NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Chris Paul’s All-Star weekend in New Orleans could have been awkward.
Much like LeBron James, Paul left his first NBA team in his prime, disappointing fans in the city where he rose to stardom.
Yet the gracious welcomes Paul has received around town this week serve as reminders that franchise players can change teams, even under less-than-ideal circumstances, without severing ties to the communities they leave behind.
"It’s always great to come back here," said Paul, who was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers three seasons ago. "I’ll never forget New Orleans. I’ll never have anything bad to say about New Orleans. I wouldn’t be where I am now without this city."
James can relate, even though some fans burned his old Cavaliers jersey in the streets of Cleveland after he announced his decision to play for Miami.
But while James took his basketball talents to south Florida, much of the life he had built in Ohio remains intact.
James maintains a palatial residence in Akron, where he grew up. He recently made a $1 million donation to renovate his old high school gym and outfit the school’s athletic teams. He continues to sponsor various events in northern Ohio, including a bike-a-thon to raise money for Akron city schools.
"It doesn’t matter where you go as far as your profession," James said Friday afternoon, moments after laying concrete pavers on a New Orleans school walkway for an NBA community service event tied to All-Star weekend.
"The most important thing is keeping a connection with the people that represented you and people that you loved being around where you were," James said. "I still have a connection in Cleveland and my hometown of Akron, and I know Chris has great love and support here in New Orleans, even though he’s in L.A.
"Whatever team you play for, that has nothing to do with what you do in the community. We just try to continue to strive for greatness in the community, because you see these kids smiling, you see these kids happy, that’s going to live on long after our names are off the billboards."
Paul said the lasting bonds he formed in New Orleans "may have something to do with the timing of when I got drafted, and Katrina."
"I tried to be part of the rebuilding process in coming here," Paul continued. "We really got close to the city, like, really quick and it will always be like that."
Paul’s pro career was in its infancy when Hurricane Katrina struck.
When the team returned to New Orleans from two seasons of storm-forced displacement to Oklahoma City, Paul became an uplifting force in the recovery. When he wasn’t on the court, he was in the community.
His first All-Star game was the one New Orleans hosted in 2008, when large swaths of devastation remained across the city. Later that season, he led the Hornets to within one victory of the Western Conference finals.
While Paul grew up in North Carolina, he and his family established roots in New Orleans during the six years Paul played for the club formerly called the Hornets.
Paul’s sister-in-law is a New Orleans native, and Paul’s family has continued its membership at a New Orleans church, where on Thursday a christening was held for Paul’s infant daughter, as well as for his brother C.J.’s twin son and daughter. Paul said he planned to attend services at the church on Sunday.
He also has continued his sponsorship of the CP3 After School Zone at a school in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood. Last March, Paul secured 115 tickets for students to attend a Clippers game in New Orleans, and this past Thursday, he visited the school.
Paul visited another New Orleans school this week and was joined by Big Easy native Avery Johnson.
Johnson said Paul "got the biggest ovation of anybody."
"New Orleans still loves Chris," said Johnson, a former NBA player and coach. "He’s still passionate about the city and he gives back. I think he has a great legacy here."
The enthusiasm Paul generated for the Hornets probably helped save pro basketball in New Orleans, creating enough of an attachment to the team that state and local leaders worked with the NBA on a new long-term lease and on finding stable, local ownership.
In 2012, Tom Benson, who also owns the NFL’s Saints, bought the club and agreed to a 10-year lease extension, a deal that also brought the All-Star game back to New Orleans.
"I was always a firm believer that this city deserved a team, needed a team," Paul said. "So when I heard that the team was staying, I was overly excited."
And it seems New Orleans still gets excited about Paul.