Chris Paul: Point Guard, Activist, Union Boss

“The guys in our league understand the business so much more,” says Chris Paul. “We understand what our value is.”

Ever since Chris Paul joined the National Basketball Association in 2005, drafted fourth out of Wake Forest, he has been near the center of the action.

He won the rookie of the year award in 2006, was named most valuable player at the 2013 All-Star Game, and was a star for both the New Orleans Hornets and Los Angeles Clippers. This season, Mr. Paul — known as CP3, for his jersey number — teamed up with James Harden on the Houston Rockets, creating a fearsome duo that has led their team deep into the playoffs. (They are currently playing the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals.)

Over the years, Mr. Paul’s roles and responsibilities around the league have expanded. He is outspoken on social issues, joining LeBron James and other stars in a moving protest against police shootings at the 2016 ESPY Awards. And since 2013, he has served as president of the National Basketball Players Association, the league’s union for players.

One of the highest-paid athletes in the world, Mr. Paul is now building his own business empire. He has invested in Wtrmln Wtr, which makes cold-pressed watermelon juice, and Muzik, which makes high-end headphones. And he recently founded a media company, Oh Dipp Productions, which produced a documentary for ESPN about his decision to join the Rockets.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York.

What was your first job?

I worked at my granddad’s service station every summer from the time I was 7 or 8 years old. My granddad was everything. He had the first African-American-owned service station in North Carolina. In high school, if I wanted some money to buy something, wanted Jordans, my granddad, would say, “Come work at the service station. Earn it.”

When did you know you were going to have a career as a player?

When I went to college, they already had a starting point guard. Then he had an appendectomy a week and a half before our first game of the season. First game comes, we play at Madison Square Garden against Memphis, coach told me I was starting. We win the game, we go to the second game. Coach says, “Since you started, you'll start again.” The rest is history.

How did you prepare for the N.B.A.?

I made my biggest jump between when I declared for the draft and my rookie year, that summer. I worked out for about two months by myself, it was the hardest training I've ever done. Then on draft night, a commentator said that I was going to be too small to play in the N.B.A. That's all I needed to hear. I've always loved to be the underdog. That just pushes me.

Why do you try to steal the ball so often?

After I broke my hand, I was like, I'm done stealing the ball. They can have it, I'll figure out something else to do. But it’s just in me. When someone takes the ball into the lane, I just know where that ball is going to be placed. I know the path it has to travel, and I just have to have it. In order to win big, you’ve got to go for it.

You’ve been involved with the National Basketball Players Association for 13 years and are now the president. How has the organization changed during that time?

I remember when I started, the meetings were just guys sitting in a room, and we would just listen to people come up and talk at us. Back in 2011 we had like an 18-hour meeting between players and the league. There'd be a lot of posturing, and [the former N.B.A. commissioner] David Stern wanted drug testing for players. He had his shirt undone and was yelling. It used to get a little heated in those meetings.

When we went into the most recent labor negotiations, it was nothing like that. Now the guys in our league understand the business so much more. We understand what our value is and we are much more involved in the business of the game. It’s been about taking our union back.

What are your priorities as head of the players association?

The thing we're most proud of is the health insurance for retired players.LeBron James, Melo, D-Wade, Stephen Curry, me, all of us have something in common — at some point we'll all be retired players. I still remember the meeting when we talked to the players about sacrificing a certain amount of dollars for the retired players. It's something no other league has.

Another thing that we’re trying to help guys with is financial literacy. I’m around a lot of 20-year-old guys who are thrust into this lifestyle with all this money and nobody knows what to do. The hardest thing is when I see guys who I looked up to when I was kid, I had their jersey, and now they have nothing to show for it.

Michele Roberts is now the first woman to serve as executive director of the players association. How’s she doing?

I credit our players for seeing in her something that a lot of people probably questioned initially — you know, to bring in a woman to oversee 450 of the most recognizable male athletes in the world. I can't say enough about her and her selflessness. She never wants any of the credit. Sometimes they say the quietest person in the room may be the one who knows everything that’s going on, and she’s consistent.

You’re outspoken on social issues. Do you think athletes have a responsibility to speak out on issues they care about?

You have to do what makes you comfortable. People can tell when it’s not genuine or when it’s forced. But for me — being a father, having family and also understanding what I mean to other people that may not have a voice — it’s important.

I’m not sure if you’ve seen David Letterman sit down with President Obama, but Obama said something that was so true. If 20 years from now my son comes to me and says, “Daddy, you knew this was going on and you didn’t say anything about it,” then I’m just part of the problem. Even if we don’t get an opportunity to experience the real change in the culture, at least our kids will.

How do you think about investment decisions and sponsorship opportunities?

When you're younger, you're trying to get a name for yourself, and if such-and-such fast food company comes and says, “Here, we'll pay you such-and-such to endorse it and say this and say that,” you're like, “Hey, give it to me. Whatever it is, I'm going to do it.” But as I got older, I realized that I can only be in business with things that I believe in. And so that's what happened with investing. And that's why I invested in Wtrmln Wtr. This is something that I actually believe in and it coincides with my lifestyle.

A LinkedIn reader, Varun Paul, asks what you did to make sure you clicked with the Rockets as quickly as possible.

The best way that you build chemistry is time. So me, James, Trevor, a lot of us, we spent a lot of time together that summer playing pickup, going to eat, going out and having real conversations.

What else are you working on right now?

Me and my wife went to visit my son’s school in L.A., and we walked in and it was a nice classroom with laptops and iPads and smart-boards, and I got mad. I said, “I don’t like that kids on the other side of town don’t get this.” So that day, we started putting learning centers in underserved communities.

And that while that’s good and well, at times that can be putting Band-Aids on the real issues. So we did a housing fund and talked about going into some of these housing developments and basically subsidizing some of the housing, putting teachers and medical staff in these different communities. We're always just trying to level the playing field.

What’s your advice for new players in the league?

Find your why. It sounds simple, but there’s a lot of guys that play professionally, and it may not be for the same reasons that I do it. I play because I couldn’t imagine not playing basketball. I always say, “You all are going to pay me to play this game? I’ll take it.” I love it that much. You may come across a guy who plays professionally and likes the money, who likes the attention or they may like the girls. Our why doesn’t have to be the same, but the work ethic should be.

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