Chris Paul Knew the 2020 NBA Season Would Be a Movie as Soon as It Was Suspended

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From the beginning, Chris Paul was at the very center of the wildest year in NBA history. On March 11, 2020, the then Oklahoma City Thunder point guard was on court when, just minutes before tip-off, his team’s game against the Utah Jazz was postponed: Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for coronavirus. Later that night, the NBA would suspend its season. Back at his condo after being held in the locker room for an hour, Paul called movie producer Brian Grazer to tell him that he thought they might have the makings of an interesting documentary.

It only got more interesting. Over the next few months, the NBA tried to find a solution that would allow the season to resume. As the President of the NBA Player’s Association (NBPA), the league’s labor union, Paul was at the center of those discussions too. He remained at the center as the idea for the NBA bubble was hatched, and as the players tried to figure out how to best respond to the renewed calls for social and racial justice after the killing of George Floyd. After the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court for their playoff game to protest the shooting of Blake, there again was Paul, leading a league-wide discussion among players and coaches in the bubble about what action to take.

All of that eventually made it into the documentary Paul first thought of on that night last March. “The Day Sports Stood Still,” made through Paul’s production company Oh Dip!!! Productions, releases March 24 on HBO. GQ spoke with Paul, who now plays for the Phoenix Suns, about what he remembers and what he’ll take away from that first night, the bubble, and everything that followed.

GQ: You wrote “Pray for Wuhan” on your shoes during a game in mid-February. What made you do that?

Chris Paul: I'm glad you asked that. So a guy named Pooh Jeter, a good friend of mine, used to play in the NBA and used to play in China. The game before [2020] All-Star [Weekend], we were playing in New Orleans. [Jeter] send me a text, yo, C, I think you should write something for Wuhan on your shoes. All those people are really going through a tough time. What's so surreal about it is that, at the time, you know what's going on, but you don't expect it to get here.

And then, about a month later, your game against the Jazz gets postponed. What did you know about coronavirus heading into that game?

I think a lot of people forget this, but working in the union with [NBPA Executive Director] Michele Roberts and [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver, maybe a week or two weeks before that [Jazz game], they told us no more handshaking. The league sent memos to the team saying we can’t give five to each other, no autograph signing, all this different type of stuff.

I was on the training table before the game that night, and Michele had told me, “Chris, we pretty much came to a conclusion after this game tonight, we’re going to start playing games with no fans.” And then when everything happened [with the game being postponed], it was scary. It was really scary because no one knew how contagious it was, no one knew what happens if you get it.

What were you thinking as you headed to the locker room?

What's going on, first and foremost? Earlier in the season, our team was at a movie premiere and there was an active shooter. So I didn't know what was going on. And so once we got back to the locker room, I called Michele Roberts and she had no clue. Then I think I called home, called my wife. She was like, “What’re you doing in the locker room? Why hasn’t the game started?”

My phone started going crazy, talking to other guys around the league. Mostly just talking to my family and talking to Michele, and trying to figure out how teams were going to get organized. Because, at that time, no one knew how the virus spread. We didn't know if we were going to stay in the locker room all night, who could go home. Everybody was taking their temperatures every six to eight hours.

I was living in Oklahoma by myself. It was the first time in my 15 years that I lived somewhere by myself. Usually I have somebody in town—my parents, my brother, my wife and kids. This just so happened to be the one game that nobody was in town. It was just me. So when they were like, everybody, go to your houses, go home, you can't leave, don't have any contact with anybody, I was like, oh, man, here we go.

I just wanted to get home. I hadn’t seen my family since All-Star weekend. It had been a month since I'd seen my kids.

There’s a moment in the documentary where Karl Anthony Towns is talking about losing his mother to COVID. He talks about how he always felt like, before the pandemic, he was rushing, rushing, rushing, and how the coronavirus really forced him to slow down and understand what’s important. What’s something you have more appreciation for after going through this whole experience?

