NEW ORLEANS — When players leave town willingly, especially star players who own the city, there tends to be bitterness and tension and an unforgiving feeling on both sides.
And then there are Chris Paul and New Orleans, a player and a city that two years later are still wishing each other well.
Paul arrived here on an overnight flight Friday from Los Angeles, slept about four hours, then wiped his weary eyes and did charity work in a nearby community. That is the Chris Paul that New Orleans grew to know and love, before and after Katrina, and nothing has changed except his address.
“I love this city, I’ve always loved this city and will continue to love this city,” said Paul. “There’s a part of New Orleans that’ll never leave me. I think I’ll always identify with the city because it’s been such a big part of my life.”
Paul will be the most interesting player at Sunday’s All-Star Game, a returning hero who comes with the oddest of twists. Paul spent his first six years with the Hornets and was a big part of the franchise’s most satisfying moment, a seven-game series with the Spurs in the West semifinals. He was also the face of the franchise in the wake of Katrina, which forced the Hornets to temporarily relocate to Oklahoma City while New Orleans rebuilt and healed. Paul was more than just a basketball player during this time; he lent his energy to the ravaged neighborhoods and raised money to help the people in need. The leadership that Paul is known for on the floor extended well into the community.
But then: The team began to go through tough times and Paul was facing free agency. Rather than go through a potentially uncomfortable negotiation, Paul and the now-Pelicans thought it would be best for both sides to go their separate ways in 2011.
After the trade to the Lakers was aborted by commissioner David Stern, Paul landed in L.A. anyway with the Clippers and the Pelicans eventually began a new identity with Anthony Davis, who’ll replace Kobe Bryant in the All-Star Game.
Strange thing happened, though: Paul received a standing ovation his first game back in New Orleans and continues to be held in high regard by the fans.
“It’s always emotional for me whenever I’m back in the city,” said Paul, who added that he cried when the trade to the Clippers became official. “I still have a lot of friends here, I still go to my favorite places and nothing is really different other than my uniform. I never detached myself from here.”
After missing almost a month with a bum shoulder, Paul returned last week and the Clippers are within four games of first in the West. His timing was indeed curious, and Paul laughed at the insinuation.
“Well, I guess I got healthy right before the All-Star Game. Funny how that worked out,” he said. “I wasn’t going to jeopardize my season if I was still hurt. I wasn’t going to rush back. But I knew that if I was healthy, I definitely was playing in this game. Wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”