EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Chris Paul’s HBCU Challenge at Footprint Center is PG’s latest effort to increase awareness

Nov 26, 2021, 11:01 AM | Updated: 12:15 pm
Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets arrives prior to Game Three of the Second Round of the 2019 NB...
Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets arrives prior to Game Three of the Second Round of the 2019 NBA Western Conference Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors at Toyota Center on May 4, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams is like a lot of us when it comes to Chris Paul, marveling at what he’s able to accomplish off the court while consistently dominating on it.

“When you think about how good he is and has been it’s like, ‘Man, how do you juggle all that? And have time to do State Farm commercials with Jake whatever that guy’s name is?’ That’s a lot of stuff,” Williams said back in December of 2020.

It’s fun to prod at Paul’s commercials, and while that’s a part of the process of being an NBA star a lot of players touch, few will ever be able to look back on their career and know they’ve had an impact that comes close to Paul’s.

Whether it’s voting awareness, bringing healthier eating options to areas in need or his eight years as president of the player’s association, that’s only scratching the surface.

“He’s a greater person than he is a basketball player, which is crazy to say (because of) how good he is on that court,” Suns wing Mikal Bridges said on Nov. 18. “He does a lot of things.”

Another notch on Paul’s belt there is bringing awareness to HBCUs, aka historically Black colleges and universities. And if you needed that aka, we together have just made the Point God very happy, because that’s what it’s all about.

Paul is often seen in his pre and postgame outfits repping the likes of Winston-Salem State, Florida A&M, Howard University, Albany State, Texas Southern and many more.

And Paul’s own process with the schools says a lot about why he does it. He told ESPN’s Marc J. Spears that it was a learning experience for him, looking up the schools he was unfamiliar with and finding out why they were implemented before he wore the gear.

But how about that exposure on a much grander scale?

Enter Paul’s HBCU basketball tournaments, the latest of which is the Boost Mobile HBCU Challenge at Footprint Center on Sunday and Monday.

“I’m really excited about seeing Grambling (State), Morgan State, Norfolk State and Hampton … To have those schools coming out here to play should be really cool,” Paul said on Nov. 18. “I know my brother (is) excited too.”

Everyone in Paul’s family studied at HBCUs, including his brother and parents. Paul went to Wake Forest, but in North Carolina, he lived right down the street from Winston-Salem State and would go to its homecomings to get some of the experience. He described it to ESPN’s First Take as their being “nothing like it.”

Paul watched his brother play as a freshman at Hampton University and also spent lots of time around Winston-Salem State and North Carolina A&T.

“I think it’s phenomenal for a guy who didn’t go to one but has an affiliation with them because of his family to be able to raise awareness, raise funding and bring attention to the HBCU schools,” Williams said on Nov. 18. “I think it’s unbelievable. It’s just Chris. That’s who he is.

“He’s been instrumental in a number of areas but this one is pretty cool because I know it’s important to him because his brother went to one … It’s probably his way of telling C.J., ‘I love you, I love the experience and I appreciate what you’ve done for me and now this is my way of helping you and your cause, along with the schools that are involved.’ I think it’s awesome.”

Paul, by the way, is no longer as left out with his family members, as he’s studying communications online at Winston-Salem State.

The tournament’s platform is big time, with all four games airing on ESPN’s networks. Paul’s dream is for a kid to see these schools, learn more about them and ultimately decide to play basketball there. If they turn out to be really good, like Makur Maker, a five-star recruit who spent his freshman season at Howard University, that’s where the wheels really start to churn.

“It’s about bringing awareness, and also understanding that it’s a new day and age when it comes to athletics and all this stuff,” Paul said. “No matter what school you go to, if some of the top kids go to these HBCUs, the money will follow. ESPN, all the outlets will follow. Just understanding that is sort of what I’ve been trying to do.”

There’s also the unique opportunity Paul’s tournaments grant these smaller programs to travel together across the country to play in a tournament in an NBA city and arena.

Paul compared it to what happened with Phoenix last year when COVID-19 restrictions had the Suns spending plenty of free time together, a benefit the team also got a year before Paul’s arrival in the bubble too.

“The bonding time is just unbelievable,” Williams said. “And to be able to come out to Phoenix — the weather here — it’s a different experience for you than the typical staying on the east coast, going to a campus that you already know. I think the experience of coming here to a different place, on the plane, on the bus, at the hotel — it’s a big-time team-building experience.

“Not just the game, but your program can grow immensely just in an experience like that and I’m sure they’re gonna get a chance to spend some time with Chris and that’s gonna be huge for all of the players and coaches and everyone involved.”

Williams played at Notre Dame in his college days and as a freshman was in the Big 4 Classic, an old tournament in Indianapolis that brought together big schools like Indiana, Kentucky, Notre Dame and Purdue.

That experience gave Williams an early indicator on the scale of attention the basketball he was playing was going to have.

“I just remember all of those Kentucky fans. It was like, ‘Did everybody from the state of Kentucky just converge on Indianapolis?'” he said. “I had no idea how big that program was.”

Those tournaments, especially early in a season, can really be a tremendous boost for a program.

“You sort of get a chance to become a team, sort of what happened with us last year,” Paul said. “You do everything together, you eat together, you travel together and I think they get a chance to play in these different type (of) venues too.”

Paul takes advantage of the position he’s in to help others in a way most of us couldn’t imagine, let alone execute if we were put in it.

Let Williams explain the magnitude of that from another perspective you might not be considering, how Paul can be a blueprint for other NBA pros in the future.

“I think earlier in your career, you wanna do stuff but you just don’t know how,” Williams said. “And I think the longer you’re in the league, it allows for you to look at what other people are doing and then you can apply that or you can just come up with a way to have an impact.

“Chris has done so much for so many people. I had a chance to go to his foundation dinner this year and I was blown away at the level of impact that he’s having here in Phoenix. When I was in New Orleans, he was doing it there. I’m sure he’s done it everywhere he’s gone.

“But all of these guys do it, and from time to time, we celebrate it. When we see them pouring money into communities and their foundations that raise a lot of money. That money and those resources are life-changing, and these guys are using their platforms well.”

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Chris Paul’s HBCU Challenge at Footprint Center is PG’s latest effort to increase awareness