ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
Most of us can point to a few key people who made a real difference in our lives and careers. Maybe it’s the family elder who taught you right from wrong, the coach who pushed you to outperform, the teacher whose passion for a subject inspired your own, or the boss who showed you what it is to be a leader at work. Eventually though, we all also have the chance to become role models ourselves for younger relatives and friends, colleagues and employees, and other members of our communities.
Today’s guest, basketball star Chris Paul, has been on both sides of that trade. Growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he had the support of a tight-knit family. In college, he was mentored by a terrific coach. And in the NBA, he soaked up lessons from league veterans.
But now at age 38, he is the seasoned vet, a 12 time All-Star across five teams, former president of the National Basketball Players Association, and widely regarded as one of the best point guards of all time. He’s here with us to talk more about who helped shape him and how he stepped up into leadership roles himself. His new book is called Sixty-One: Life Lessons from Papa, On and Off the Court. Chris Paul, welcome.
CHRIS PAUL: How are you, Alison? Thanks for having me.
ALISON BEARD: I am a big NBA fan, so I’m really excited to have you on the show. We’re talking about role models and your first key ones were family members, notably your grandfather, Papa, who was a beloved local businessman and church deacon in your hometown. What are some of the most important principles or lessons that he taught you?
CHRIS PAUL: Man, I think one of the first lessons my grandfather taught me was the importance of hard work. He had the first Black-owned service station in North Carolina. As a kid, I grew up working at his service station. Me and my brother were pumping gas, rotating tires, and changing oil.
We really got a chance to see what the work looked like, and I’m grateful for it. My grandfather would never give us anything. Even though he might have had the money in his pocket for sneakers, tennis shoes, whatever we wanted, he never just pulled out the money and gave it to us. He told us if we wanted it, we had to earn it.
ALISON BEARD: And you talk in the book also about how he did that for other people in your town, people who were in need of work, who’d fallen on hard times. It wasn’t handouts, but he would offer them employment.
CHRIS PAUL: Exactly. When you’re a kid, you’re seeing this take place and you’re not realizing how it’s affecting you. You just sort of, oh, that’s just what Papa does. He helps people out. As you start to get older, you see how much people appreciate him and how many people come by at times and tell him thank you.
It may not have really, really hit me until I lost him at the age of 17, that it really showed how it affected me and how it made me want to have that work ethic. It made me want to be able to help others like he did for his entire life. Those lessons are important and making sure that you pay attention and understand what’s happening around you.
ALISON BEARD: Most athletes also look to their coaches as role models. How did your high school and AAU coaches, including your dad, who I know led a couple of your teams, challenge you to grow and develop both as a player and as a person?
CHRIS PAUL: I’ve been on teams since I was five years old, whether it be playing football, whether it be playing basketball. I would have a different AAU coach, a different middle school coach, a different YBA coach. All these different coaches brought different things to the table. And over all these years, I’ve learned so many different lessons, even from my dad coaching me and sometimes realizing when my dad was being my coach and when he was being my dad.
Some of my coaches were harder on me than other coaches, which pushed me. But some coaches knew how to hug me and show me the encouragement when I needed it. Sport has taught me everything that I could possibly know about life.
ALISON BEARD: Who got the best out of you in your youth and how did they do it?
CHRIS PAUL: It might have been my brother, my older brother. My dad was really good at it too, but my older brother, he challenged me the way that siblings do. And that was always what drove me, always made me want to beat him, made me want to be better.
My dad was one of those people, he worked all the time, but one thing he always did was he gave me and my brother the tools. He would give us the resources that we needed. He would say, “Here. Here’s a basketball. Here’s a goal. If you want to be really good at it, you got to put the work in. I’m going to give you what I can, but you got to work on it.”
ALISON BEARD: You went to college at Wake Forest. Skip Prosser, who was the head coach there, was a big reason that you chose that school instead of other college programs, including the chance to go to UNC, which had been your dream. What did he do to persuade you to go work for him? Why was he so successful at recruiting you?
CHRIS PAUL: I think Coach Prosser was so successful in recruiting me because I learned early that all these different colleges are recruiting you, but it matters what the head coach thinks. The assistant coach can recruit you all he wants to, but at the end of the day, the head coach is going to determine playing time. What I also appreciated about Coach Prosser was that he was real.
