As Chris Paul enters the Southern Nazarene University weight room on this particular morning, all the Hornets present-vets and rookies alike-perk up. A voice from the back of the room yells, "There's the man of the hour!" No hint of sarcasm or razzing can be detected in these words; they simply announce that the team's leader has arrived.
The New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets have been shuffling into their temporary home in Bethany, Okla. since 9:30 a.m. Amidst SNU athletes and power-walking senior citizens, the players take their places to begin the morning's training session and practice. The team arrived from New Orleans in the middle of the night after a turbulent flight, and their star point guard's usual confident strut is noticeably subdued. All the mad dashes to the hoop he made last night have left him severely sore and fatigued.
But you wouldn't know any of this by the look on Chris' face. A huge, warm smile spans from ear to ear. The reigning NBA Rookie of the Year has a lot of reasons to be smiling today. A good bet would be on the career-high 16 assists he dished out against division rival Houston Rockets. Other solid guesses would be that he's the hero of two cities, the most-liked player in the NBA and one of the brightest young stars in the league.
During Chris' rookie campaign, he averaged 16.1 points and 7.8 assists a night, led the NBA in steals with 175 and spearheaded the Hornets' 20-game improvement over the previous season's win total—numbers that demonstrated his superior ability as a point guard. However, the most powerful effect Chris had on his team cannot be quantified. At the age of 21, Chris Paul naturally assumed the role as the team's leader, making everyone around him a significantly better player. "He drives this whole team," says Scott Cochran, assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Hornets. "Older guys—who have been in the league a lot longer—watch what he does each day, then go out and try to emulate him. They might try to do the same thing, but it's usually not as good. Chris isn't afraid to grab you and let you know you're doing something wrong. He's our true leader."
Chris' leadership by example is innate—and he's comfortable demonstrating it. "I've always been a natural leader," he says. "I am all about accountability, so for me to be the point guard and leader of this team, I need to make sure [the team] sees me working hard and doing the right things. It's all about me being accountable and setting that example."
Blessed with basketball skills since the day he started playing the game, Chris first received recognition at West Forsythe High School in Lewisville, N.C. As his team's high-profile star baller, he soon realized how greatly his decisions and actions impacted the people around him. Chris wholeheartedly accepted his status as a role model and lived his life accordingly, especially after high school.
Besides earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors and distinguishing himself as the third overall selection in the NBA Draft after two seasons at Wake Forest, Chris stood out as a polite, selfless and humble student-athlete. "I am totally comfortable being looked at as a role model," he says. "It feels good to give kids someone to look up to. They retain everything and do what they see other people doing, so I know it's important to set the right example."
Asked about the source of his strong values, Chris answers without pause: "It's all a testament to my family and how my parents raised my brother and me. My entire family has always been my biggest influence and inspiration; they are always there with me."
Chris' relationship and experiences with his grandfather, Nathaniel Jones—"Papa Chilly" to those who knew him—may be most responsible for shaping Chris into the person he is today. The owner and founder of Jones Chevron, the first African American-owned service station in North Carolina, Papa Chilly was known, respected and loved by everyone in the area. Chris spent much of his childhood by his grandfather's side, helping him change oil filters and clean windshields. Their bond grew stronger as Chris grew older. When he signed his letter of intent to play for Wake Forest, a proud Papa Chilly was the one who placed the Demon Deacons hat on Chris' head after the ceremony.
The day after Chris signed with Wake, his excitement and happiness ended suddenly and tragically, when he learned that a group of thugs had robbed and murdered Papa Chilly—news that crushed Chris and his family. Confused and angry, Chris needed a way to deal with these unfamiliar emotions. His aunt suggested doing something that would help Chris cope with the loss, while simultaneously honoring his grandfather. She suggested that in his next game Chris should go out and try to score 61 points—one for each year of his grandfather's life. Chris obliged, attempting to do what seemed impossible at the time. By halftime, Chris had racked up 32 points, and he was up to 59 with three minutes remaining in the contest. Chris received the ball, drove the lane, laid the ball in and got fouled. With his emotions rising to the surface, Chris stood at the foul line and purposely airballed his free throw, preserving his 61-point tribute. Exiting the game, he went to the sidelines and fell into his father's arms.
"My late grandfather will always be with me," Chris says. "He worked hard every day and had to deal with some difficult situations, but he never gave up. When he was facing something tough on the job, he always fought through it. That is what I took from him—I never give up. When there is an obstacle in front of me, I fight right through it."
The will and drive that Papa Chilly instilled in Chris are the force behind his basketball prowess. Having led the Hornets into the NBA's upper echelon, Chris is motivated to fight through to an even higher level. "As a team, we are going to build on last year," he says. "We won 38 games, but that wasn't enough. Anything less than the playoffs this year will be a disappointment to us. Personally, I'm looking for an all-around improvement by increasing my percentages in every category—free throws, threes and field goals. I really want to improve my assist-to-turnover ratio, too."
Although Chris missed most of last month with an unpreventable ankle sprain, he will be back soon, elevating his game in each of these categories. The rest of the Hornets will take notice and follow their leader.
Every time Chris goes to the hole, he drives just as hard as he did when scoring Papa Chilly's 60th and 61st points back in high school. A relentless, powerful and slashing style defines Chris' game—so much so that he's often referred to as a one man fast break. The Hornets' head strength and conditioning coach, Jack Manson, and Cochran are the two men who keep Chris' high-speed game in gear.
