At the top of a competition committee call last Monday, NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell noted that Chris Paul, the union president and point guard for the Phoenix Suns, might be absent—for understandable reasons. Less than 24 hours earlier, he’d played Game 3 of the NBA Finals, so NBPA executive director Michele Roberts had told him not to worry about the call; she’d keep notes. And yet shortly thereafter, there he was, if only for a few minutes, chiming in with something to say.
Paul’s run to Game 6 of the Finals is impressive enough on its own: At 36 years old, he’s become the oldest guard to score 40 points in a playoff game and the oldest to put up 30 in a Finals game. The records are all the more impressive, though, in light of the second job Paul has performed as NBPA president, guiding the players’ union through two COVID-impacted seasons and multiple debates over whether players should be playing at all over the last 15 months.
“We wouldn’t have made it through this crisis in the manner we did without his leadership,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.
Paul had been a surprise candidate for the top job back in August of 2013. He’d arrived at that summer’s union meeting without plans to run, before being pushed by Jerry Stackhouse and others. Paul inherited an organization still hobbled by the 2011 lockout and without an executive director after Billy Hunter was let go early in 2013.
As part of the search for Hunter’s replacement, Paul met with Roberts in a Chicago hotel conference room immediately following an early 2014 practice. “Chris had a seriousness about how he was approaching my candidacy that was really quite extraordinary,” Roberts said. The meeting went past an hour. There were other union employees in the room, Roberts recalls, but “it was 1-on-1 with Chris and I … I remember sitting there thinking, Damn, I’m glad I prepared.”
A year after Roberts was hired, Paul convinced LeBron James to become union VP ahead of a relatively smooth round of CBA negotiations in 2016. Paul was re-elected to a second four-year term in 2017, setting him up to be the union’s second-longest-serving president, behind only Oscar Robertson. Of his many accomplishments, Paul cites his work in establishing the first health insurance program for retirees in North American professional sports as “the greatest achievement” of his tenure.
“That’s a lifesaver,” said Robertson, who called the PA after that move to offer his thanks. “He’s earned my respect.”
As union president, Robertson sued the NBA en route to creating free agency, paving the way for the modern incarnation of the league. Other Hall of Famers like Bob Cousy and Isiah Thomas helped shape the league as NBPA leaders, too, but there hadn’t been a true superstar in the role since Patrick Ewing’s time ended in 2001.
“A lot of times guys don’t want to do it for some strange reason,” Robertson said. “They don’t want to sacrifice the time, but they want the benefits of it.” But having a big name in that position is critical, Robertson said. “When you have a star player like Chris, and he says something, people listen. If you had a 12th man on a team, no one’s going to listen.” The union has needed that voice as much as ever over the last year.
Paul’s COVID-19 response started minutes after that fateful Thunder-Jazz game was shockingly canceled on March 11, 2020. “Michele, what’s going on?” Paul, then with Oklahoma City, asked Roberts when he got her on the phone. “You tell me,” she responded. He proceeded to get beer and wine delivered for the Utah players who were stuck in limbo inside his home arena.
Over the next three months, Paul talked to Roberts daily and helped lead Zoom calls with all 30 teams, as the league and union negotiated a bubbled return to play. “I don’t know that any other player would have been as committed to this role as Chris Paul has been,” Roberts said at the time. Paul handled a Kyrie Irving-led push to boycott the restart and then brought the players together last August after the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court for their postseason game against the Orlando Magic in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old black man, in Kenosha, Wisc.
With the players split about how to proceed—James and the Lakers were reportedly among those advocating against continuing the season—Paul formulated a plan. He, along with James and others, spoke with former President Barack Obama, who advised them to play while pushing for specifics. (Obama also told them, “Y’all need to set up a more permanent structure so you don’t call me at midnight.”)
The next day, players decided to resume the playoffs. The NBPA and NBA agreed to create a social justice coalition, work to convert team facilities into voting locations, and add new messaging to game broadcasts. Seventeen NBA arenas would become polling places.
Paul worked for these causes even while still on the court. When his Thunder evened their series against the Rockets 2-2 last August, he immediately pivoted his messaging during an on-court interview. “The win is good, but voting is real,” he said. “I’m going to challenge all my NBA guys, other sports guys, let’s try to get our entire teams registered to vote. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the country. Sports—it’s cool, it’s good and well. It’s how we take care of our families, but those are the real issues we’ve got to start addressing.”
Six months later, dissension within the player ranks reemerged over holding an All-Star Game amid the pandemic. James called the idea “a slap in the face.” John Wall criticized it as well, though he added, “I respect everything that Chris Paul does as our president. Whatever decision he comes up with, and what Adam Silver does… they have the best interest at heart for the NBA, and also us, as the players.”
The game would go on, but not without Paul pushing for it to support historically black colleges. In addition to his union work, Paul has focused on HBCUs, launching a class at North Carolina A&T, as well as executive producing an ESPN+ docuseries about the North Carolina Central basketball team.
After Paul joined the Suns this season, 27-year-old Abdel Nader was taken aback by his teammate’s numerous responsibilities. “I don’t know how he does it,” Nader said in February. “I don’t even know if the dude sleeps. I asked him the other day, How much do you sleep at night? Because it’s scary how much he does.”
At the vanguard of a new generation of business-minded athletes, one of Paul’s biggest impacts may be the proof he’s provided that star players really can do it all—balancing a legendary career with family, activism, union work, and some State Farm ads to boot.
“Chris remarkably managed to both play at the highest level and lead his team to the Finals while simultaneously working with Michele Roberts and the league office,” Silver said. “In addition to always finding time to join calls with me and the league office on a near-daily basis, he was consistently prepared with innovative solutions, input from the players and the opinions of outside experts he had consulted on his own time.”
Suns president Jason Rowley said “it’s beautiful to see” stars like Paul diving into basketball’s business side while still excelling on the court. “It’s very powerful for us, because they can help provide both perspectives,” he added.
At the beginning of the Finals, Paul was yet again pulled into a workplace health and safety discussion, asked to weigh in after James blamed a rash of playoff injuries on the league’s compressed schedule. “Man,” Paul said, “one thing about our league and its players is [that] everything is always a conversation.”
The Suns have now lost three straight to the Bucks, and it is Paul’s turn to battle injuries; he’s dealing with torn ligaments in his right hand. Roberts, for one, is confident that there are plenty of people across the league hoping the point guard bounces back and wins his first championship.
“My staff worships him,” she said. “In the annals of PA history, he’ll go down as one of the most beloved presidents we’ll have.”
Robertson, who finished his career in Milwaukee and helped the Bucks to their lone NBA title, said he’d be happy for Paul to finally win a ring after all he’s done. Just not this year.