He was real with me. When he came to see me, he’d be like, “Man, you don’t play defense. You don’t do this. You don’t do that.” There was a realness to his recruitment of me. I knew that if I wanted to be the player that I hoped and strived to be, that I was going to need someone to be honest with me.
ALISON BEARD: They’re good parallels with the working world there, the corporate working world. As you started thinking about going to the NBA, who did you look to for advice and guidance?
CHRIS PAUL: There were talks about me leaving to go to the NBA after my freshman year, but my parents, my family, we knew I was still too big of a fan of the NBA to go at that point. After my sophomore year, it was one of the hardest decisions I made. I remember I actually cried, not because I was going to the NBA, but because I was leaving my college teammates and our friends.
We had an apartment off campus that we were going to be in my junior year and I was so excited about it, and then up and leave and go to the NBA. It was bittersweet. It sounds crazy because I’m going to the NBA, but college is an experience.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah, absolutely.
CHRIS PAUL: It’s crazy to think that that was 18 years ago and making that decision, but it was something that changed my life and my family’s life forever.
ALISON BEARD: Once you were in the league, who did you see as your role models?
CHRIS PAUL: When I got into the NBA, I was fortunate to play my rookie year with a guy named P.J. Brown and a guy named Speedy Claxton. Those were like my original vets. J.R. Smith was a teammate of mine, but he was more like my brother. I got to know Chauncey Billups pretty well. You just pick and choose guys that you want to get information from or you want to watch them work.
When I got in my second year in the NBA, I had a teammate named Bobby Jackson who just showed me what it was like to be a pro, showed me what it’s like to get to the gym early every day, showed me what it’s like to get to the game early and pre-game shoot and just the preparation that goes into being a pro, because you go from college of playing 35, 36 games in a season to 82. It’s a lot.
ALISON BEARD: You talk in the book both lessons from your grandfather and your parents and other players this love for the work. It’s not that you’re doing the work and putting in that time only to get to the games and the victories, but you’re actually enjoying the work. That’s what you saw from those players that you admired and wanted to emulate?
CHRIS PAUL: No question. You just fall in love with it. When you see the results from the work and the time that you put into something, it makes you want to continue to do it. It makes you want to get better at it.
ALISON BEARD: When in your NBA career did you see that you needed to be that kind of team leader, not just as the point guard on the court running the plays, but then also on the sidelines, in the locker room, out in the world?
CHRIS PAUL: I always say that I’ve always been vertically challenged. When I say that, I’ve never been the tallest one on my team. I’ve always been a point guard. When I played football, I was the quarterback. When I was in high school, I was class president 10, 11, 12. I’ve always been able to communicate. What happened was my rookie year, Byron Scott was my head coach. I had a few other coaches who had played in the NBA and they were unbelievable. Kenny Gattison, Darrell Walker, all of these coaches.
From day one when I was in practice, they would tell me, “Run your team.” That means push the ball, call the plays, run your team. Doing that with a vet like P.J. Brown who had been in the league, what, 15 years or so at the time, and he allowed me to do that. And then that just continued. The year before my rookie year, that team had went 18 and 64. And then my rookie year we won 39 games. I had success with that early on, so I was like, let me keep doing it.
ALISON BEARD: They were happy for you to be leading them.
CHRIS PAUL: I guess so.
ALISON BEARD: You have played on five teams over the course of your career. How has your approach to leadership or being a role model evolved with each transition?
CHRIS PAUL: Oh man, it’s changed and it continuously changes. It’s funny, when I first came into the league, I played for New Orleans for six years. I was crazy on the court. I mean crazy. Still am, still am crazy on the court, but just my intensity for the game and just wanting everyone to approach it like I do and trying to make sure I get the best out of everybody that’s playing with me. I had a coach in Houston, this had to be my 13th year in the league or something like that, but he told me, he said the biggest challenge that I’ll have in the league is playing with guys who don’t care as much as I do. I think in all the situations and all the teams that I’ve been on, now, it’s not always been perfect, right? Sometimes you don’t have a lot of time to figure out how to communicate with a guy. I guarantee you I haven’t been perfect, but I’ve always at least tried with the right intention.
ALISON BEARD: When you’re paired with other stars whose personalities and leadership styles are different than your own, but you both are seen as the people who are managing, guiding all the rest of the other players, so it really does have to be a partnership, how do you figure out how to work together?
