- Anna Katherine Clemmons
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It was the night before one of his most important high school basketball games when Chris Paul learned that his beloved grandfather, Papa Chilly, was dead. Several teenagers had beaten to death Papa Chilly, whose real name was Nathaniel Jones, outside of his Winston-Salem, N.C., home, a few miles from the Paul house.
Paul asked his aunt what to do and she told him to score 61 points, one for every year of his grandfather's too-short life. Paul's coach didn't want him to play, but Paul demanded that he start. Teammates thought he should pass the ball, but Paul kept shooting. When he finally hit a
basket for his improbable 61st point and was fouled, he intentionally misfired at the free throw line, avoiding a possible 62nd point. Then he walked toward the bench, collapsed into his parents' arms, and wept.
Now, over a decade later, Paul has found another way to honor his grandfather. Papa Chilly is one of the main characters in Paul's new autobiographical children's book, "Long Shot: Never Too Small to Dream
Big," which tells the tale of a young Chris Paul wanting to try out for the basketball team but fearing he's too small. The book is also dedicated to Paul's grandfather, who he thanks along with the rest of his family for "believing in me, my dreams and the endeavors that life brings my way."
The book focuses on Paul's dreams to make the grade school team, despite his size and the criticism he hears from others. Paul writes when describing his worries over trying out for the team, "I
remembered that the average height of a player in the NBA was 6 feet 7 inches tall. I was only 4 feet 1 inch tall. And I wasn't going to get much taller in the next few days."
Paul decided to write the book almost two years ago. He and his older brother, CJ, had talked about finding a way to tell Chris' story of overcoming long (or in his case, short) odds to become one of the league's best pro players.
Chris was barely 5-1 when he started high school and tried out for the basketball team. CJ and his friends made fun of Chris, teasing him about his height, which is also incorporated in the book. But Papa Chilly
and Paul's parents taught the feisty player to believe in himself and his abilities. "The concept is definitely things I went through and it's funny how it comes full circle," Chris says. "Everyone thought I was too
small as a kid and many people think I'm too small now to play in the NBA."
Deciding to write the book was the easy part. Then came the hours he and CJ spent outlining before meeting with illustrator Frank Morrison, whose likenesses of the Paul family are impeccable, right down to the hairstyles. "I had to make sure it sounded like me but also that the kids could relate to it," Paul says. "And you have to make sure the wording is right, so that it's not too complicated."
CJ, who works as his brother's business manager, encouraged the idea from the early stages. "I thought it'd be good for him to tell his story so people can get to know him and how it hasn't always been this way," CJ says. "He was very small and everyone was bigger than him, but he had a bigger heart than everyone."
That message is also delivered in the book's pages through the words of his parents, such as when his mom tells him, "Basketball isn't the only thing that matters. Your family matters. Your education does too. And worrying about your height won't make you any better. Just do the best you can with the gifts you have."
Paul recently conducted a mini-book tour in New York to celebrate the book's release, making stops at talk shows hosted by Charlie Rose and Jimmy Fallon while also visiting various schools. Later in the week, he returned to his native Winston-Salem to shoot an episode of Rick Reilly's "Homecoming" on the Wake Forest University campus to be aired on ESPN in the spring. The taping kicked off his fourth annual Chris Paul charity weekend in his hometown, an important endeavor to the Paul family.
Paul hosted a book reading with local elementary school children at the Boys and Girls Club followed by a Q&A session. Paul answered each question with a smile, recalling with surprising
clarity almost every teacher he had from kindergarten through high school ("I can't believe I remember that!" he remarked after naming his third-grade teacher).
The weekend and book were a collaborative process with his family and agency, a lesson that Paul wants to teach his readers. "If you can show these kids at an early age that you never do it on your own and there's always different people helping you, then why not give back in that way?" Paul says.
The book unveiling was one part of the charity weekend, which Hornets coach Byron Scott and teammate Morris Peterson also attended. Later that morning, the trio put together Hero Boxes for troops abroad, played basketball with Special Olympians and handed out food and supply boxes to Winston-Salem residents in need.
In the evenings, Paul hosted a dinner in honor of the late Skip Prosser, who was Paul's coach at Wake Forest, as well as a bowling tournament (it's a sport he's grown to love almost as much as basketball). All the money raised went toward Paul's foundation and the various causes he supports, many with Winston-Salem ties.
"I've been here every weekend since Chris started this," says Scott. "I think what he's doing for the community, giving back to Winston-Salem, everyone understands that he's proud of where he comes
from. He's doing what most NBA players should be doing and giving back."
Scott confessed he hadn't yet read the book but would ask Paul for a copy to read before the season started.
Paul recently became a father, and says he looks forward to one day reading to his 4-month-old son, Chris.
"Hopefully it will give a lot of kids a lot of hope that dreams do come true, so continue to dream and pray and it can happen," the elder Chris' mother, Robin, says.
"It can inspire kids from all different ages, to let them know that whatever their dream is, dream big," Peterson says. "Chris was one of the smallest guys growing up and he didn't let that stop him from
accomplishing his goals. That's what we want to stress to the kids, no matter what is going on or how physically you're challenged, if you put your mind to it, you can do it."
No detail is left uncovered, such as when Paul writes on the morning of the tryouts, "My heart was pounding. I wondered if anyone could see it thumping out of my chest. I knelt down and retied my sneakers. Then I took a few deep breaths."
Does Paul prevail and make the team? Readers will have to wait and find out, but given that the book parallels Paul's life, the ending isn't too hard to guess. Papa Chilly reminds Paul to "work harder than
everyone else on the court and your size won't matter," a lesson that Paul felt was important to include in the book's pages.
Now that he's found success both on the court and in the publishing world, might Paul follow up with another book?
"I think so, I really enjoyed the process," Paul says. "At the end of the day, if it inspires
many or just one kid, then it's a job well done."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine.