It had all the makings of a feel-good Hollywood story. Up on the podium stood Chris Paul—an honor roll student, homecoming king, senior class president and starting point guard for his West Forsyth High School basketball team.
Next to Paul was his grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, wearing the Demon Deacons hat that Paul had used only moments before to announce his decision to attend Wake Forest University in the fall of 2003. With his house just outside of Winston-Salem, Jones would be able to continue to attend Paul’s basketball games as he had done throughout his grandson’s high school career.
This dream, however, was cut short. A few weeks after the press conference, Jones arrived home to find four teenagers attempting to rob his house. Upon encountering Jones, the teens proceeded to tie him up and beat him before leaving him to die in the carport adjacent to his house. He was 61 years old.
Jones’s murder came as shock to Paul and his entire family. Although basketball was the last thing on everyone’s minds, Paul was soon faced with a decision a few days after his grandfather’s death. Should he sit out West Forsyth’s season opener and continue the mourning process or should he go out and play the game he loves?
It was ultimately Paul’s aunt, Rhonda Richardson, who helped make the decision easier for him. Paul’s previous career high was 39 points, and Richardson suggested that her nephew go out and score 61 points, one for every year of his grandfather’s life. That way Paul could support his team while still honoring his No. 1 fan.
That night, Paul had the game of his life. In the fourth quarter, Paul had scored 59 points and drove into the lane looking for two more. As he put up the shot he was fouled, but the ball still went into the hoop. As Paul walked to the free throw line his eyes began to tear up as he took the ball and intentionally air-balled it. With his tribute complete, Paul walked off the court to a standing ovation before collapsing into the arms of his family members in the stands.
In the two years since the tragedy, Paul has used his mental toughness to emerge as the leader of the No. 7 Demon Deacons. In his freshman season, Paul took home ACC Rookie of the Year honors, breaking Wake Forest’s freshman records for assists, steals, three-point percentage and free throw percentage.
“Your point guard is like the quarterback of the football team,” Wake Forest head coach Skip Prosser said. “I said last year, and I still stand by this, that I wouldn’t trade Paul for any guard in the country. I have confidence in him, and so do his teammates, that he will play well. He is a very, very, very talented player with an excellent work ethic.”
This season, Paul, the preseason favorite to win Player of the Year honors, is widely considered to be the premier point guard in the college basketball. He currently leads the ACC with 131 assists and is shooting 54.4 percent from the three-point line.
“He’s stronger, he guards better, he’s a better three-point shooter, his decision making is better,” Prosser said. “I think he’s a better player.”
Paul is not only attracting attention from the coaching staff at Wake Forest but also earning the respect of head coaches around the ACC as well.
“He’s got a knack, he can weave down and use his teammates and himself,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said after the Tar Heels lost to the Demon Deacons last month. “He’s got an instinct of getting to the basket, he’s got the ability to get to the basket, hang, draw the foul and finish the play. He’s got a slight build, he’s not Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he plays like he is that size.”
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Despite all of the praise and accolades, Paul still keeps his grandfather’s memory close to his heart. Before every game, Paul reads his grandfather’s obituary and a prayer before coming onto the court for the opening tip-off.