CHRIS PAUL: I think there’s a level of trust that comes in with that. I mean, in this situation I’m in now here with Phoenix, me and Book could be talking about something and I’d be like, “Yo, you tell the team. You tell them.” I say that because at a certain point, guys need to hear a different voice, right?
ALISON BEARD: Right.
CHRIS PAUL: Hear it come from somewhere else. I think that matters. When you have somebody that you can communicate with like that and pick your spots, it makes it even that much more impactful.
ALISON BEARD: For the non-NBA fans listening, Devin Booker is a younger generation of player.
CHRIS PAUL: Oh yeah, my bad. Book is 26 maybe, 27, and Kevin Durant – KD is 34.
ALISON BEARD: You have gone through these trades, some injuries, some losses, including one in the NBA Finals. What have you learned about resilience that you try to pass on to others?
CHRIS PAUL: Man, the biggest thing about resilience is if you get knocked down, it sounds simple, but you got to get back up. You got to get back up. I think the one thing that people have to understand is that nobody feels sorry for you, especially when it comes to losses, but even more so when it comes to injuries. When I see a guy get injured that I know or have a relationship with, I’ll send him a text or I’ll call him.
The biggest thing I try to point out to him is that on that night that you get hurt or injured, everybody and their mama’s going to send you a text message or tweet it out and put it on their Instagram like, prayers for my bro, wishing you a speedy recovery, all this stuff. For two days everybody going to show you so much love and want you to get well. But then once a week go by, everybody forget. Everybody forgets. It’s you and your rehab.
It’s lonely, it’s really lonely, but you got to take the small victories and you got to keep your head down and do the work. Because people going to say, get well soon, but they ain’t going to check up on you in three weeks or in a month for the most part. Everybody just going to wait and say they happy to see you back when you get back.
ALISON BEARD: Right. You got to get back.
CHRIS PAUL: Exactly.
ALISON BEARD: For the record, I’m a Celtics fan. I was rooting for the Bucks in that finals because you root for your conference, but I did feel really sad when you didn’t win those finals because I thought you deserved one.
CHRIS PAUL: Not as bad as me.
ALISON BEARD: I’m sure. I’m sure. Let’s talk about your time as president of the Players Association from 2013 to 2021. Why did you want to take on that role?
CHRIS PAUL: Well, to be honest, I didn’t. I joined the executive committee my third year in NBA. And in 2013, we were in Vegas for an executive committee meeting. At the time, we didn’t have an executive director. The union was in shambles at the time. A few of the guys came to me the day before we were going to vote on a new president and they was like, “Yo, Chris, we need you to run for president.” I was like, what? They was like, “Yeah, we want you to be the president.”
I was like, man, I ain’t got that kind of time. The first thing I did was I went back to my room and I told my wife because I wanted to hear how she felt about it, because there’s a lot of time and effort that goes into being the president of the union, whether it be phone calls to the league, to the union, players. You have to be very accessible to all the players so that they can hit you and tell you about any issues that they’re having. She said if they came to you and said that, they really must need you, so go for it. Yep, that turned into eight years.
ALISON BEARD: Right. I know. They persuaded you just by saying, “You’re the best man for the job right now.”
CHRIS PAUL: When I reflect on it, I think it honestly has something to do with my grandfather because it’s a job of service. There’s no extra pay. There’s no extra anything. It’s literally a job of service. I think I brought something to the table because I was pretty experienced in the league and knew what goes on in the CBA negotiations, but there was a lot of things that I didn’t know back in 2013 that because I was put in that position, I got an opportunity to learn. I always say that my eight-year tenure as the president combined with the previous years on the executive committee, I got a master’s class on business to a certain extent.
ALISON BEARD: You faced a really early challenge in the controversy over Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers, your old boss, and he was ultimately forced to sell the team after a long history of racist comments came to light. Tell me about how you and the Players Association handled that during that period, which was 2014.
CHRIS PAUL: Man, that was so long ago.
ALISON BEARD: I know.
CHRIS PAUL: So much has happened since then. It was just a very interesting time. I was playing at the time for the Clippers and we were in a big playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. I’m trying to lead my team, trying to make sure that we stay locked in mentally because we’re trying to win this series. But also on the other side, my phone is being blown up by all the different people who are given their opinions on what we should do as a team. Me and Adam Silver, man, it’s crazy to think about how long we’ve had this relationship of communicating good, bad, or indifferent.
