MICHELE ROBERTS HAD just stepped out of an Uber when her phone started buzzing.
It was a little after 8 p.m. on March 11, and the National Basketball Players Association executive director had left her New York office after meeting with NBA commissioner Adam Silver to discuss the next steps amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.
It was Chris Paul.
“Michele, what’s going on?” Paul said.
“You tell me,” she replied.
The Thunder point guard, with confusion engulfing Chesapeake Energy Arena following Rudy Gobert‘s positive test just before the Thunder and Jazz were about to play, saw his basketball worlds colliding. As players’ union president, Paul was suddenly straddling roles.
With his team rattled, Paul provided a calming voice. Thunder players waited together after the game was officially canceled, getting their temperatures checked before being cleared to leave. The Jazz, meanwhile, sat in a circle wearing masks and rubber gloves about 50 yards down the hall. Paul arranged for his personal security guard, Gene Escamilla, to deliver them beer and wine to help pass the time and ease the tension.
Paul has been NBPA president since 2013 and has spent the past 11 years on the executive committee. He has been at the front of heated labor negotiations and league-changing decisions.
This battle has been different: an unprecedented, unpredictable bout with an unseen opponent.
Since the season was put on hold, Paul has emerged as one of the most influential — and busiest — figures as the league navigates a potential restart. In the era of player empowerment, there aren’t many who wield as much power as Paul. His goal is that the union has plenty too.
“We always make sure,” Paul said, “we have players — plural — involved in those conversations.”
ON A SUNNY day in mid-April, the sun crested over Los Angeles, but Paul wished to be over a thousand miles away: poring over film in Oklahoma City, preparing for Game 2 or 3 of a first-round series. He wanted to be hooping.
Instead of getting up shots in his team’s practice facility, Paul has been having direct conversations with Silver more than once a week as the liaison between the commissioner and the players. Paul has served as a sounding board for those looking for advice, ideas or an outlet for their frustration.
“Hell, I need to vent at times,” Paul said. “I just look at it as guys are actually concerned and they want to know what’s going on. They should have a say in their future.”
Between homeschooling his kids and finding time to take online Spanish classes (“I’m trying to get better at something,” he said.), Paul has had calls almost every morning — most often union-related — and more in the afternoon.
“He’s never said, ‘Can I get back to you?’ Never,” Roberts said of Paul, who will often surprise Roberts’ staff by jumping on a conference call to offer encouragement and share ideas.
“Being accessible has been a godsend.”
Up until last month, the executive committee was holding three to four conference calls a week, with much of that time devoted to interviewing and discussing candidates to be Roberts’ successor.
The union’s focus has shifted in recent weeks as the likelihood its members will be presented with a return-to-play plan has increased. Paul has been active every step of the way, preparing players for the many discussion points to come.
As rumblings of restart options and hypothetical scenarios have dotted their social media timelines, players across the league have been peppering Paul with the same questions curious basketball fans might have.
“When are we going to play? How are we going to play? Where are we going to play?” said executive committee member Anthony Tolliver, outlining what’s being posed to Paul. “Are we going to try and finish the regular season? Is it worth it? Is it going to be too much? Are we going to bring guys back and possibly be subject to a bunch of injuries because of the circumstances? Just walking through and talking through all that stuff.”
On April 22, Paul jumped on a conference call with local Oklahoma City reporters and received the same inquiries. He deftly maneuvered them as if he were snaking his way around a screen.
But as the call wrapped up, Paul had one more thing to say. He wanted to apologize.
He didn’t have the answers, and there has been no one for him to ask either — a peculiar problem for someone with such a deep list of league contacts.
“I’m telling you, I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s one of the craziest situations, because usually if something new is trying to be introduced to the league, or there’s going to be something new to the All-Star Game, or All-Star Weekend, it’s all about just finding out who knows, right? Like, ‘How can you get to Adam [Silver] and find out?’
“But no matter who you get to right now, no one knows.”
Day by day, talks have evolved, information has expanded and options have emerged. Paul, Roberts and the executive committee have now started conducting Zoom calls with all 30 teams individually to provide details on potential restart options.
A return-to-play protocol will need to be collectively bargained with the NBPA, and Paul will spearhead many of those discussions. Player pay reduction, contract incentive bonuses and the salary cap and luxury tax for 2020-21 will be negotiated.
There’s also a longer list of concerns, such as adjusting the basketball calendar year, the trade deadline, when non-guaranteed contracts would be protected and the last day to waive players. Paul has already been forming groups of players to collect ideas and proposals.
