On October 5th, USC Annenberg hosted another special guest as part of its “Annenberg Intelligence” series. Dean Willow Bay, as the host, welcomed NBA All-Star point guard and National Basketball Players Association President, Chris Paul.
Considering I’m a former collegiate basketball player who admires Paul’s basketball genius and sought to once emulate him, I was star-struck at the outset of the discussion. Nevertheless, what made the conversation, and its encompassing topics, so marvelous went much deeper than basketball and athletic competition.
During the conversation, Paul repeatedly stressed and underlined the significant role particular soft skills have played throughout his various, on and off the court, endeavors which have allowed him to thrive. Paul drew our attention to adaptability and effective communication which he identified as key elements for successfully persevering through a year with many adversities.
No choice but to adapt
In the midst of this horrific and dreadful virus, entire livelihoods have shifted, and everyone has had to adapt. For Paul, his resiliency and discipline allowed him to adapt and thrive in untreaded waters.
Considering the countless challenges and obstacles Paul had to shoulder and overcome, one can only applaud his perseverance. For Paul, adaptability to a “new normal” is defined by every aspect of his life. Beginning with his profession, the NBA season came to a jolting halt with no future plans in place.
After a four-month hiatus, Paul and his NBA peers returned to the action in quite unique fashion. If I told you at the beginning of the season that the only way the world’s greatest basketball league could conclude its season is by placing its teams in an isolated, eerie, and empty 43 square mile amusement complex, otherwise known as Mickey Mouse’s home, you’d laugh in my face and call me crazy.
I wish I could tell you it was as simple as going to Disney World and playing some normal basketball games, but it wasn’t. From a basketball perspective, it was anything but ordinary. Players were thrown back into full throttle after four months off with an inadequate training camp to gear up for the playoffs. No family was allowed on the premises. No fans either.
Though some viewed these measures as extreme, they were necessary steps to ensure safety, and players had no choice but to adapt. For Paul though, his specific experience within this period of newness was compounded and multiplied.
“Not many people know this, but the first day of the NBA Playoffs was my first day of my fall semester at Winston-Salem (University)”. As he said this, almost every face in the audience looked astonished, bewildered even.
Not only did Paul attend his first college class in 17 years, but he re-enrolled himself in the thick of a global pandemic while also collaborating with the NBA, as the President of the Players Association, to organize a safe way for the league to return to play. Additionally, we must not forget how difficult it is to sufficiently prepare oneself to begin playoff basketball as the best player and leader on his team. A myriad of students find the transition to online school alone to be difficult, but to shoulder these other enormous responsibilities is unimaginable. Paul had to adapt.
No such thing as communicating too much
“There’s no such thing as communicating too much,” Paul said. As the President of NBPA, Paul constantly communicates with league executives, team governors, players, and staff in order to create equitable environments and situations for players. “As the main representative head for NBA players, I understand and sympathize with the fact that not everyone is going to like me. And they don’t need to. That doesn’t stop me from communicating with everyone who wants their voice heard and taking that to Adam Silver and the league.”
Before NBA fans began to see teams and players arrive to the bubble and return to play, there were serious discussions about whether players even desired to return to play, or if they preferred to sit this season out. The arguments not to return were abundant and legitimate, but the core justification for opting out of finishing the season stemmed from two important issues at hand.
Understandably, the country’s disastrous economic recession has drawn a monumental amount of attention across all platforms, but along with the economic distress, 2020 has been marred by other issues including a global pandemic, social uprisings, and divisive political tensions. Though Covid-19 was indeed one of the two main hindrances for players cautioning a return to the court, it nonetheless was not the number one reason for players’ hesitations.
Instead, it was Ahmaud Arbery. It was Breonna Taylor. It was George Floyd. It was Rayshard Brooks. With the abundance of tragic frontline news that flooded Black athletes’ feeds, many carried heavy hearts, “unfocused” (on basketball) mindsets, and boiling frustrations. Many athletes were at a crossroads. Do you return to play and cause an unintended and unnecessary distraction from the ongoing, sleepless protests taking place worldwide? Or do you return to play because, together with much more spotlight, it would supply every coach, player, and team with a significantly larger platform to speak out on issues facing the black community and advocate for resolutions?
Despite a small number of players opting out for health and social justice reasons, the majority of players agreed to resume the season. Paul, as the President of the Players Association, played an instrumental role in organizing the NBA’s return.
The season was off to the races. That is until the death of Jacob Blake. Six days after the commencement of the playoffs, on August 23, 2020, Jacob Blake was fatally shot seven times in the back prompting the Milwaukee Bucks to strike or, depending on who you ask, boycott foreseeable games.
Paul was thrown into the middle of a raging fire. Rumors of teams, like the Lakers and Clippers, wanting to permanently discontinue the season and players getting into heated arguments with one another flooded the internet, social media platforms, and sports/news talk shows.
“At this point in the bubble, guys are particularly frustrated with the killing of Jacob Blake, not being able to see their family, a bit paranoid about the virus, and sick of being isolated. So, not only did I need to communicate with people with different titles, you know players, coaches, execs, and governors, but I needed to know how to effectively communicate with them while frustrated.” Paul said that with tensions so high, one misstep or slight lack of communication might have destroyed the entire NBA season.
Detaching from one’s own beliefs and assumptions in order to properly communicate with those around you and whom you work with breeds better results and efficiency. We must be culturally competent.