The talks that we had as a team, the Clippers team, where we met as a team and we said, “Hey, we just want one voice in this situation.” We said that we were going to let Doc Rivers be the voice for our team. What that did was it took out a lot of clutter. If we went to the gym and you got all these interview people going up to different guys on our team, who knows what the messaging would be, right? But we decided to let there be one central voice and let that be Doc’s voice. I think that’s what helped us in that situation.
ALISON BEARD: You know, fast-forward to 2020, there’s again a crazy hectic confluence of events. You have COVID. The NBA is trying to figure out how to continue the season. You have the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests. Talk to me about how you worked with other players, other teams, and then NBA management to find solutions, both to continue the season and then to figure out how the NBA was going to respond in this moment of crisis?
CHRIS PAUL: Yeah, that could probably be a book in itself. Once again, it was a lot. It was the communicating with Michele Roberts. We were talking constantly about potentially not having fans in the game anyway because of what COVID was leading to, and then the shutdown happens and everyone’s home. During quarantine, I’m on Zooms every day with Adam and the league and the union trying to figure out how we can get the season going again to literally from scratch figure out exactly where we going to play and what the court is going to look like, to the locker rooms, to what messaging is on the court.
And then we do start playing the games. And then we have the Jacob Blake situation. We’d all dealt with the George Floyd and went to the bubble to try to raise our voices and awareness even more, and then the Jacob Blake situation happens. I’ll never forget that, all of it, but especially that situation because that’s when we basically stopped playing games for a day and we basically just finally got in the room with everyone, as NBA players, we literally played a game. After the game, you say, “Hey, man, everything good with you?”
Everybody always be like, “Yeah, we good.” “All right, y’all have a good rest of the season.” You never really get time to spend with each other. We got a chance to do that in the bubble and got a chance to really look at each other in the eye and try to figure out how we all could be better.
ALISON BEARD: That incident with Jacob Blake, who was shot in Wisconsin I believe it was, during that season, there were probably differences of opinion on what you all should do. How do you as a leader and role model get people together on the same page?
CHRIS PAUL: You know, in our league, we got 450 players. 450 of the most recognizable people in the world. And you have to understand that everyone is not always going to be on the same page with the same beliefs. That would just be crazy if they were. Those were the real learning lessons for me in making sure I understood that everyone just literally wants to be heard. Seriously, they want to be able to have an opinion.
I think that’s what we did through any and every situation. We would formulate Zooms for any player that wanted to get on and voice their opinion. Nothing was wrong with their opinions because anything that we did had to be voted upon. My leadership style was always to over communicate, give everybody the ability to give their beliefs or insight into a situation, and then let’s talk about how we want to go from there.
ALISON BEARD: Do you think that you, the NBA Players Association, and the league management have set a positive example for other employer-employee relationships, both in the athletic world, but then also outside it in terms of how you do work together, particularly in that moment of crisis?
CHRIS PAUL: That’s a great question and I absolutely think so. But not even think so, I know so. One of the other things that I learned while we were in the bubble is when we decided that we weren’t going to play games and we were going to figure out how we could talk and how we could make an even bigger impact, I got phone calls from the union presidents of every other league, the NFL, MLS, baseball. Everybody was calling and asking what were we going to do. I think that just shows the power of the NBA and the WNBA and how we’re basically on the front lines.
Everybody watches to see what we are going to do. And then what was very humbling and crazy to me was when we got out of the bubble, I did a Zoom with some of the top unions in the country, like the head of the teachers’ union. They were asking me questions and I was like, why y’all want to know from me? We have 450 players. Meanwhile, the teachers’ union have I think two million or something members. It was cool to talk to some of those leaders to get some insight.
ALISON BEARD: Why do you think that basketball players have had such success in using their platform for activism? I think all the way back to Bill Russell and then to some players today like LeBron James, like Jaylen Brown. And you’ve done a really great job negotiating with owners and management to have a bigger voice. Why has the NBA figured that out a little bit better than other organizations, do you think?
CHRIS PAUL: I absolutely think it goes back to, like you said, Bill Russell and all the guys that came before us who’ve been doing the work, Oscar Robinson, all these different guys, but also our players in our league just understand the importance. Myself, along with Carmelo, LeBron, and D. Wade had an opportunity to open the ESPY some years back just to speak on police brutality, social justice, all these different things. At a certain point, people just realize that if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for everything.