"I love watching him when he gets the ball and decides to push it," says Cochran, whose background is in big-time football. "When he hits that drive, he looks like Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith hitting a hole. He has that type of power and quickness, but he's always in control."
Looking at Chris—who's an even 6 feet and 175 pounds—you might doubt his ability to man up with the bigger players around the league. Manson and Cochran concede that Chris is smaller than most NBA point guards, but they quickly assert that he's a seriously strong dude. "When someone goes against CP for the first time, it's always the same response," Manson says. "They say something like 'Damn, CP is so strong.' It's tough to hang with him on the court."
Cochran affirms Chris' unexpected strength. "Even when he first got here," he says, "Chris was way ahead when it came to training, because he is naturally so strong. When we were benching the other day, he repped out 225 six times like it was nothing."
Chris' near-mastery over speed, strength and power posed an interesting challenge for the men whose job is to make players faster and stronger. "He had such a great base when he got here that we actually had to look for his weaknesses," Cochran says. "We focus on all the small things with him."
Manson has put together a sequence of stations that address Chris' minute weaknesses. The main goals of his daily training are injury prevention, recovery, flexibility, ankle strength and stability, and hip, core and glute strength. So far, the approach has yielded impressive returns. "The results have been tremendous since I got here," Chris says. "I didn't believe in lifting weights in high school, because I thought it would mess up my shot. But now I know that it helps me deal with the contact every night. It's not about getting big and bulky; it's about preventing injuries and getting my core strong. Everyone is starting to figure out that's what matters most."
Chris bangs out the following routine, which combines traditional and functional exercises, to make sure his high-speed game is always running smoothly.
Place the foam roller between the specified muscle and ground. Roll up and down the entire length of the muscle for 30 seconds. When you locate a sore or tender spot, hold the roller on the spot for a few seconds. Although painful, allow the muscle to relax.
Benefits: Reduced soreness; increased flexibility and range of motion
Manson: We live on the foam rollers here. It's a great way to work out the soreness, keep [the players] loose and fresh, and get them back out on the court feeling better. Chris played a lot of minutes last night, so we have some work to do today.
Cochran: I find myself telling these guys, "You're going to love me tomorrow," when they are doing this. Since it is something unfamiliar, uncomfortable and slightly painful, they have to trust us that it will work for them.
CP: The roller finds everything. I am really sore from the game last night, so this is pretty painful. I know it will make me feel better later though.
• Position Bosu with plastic disc up
• Assume athletic stance on plastic disc
• Maintaining balance, use core, hips and ankles to rotate Bosu clockwise, keeping edge of disc close to ground
• Repeat counterclockwise
Sets/Reps: 2x10 each way
Benefits: Balance; hip, glute and core strength; hip and ankle stability
Manson: The core has to be worked in different planes—not just one-dimensionally—so that it can stabilize the spine and work together functionally. Your core needs to be prepared for movement in all directions. Basketball players are like ballerinas with a ball; they are moving and jumping every which way
Single-Leg Bosu Touch
• Position Bosu with plastic disc down
• Balance on left leg on center of Bosu
• Lower into quarter squat and touch right foot to ground in front of Bosu; repeat 5 times
• Touch right foot to ground on right side of Bosu 5 times
• Touch right foot to ground behind Bosu 5 times
• Repeat sequence on right leg
Sets/Reps: 2x5+5+5 each leg
Benefits: Balance, hip, glute, ankle and core strength; hip and ankle stability
Manson: We are trying to improve balance and strengthen the hips and ankles with this. They're all linked together—if there is a problem with one thing, it affects the others. Toward the end of the season, some of the guys suffer from ligament laxity in their ankles—David West could barely push his foot into my hand by the end of last season. So protecting and strengthening their ankles is a big goal for us. We can't prevent a guy from stepping on someone's foot and rolling his ankle, but we can influence how the ankle reacts. We can limit the damage by making those ankles as strong as possible.
Cochran: Our strength focus is on legs, core and shoulders. During the season, you have to work your legs whenever you can. It's tough because they are doing so much running, but any time we can get in here and do some leg work, we make sure to get it done.
• Grasp chin-up bar with underhand grip
• Pull body up until chin is above bar
• Lower with control until arms are straight; repeat
Sets/Reps: 2x as many as possible
Benefits: Upper-body strength; ball security
Cochran: This is the same motion and uses the same muscles as when you go up and grab the rim to throw down a dunk. It's also similar to going up and fighting for a rebound, which is why you'll hear me yelling, "Get every rebound! No jump balls!" when they are doing Chin-Ups.
Alternating Dumbbell Incline
• Position body on incline bench and hold dumbbells at shoulder level
• Drive right dumbbell toward ceiling until arm is straight
• Lower with control; repeat with left arm
• Repeat in alternating fashion
Sets/Reps: 2x10 each arm
Benefits: Upper-body strength
Manson: We like to superset a lot of things; we pair a primary muscle with the antagonist muscle. That means we alternate push and pull movements. So after we pull with the Chin-Ups, we go right away to the push with the Dumbbell Incline.
Cochran: When we pair the push and pull exercises, the guys keep moving just like on the court. They are pushing and pulling on each other, then they go up for a shot or a dunk, and then they have to run. They never stop.
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