When it comes to Chris Paul’s decorated NBA career, there isn’t much he hasn’t accomplished. A 12-time All-Star and 11-time All-NBA selection, Paul is not only one of the greatest point guards the NBA has seen, but one of the greatest players ever, regardless of position.
But now, even while still maintaining his place amongst the NBA’s elite at 37 years old, he has taken on another passion outside of basketball that holds significant importance to him: spreading the importance of supporting historically black colleges and universities.
“For me, it’s always something that is front of mind for me, and it’s something that is real,” Paul says. “When that’s the case, you have people who want to pour into it. It’s not just about a tweet or an instagram post, but it’s about the real time and dollars that can go into these universities and help.”
With the latest season of his executive produced show Why Not Us set to follow the Dancing Dolls of Southern University on ESPN+, Paul sat down with Complex to discuss the importance of this show when it comes to educating the youth on the HBCU experience, the history of these universities and their importance.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
For this season of Why Not Us on ESPN+, you all are following the Dancing Dolls of Southern University, what was it about them that made you want to tell their story in particular?
Well, first of all, the Dancing Dolls are one-of-one when it comes to dance teams. And then they have the human jukebox behind them. Dr. Taylor, the band director for the human jukebox, was very instrumental with giving us access throughout the process and I’m extremely grateful for that. But just to highlight that, any and everybody knows of the Dancing Dolls and the legacy and everything that goes with them, so to show their process is something that I’m excited to showcase. Everyone always thinks of athletics as far as being on the football team or being on the basketball team, but understanding the importance of the Dancing Dolls and the human jukebox, you get a chance to see that in this show.
You attended Wake Forest but you have been very vocal and adamant with your public support of HBCUs. Growing up in Winston Salem, did you spend a lot of time at North Carolina Central, Winston-Salem State, North Carolina A&T and other HBCUs? What is it that sparked this deep appreciation of HBCUs for you?
A lot of time. When you’re a kid and in different places, you don’t understand how things operate. I grew up and was at Winston-Salem State all the time, I had family members, cousins, who played at Winston-Salem State, my AAU basketball practices used to be over there. But at the time, Winston-Salem State was a school, Wake Forest was a school, nobody ever said this is a PWI and this is an HBCU. Nobody ever told me why they were two different schools or what the funding was like, I didn’t understand that until I got older. And I always talk about it, Winston-Salem State didn’t even recruit me, and I don’t think it was their fault or my fault, it just wasn’t the pathway to the NBA when I was coming up through high school. Once I got older and started doing research and understanding why HBCUs exist, I felt like there weren’t enough people talking about it, understanding these schools need the funding and should have the funding because these schools are putting out the same amount of excellence as these other universities.
As you have said, the same amount of excellence has come from HBCUs as they have from PWIs. As far as the NBA specifically, there has been a legendary pipeline of players to come from HBCUs into the league, what do you think it will take to reestablish that pipeline to get kids to see this as a viable pathway to the NBA?
Honestly I think kids now are a lot more aware and understand the power of media and understand that if two or three top kids go to a HBCU that no matter what the tv and the media is going to follow. Also, just the exposure and the facilities, a lot of these kids don’t attend these HBCUs because they don’t have the same facilities and training centers. So it’s going to be a process, and that’s the thing that I have grown to understand and I hope everyone understands. This isn’t a two-year, or five-year change that has to happen. It’s going to take a lot of time but you have to start somewhere.
We have seen the work you all have done in the NBA with All-Star Weekend for HBCUs, how important do you see it for guys of your stature to push this initiative and bring more attention to HBCUs?
I think it has to be a want-to. I think people can tell when it’s genuine or not, you can’t just be out there doing something because you think you are supposed to. For me, it’s always something that is front of mind for me, and it’s something that is real. When that’s the case, you have people who want to pour into it. It’s not just about a tweet or an instagram post, but it’s about the real time and dollars that can go into these universities and help.
Do you think a show like this one will help a generation of kids understand the importance of attending one of these HBCUs?
I absolutely hope it does. I think about our North Carolina Central show, and how Central is a basketball powerhouse when it comes to HBCUs, and through our Why Not Us show people got to see that Levelle Moton is doing this amazing job there and the school only has two basketball goals. This is what they use to practice and compete at the highest level. Through our Why Not Us show with Florida A&M, people go to see the work the football team put in, and everything these kids had. You got to see the passion that they introduced themselves with, but also the circumstances from which they came from. I think the biggest thing for me is kids now will be able to look at shows on ESPN+ and see kids that look like them and come from similar backgrounds which is very important. Like I said, growing up I didn’t know the difference between a PWI and a HBCU, but I have a 13 year-old son and a 10-year old daughter and they absolutely know the difference. And I’m not blaming my parents for not teaching me or telling me, it’s just not something that was front of mind.
You were named to the NBA 75 team this past season. Can you describe what that feeling was like, did you have a chance before being named to the team to really look at your career in totality, or was this the first time you really stepped back and looked at everything you had accomplished?
For all these years I have just kept my head down and done the work, and I can honestly say that being named to the NBA 75 team, the day we did that huge photoshoot, I’ll never forget it. I met a number of players that I had never met for the first time. Being in the same setting, all of us, at the same time, was the craziest feeling. Standing there and taking a picture with John Stockton and Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson, all of these guys that I have watched since I was a kid. It’s something that will live forever, I’m grateful.