The Return of Chris Paul

Kevork Djansezian

Chris Paul is back in New Orleans today, three months after being traded and then not traded and then traded again. As he twat last night:

I haven't written about Chris Paul once since December. A lot of it is simply that he isn't a Hornet any more. But it partially comes down to this too: what is there to say?

For me at least, there's still far too much emotion here. I haven't been, nor will I ever be able to subscribe to the binary "when Paul was a Hornet, I cheered him; now that he's not, I won't." I don't see anything wrong with the mentality. It is, essentially, adherence to the basic definition of sports. But Paul's time here transcended that concept for me.

Chris Paul, alongside an appreciable helping of David West, was the New Orleans Hornets, from its post-Katrina return to the heights of 2008 to the subsequent implosion from a roster, management, and ownership perspective. Basketball lends itself to this superstar-franchise line blurring perhaps more than any other sport. Watch a guy dribble the ball a hundred times a game, a thousand times a month, tens of thousands of times a year, and you sink, willingly, into that space of repose so impossible to recreate in hindsight.

Don't get me wrong. I actively root against the Clippers quite frequently. I hate the way they play, their highly asymmetric effort, their owner. I really don't believe these Paul-Griffin Clippers will be a success from a championship contention perspective. And needless to say, I don't root the same way for Chris Paul from an individual perspective.

He's simply an idea that's gone missing.

It helps, I suppose, that I don't begrudge Paul's desire to leave New Orleans, the way many do. (And again, I sincerely hope that doesn't come across as judgement. If you want to boo your lungs out tonight, or even just maintain silence, please do so. The Demand, the Toast, the Trade weren't merely bad dreams). But I empathize with his logic of wanting out of an unstable ownership situation and, consequently, not giving a fresh, new, and highly competent GM and coaching duo their own shot at retaining him.

I don't care that he wasn't open with media that he may have wanted a trade as early as 2010. Unlike Dwight Howard or LeBron James, he made his intentions crystal clear to the team, and that's ultimately all that really matters. Eric Gordon and Minnesota's lottery pick don't happen without that communication. And so that helps for me, as does Paul's still unbroken bond with both the Hornets and New Orleans itself, documented in J.A. Adande's ESPN column today:

[He] avidly follows the Hornets, texting his former teammates to compliment them on good plays or following one of their infrequent victories.

"I'm emotionally connected to that team forever," Paul said this week.

"I still love that city. I always will. It's going to be crazy to be in a different uniform, especially playing against them. I'm so emotionally attached to the city and that team."

From his experiences, his play, his actions over the past half decade, you get the feeling that these are far more than just words. But that's exactly what makes this so tough to write about. Sincere or not, it almost doesn't matter. The Chris Paul Hornets era is over, and the post-CP3 one is off to the most dreadful (if necessarily so) of starts. That gray area in between is all we have now, and that it's fostered annoyance, detachment, and pure enjoyment all at once is simultaneously quite remarkable and understandable.

We watch sports because they're fun. We watch sports because they allow us to experience conflict in its most primordial sense without necessarily the physical engagement and repercussion. We watch sports because we live vicariously through them; we were all David West stepping back on Serge Ibaka, we were all Tyson Chandler snuffing out Dirk Nowitzki, we were all Chris Paul, head in hands, eyes in tears. We watch sports because we like to identify ourselves with things - with cities, with regions, with histories, with people. We watch sports because they let us dream.

And Chris Paul served as conduit to every last one of those things, on the grandest of scales. He wasn't 6 foot. He wasn't appreciated, for years, the way his peers were. He wasn't, at his experience, supposed to do the things he did. Chris Paul allowed us to witness that magic, to indulge our own underdog, underground mentality before "everyone else found out," to be, above all, sports fans.

In his absence, we're left with nothing but questions. We're left to re-examine the fundamental reasons we're fans of sport at all. So many, too many questions. Perhaps the most important of these - why the fuck should we root for this team to win ballgames?

There's really no good answer; all we have now is the hope that one year we'll be back there again.

And somehow, that's also really not the worst thing in the world. Because in sports, the idea of winning supersedes winning itself. 29 teams lose the NBA title every season, but 30 fan-bases still dream fondly of the next and the next and the next. Sports are sustained by imagination as much as accomplishment. The Chris Paul era never yielded a title, but with the ball in his hands, possession after possession, game after game, season after season, the idea of winning had never been stronger.

Chris Paul returns tonight, a Clipper and an Angeleno, galvanizing hopes and sparking fantasies for a different set of fans. It simultaneously hurts and doesn't matter, with a new era of ownership and players on the horizon. But we'd do well not to forget the dreams he inspired here and the heights he took us to.

Welcome home, Chris Paul. Thanks for all the basketball.

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