discussions, he says, should stay private.
We continue. Silver has said that some franchises are struggling. What does Paul think? The restaurant is still. "That's why we've got a lot of talking to do," Paul says.
I say I've often wondered why the players or the league would want to risk a work stoppage now, with the NBA's increasing popularity, the new revenue, with franchises selling for crazy amounts. The Kings for $534 million, the Hawks for $850 million, Paul's own Clippers for a mind-boggling $2 billion.
"I've never been in this situation," Paul says. "You know, going through what we're about to. I would say, hopefully, no work stoppage or anything like that. That's the ultimate goal."
I press. He looks me in the eye, smiling. He's not going to show his cards. After a while, Lee chimes in. The negotiations, she says, "will be tough but respectful. Is that a good way to put it?"
And that is when Paul's competitiveness begins to show. A beat passes. Then two. He sits straighter in his chair. There's a look in his eyes familiar to anyone who has watched him deep in the fourth quarter, homing in on an opponent or yelling at DeAndre Jordan. There's that edge. He wants to say more, but he won't.
Respectful but tough?
"Very," he says. "Very."