“I could literally talk about [restart plans] all day with a passion and excitement of knowing that, when a conversation does happen with the league or with Adam, there’s no pressure of saying like, ‘This is what I want to do,'” Paul said.
“Because you know this is what we have decided.”
That buy-in wasn’t there before, and high-ranking union members view Paul’s longtime superstar status as a big reason for the change. Players are more invested in their futures. They want more say. They want more power.
“Our meetings are much more engaged now. That’s because of Chris,” Roberts said. “He won’t allow an issue to be presented and then not discussed.”
PAUL’S VOICE CARRIES weight in conversations with the players’ union, but he doesn’t look to dominate them. He approaches a conference call much in the same way he approaches the game.
“I frequently joke about this, he’s obviously a point guard and his claim to fame in terms of skill set is his ability to read the room, read the floor and pass the ball,” Roberts said. “He does that in meetings too.
“If Chris sees a player who has not said much, he’ll ask, ‘John, what do you think about this? Come on, weigh in.’ That’s what he does. It’s a delight.”
Paul also leans heavily on NBPA executive members Tolliver and first vice president Andre Iguodala.
“Me and Dre, I was Clippers/Houston and he was Golden State, you know what I mean?” Paul said, referring to the teams’ famous playoff battles. “We even played against each other in AAU since we were in high school. But I can’t imagine going through what we’re going through now, first of all without the executive committee as a whole, but especially without those two.”
Paul’s competitiveness spills over into the role, but any beefs he has across the league don’t carry into meetings with players.
“Pretty much everybody that I can imagine would have an on-court beef with him,” Tolliver said. “I’ve never seen any sort of negative confrontation [off the court].
“Most people’s experience with him is he’s so competitive … but that also is good for whenever he’s your president and he’s fighting [for] the things you want.”
Not all of Paul’s tenure as president has been popular. There has been grumbling in past years among some of the more rank-and-file players that Paul tilts toward fellow superstars. The “Over-38 rule,” a change that allowed older star players to sign more lucrative deals, is pointed to as something negotiated in the most recent CBA that was directly designed to benefit Paul and his peers at the top of the league’s pay scale.
The union is similar to a locker room, though. There doesn’t always have to be universal agreement. It’s about what’s best for the group. That is Paul’s focus, both on and off the court.
“Everybody’s not always going to like the way you do stuff,” Paul said. “But you’ve got to be OK with that. I’m OK with that.”
WITH SPARKLING, SOFT yellow sand between his toes and a white bandana tied around his head, Paul caught a weighted medicine ball and passed it back, the grains splattering around his feet.
Paul wasn’t on a beach in California anymore. He was in Oklahoma, on the dunes outside the Thunder’s practice gym as the facility reopened for voluntary workouts on May 22.
He was first tested for COVID-19, then joined a Thunder strength coach who wore blue rubber gloves during the medicine ball drill. Joining Paul was teammate Danilo Gallinari, an Italian player who has spent the shutdown in Oklahoma City.
Previously, the only interaction Paul had with his teammates was during Zoom calls every Monday. It took a few weeks after the league suspended play for Paul to grasp how much he missed the other guys on the Thunder.
Paul has a responsibility to think about all 450 NBA players, but he realized he was overlooking the 15 in his own locker room.
“I needed to figure out how to keep my team connected,” Paul said. “I realized I was putting so much time into the other stuff.”
Paul’s hope is if and when the season returns, the Thunder will maintain some of that chemistry that had turned them into the surprise of the Western Conference.
“The thing we’re trying to do now is just keep the dialogue going,” Paul said. “And if we do get back to playing, [we don’t] have to try and pick it up then.
“Like, ‘Yo, what up man, what you been doing for the last eight weeks?'”
There are a lot of ideas, opinions and counter-opinions about the season’s possible restart and its logistics. There is some momentum after the league’s call with general managers on Thursday and ahead of Friday’s board of governors meeting.
And while sorting out the 2019-20 season is the task at hand, league insiders say the bigger battle is still to come: what to do with the 2020-21 season, and the oncoming financial domino effects.
Paul’s term as union president ends in 2021, and at age 35 and already a decade into his NBPA leadership, another four-year term might not be in his plans.
Paul said he thought he fought his last major labor battle in 2017 when the players and league agreed on a new seven-year deal. Now, he is at the forefront of the fight over the future of the NBA — two months of uncertainty and unanswered questions.
But through every video conference, every phone call, every text, there is one thing Paul recognizes now more than ever.
“You see how much everybody loves to hoop — genuinely loves to hoop,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing from our players. Everybody just wants to play.”