It’s been really cool to see people speak up. And then I definitely give a lot of credit to Adam Silver, and I say that because of our ability to communicate. Adam will call me, I’ll call him, and it’s been like that for a while. If you don’t have that type of relationship or the ability to communicate like that, then you just never know what’s going on. He can always give a perspective on the business of what’s going on, but I think I’ve always been able to let him know how the players feel, what players are thinking. When the league or anything like that tries to say, “Hey, this is what guys are going to do,” well, why would you even consider doing that without talking to the guys?
ALISON BEARD: You are also very well-known outside the basketball world for your commercials, and that’s most notably for State Farm. How do you think about endorsements and business partnerships as it relates to your image and credibility?
CHRIS PAUL: I’ve had my partnership with State Farm I think since 2012, and it is been amazing. Because when I first came into the NBA, a lot of things that I did were just endorsement deals. It’s like, hold this and smile and take this money and go away. And as I got older, I started to realize that it’s more so about partnerships, people that maybe you align with business wise, values wise, whatever it may be.
State Farm has been a lot of fun to work with because it’s bigger than just the sport. I’ve been able to show a different side of me aside from basketball personality wise. I’ve been with Brand Jordan now for 18 years or 17 years. I was with Nike my rookie year, and then with Brand Jordan ever since. I mean, as a kid growing up in North Carolina, the backyard of Michael Jordan, to be with Brand Jordan, that’s a story in itself.
ALISON BEARD: I did learn reading the book that you, and I should have known this because my kid loves sneakers, so I don’t know why I didn’t know it, but that you have a Chevron sign on your Jordan shoes.
CHRIS PAUL: Every one of my shoes that came out, there’s a Chevron logo.
ALISON BEARD: In honor of your grandfather whose service station was a Chevron station.
CHRIS PAUL: Yep.
ALISON BEARD: That’s terrific. What legacy are you now trying to build with your other ventures, including CP3 youth basketball programs and your family foundation?
CHRIS PAUL: The legacy is about being bigger than me or any one person. I think that’s what we’ve definitely done with our family foundation, but also with the CP3 Basketball Academy or Team CP3 AAU grassroots program. We actually have I think 12 or 13 kids that played in the NBA this past year that came through our AAU program.
That makes me so excited because I played AAU my entire life growing up. My dad spent his entire 401(k) on us playing tribal basketball. Now, if there’s 12 kids in the NBA that we’ve had an opportunity to help grow and nurture that will get the opportunity to do what I’ve done for me and my family, then I feel like we’re doing something right.
ALISON BEARD: Without their parents giving up their retirement accounts, because that was a big bet on you by your dad.
CHRIS PAUL: For sure, for sure, and that’s the way that we give back. The kids that play are 15, 16 and 17s. I’m pretty hard on them when I see them because growing up I had to do car washes, I had to do all types of things, sell donuts, all types of things to make money so that we can make these trips. Now we take care of just about everything for the kids and all I ask them to do is play hard.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So what is the one piece of advice that you give to those kids who are playing for AAU teams, to young players in the NBA, even to your own kids? What’s the most important lesson you want them to take away from any time they spend with you?
CHRIS PAUL: I think the biggest thing that I want them to take away from me is understanding that it wasn’t all given to me. I wasn’t this crazy phenom when I was in middle school and high school. I was really good, but I played JV basketball my freshman and sophomore year in high school. There’s so many cliches out there now, but I mean it when I say it, you only going to get out of it what you put into it.
And I mean that. I’m very hard on my kids, especially my son, and I say this because kids now, they have so many other things to distract them, whether it be devices, whether it be access to Netflix and all these movies and TV shows. I always just tell them to do the work, have fun. I just know as a kid, when I woke up, I was excited about something. The discipline that went into it. If you fall in love with something like that, the passion will translate.
ALISON BEARD: Well, Chris, thank you so much. It has been a pleasure. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
CHRIS PAUL: Alison, thank you so much. I really appreciate you.
ALISON BEARD: That was Chris Paul, 12-time NBA All-Star point guard, former president of the National Basketball Players Association, and the author with Michael Wilbon of Sixty-One: Life Lessons from Papa, On and Off the Court. We have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career.
Find them at hbr.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant.
Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.