Time. More appreciation for time. We take it for granted. I got a chance to spend more time with my kids on a consistent basis than ever in my life. And I loved every second of it. And I had an opportunity to talk to Karl as he was going through the process with his mom, going to see her and check on her and be with her before she passed. I remember my conversation with Karl after his mom passed—you can’t show me a stronger person. Karl is like a little brother to me, and I love him. To see the things he's endured and being able to speak about it, I can't say enough about who he is as a man.

What did you take away from that conversation with him?

Oh, man. Just how he was about his mom. Like I'm sitting here doing this interview with you, and my mom’s sitting over at my kitchen table right now, and I can't imagine not having her. I think Karl said it’s something you never get over. That’s so tough.

When you first heard about the bubble idea, based on your initial thoughts and what you were hearing from other players, did you think that it would happen? Did it seem like a good idea, or a little crazy?

It was never that it seemed crazy. That's my job. To figure out if there’s a possibility. We could’ve come up with all the different ideas or whatnot, and it could be for nothing. We could’ve said, this won't work. But it’s our service to see if there was even a possibility. It’s a credit to everyone who made it happen.

We're all still trying to get through this pandemic right now and just trying to survive in life, but five, ten years from now, we'll all look back and see that that was one of the greatest achievements in not only league history, but just the world. I think that that bubble let other businesses know that there is a safe way that you can get back some sense of normalcy.

After Jacob Blake’s shooting, when the Bucks opted not to take the court, players and coaches met to talk about how to best move forward. How close did the season come to ending that night?

I don’t know. There was a lot of conversation, but it was very needed. I think that will also be one of the most memorable nights in league history, because there's never been an opportunity where we can get guys together in a setting like that to speak on how they feel. I think our league will be stronger going forward because of it. It gave guys an opportunity to reset. When you’re in the bubble, you're playing every other night. There’s not a chance to process everything that was taking place.

When you think back on that night, what sticks out to you?

Just the dialogue. The talk. The speeches that John Lucas gave. Armond Hill spoke. Different players spoke. It would be interesting to hear what other players thought about it, because, for me, there was so much going on. I'm standing up there sort of leading the meeting with Andre Iguodala. So my perspective is probably different from someone else's.

You’ve talked before about how your role as NBPA president is ultimately a position of service, and you’ve got to weigh what everybody wants and make the best decision for the players. This came up a bit with the All-Star Game, where there was a lot of talk whether the game should’ve been played or not, especially among the players. The union ultimately okayed the game. What goes into making a decision like that? How do you balance all the voices?

I think the thing that helps me more than anything is that even though I'm the president, we have an unbelievable executive committee. There's no decision made without them. That’s CJ McCollum, Garrett Temple, Malcolm Brogdon, Andre Iguodala, Jaylen Brown, Kyrie Irving, Bismack Biyombo, and we just added Harrison Barnes. There's always this constant dialogue. We have a group chat just like everybody else in the world. When things come up or certain decisions need to be made, we talk about it. Everybody doesn't always agree. We have 450 players. Now there were a lot of guys who were against the bubble, and then ultimately, they got there, got a chance to play, and there's a number of guys who say, “Man, thank you.” Not thank me. Thank that full body of players. Because sometimes you've got to have the foresight or vision to realize what's best for the whole.

Have you guys been having conversations about the vaccine at all? There’s been some talk about players maybe getting the vaccine, maybe not, not wanting to promote it. I’m curious if you’ll get the vaccine and what you’re hearing from players about that?

There’s discussion, absolutely. Every team has had a discussion with the league. Players have discussions. As a number of players have voiced, these are personal decisions.

You’ve had back-to-back All-Star seasons after being traded twice. Once to an OKC team that I don’t think many people expected much from—and yet you made the playoffs. Now you’re on a second-place Suns team. Does that provide any vindication for you at all?

Not at all. Not for me. I'm so competitive in my own right. I expect a lot more for myself than anybody else can ever expect from me. And I believe in myself more than anybody else can. I saw a quote from Steph [Curry] recently that said, “I got a lot to accomplish, but nothing to prove.” I think that's the best way to put it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Originally Appeared on GQ