WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Chris Paul was offered the VIP treatment as he arrived at his graduation from Winston-Salem State University on Dec. 16. The Phoenix Suns star’s SUV dropped him off at a private entrance at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex while his fellow graduates stood outside in line for the ceremony in 38-degree weather.
As Paul put on his cap and gown inside the arena, Winston-Salem State chancellor Elwood L. Robinson excitedly greeted him and asked if he was comfortable coming on stage or standing up to be recognized when Paul’s surprise monetary gift for each graduate was announced.
Paul quickly declined as he preferred to be “blend in.”
“No. No. No. No. No. I don’t need no extra attention,” Paul politely told Robinson. “You can make the announcement, but I ain’t go to stand or anything like that … I want to blend in as much as possible. You can make the announcement, but I don’t need to stand. This is their day, too.”
Paul next asked how he could join his fellow graduates outdoors. Immediately, Winston-Salem State associate professor Dennis Felder brought an enthusiastic Paul to join his fellow graduating students, who were surprised to see him and warmly greeted him in the cold.
On the other side of the mammoth parking lot was Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum where Paul starred for Wake Forest University’s basketball program from 2003 to 2005. The 2005 first-team All-American averaged 15 points, 3.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists for the Demon Deacons in two seasons. Paul was named to the 2005 ESPN Academic All-America Team and also had a 3.21 GPA there.
The Winston-Salem, North Carolina, native left Wake Forest as a sophomore and was selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft by the New Orleans Hornets. Paul is an 12-time NBA All-Star who has earned more than $300 million in his professional career, but that hasn’t kept him from wanting to fulfill his promise to his parents, Charles and Robin, to graduate from college.
“To be honest with you, the basketball part was to get the education part,” Charles Paul said.
“To be able to do this here at home and to walk and to talk to these students today during the whole process is something I’ll never forget.”
Paul has also long been an advocate for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). He has spearheaded HBCU documentaries on sports and cheerleaders on ESPN+. The Boost Mobile HBCU Challenge hosted by Paul featuring North Carolina A&T, Hampton, Norfolk State and Texas Southern, took place in Las Vegas on Sunday and Dec. 17. At every game during the NBA bubble in 2020, Paul arrived wearing clothes highlighting a different HBCU.
And in the midst of thecoronavirus pandemic, Paul decided to return to school remotely at the HBCU he was most familiar with in Winston-Salem State in 2020. On Dec. 16, the student announced as “Christopher E. Paul” walked on stage to be receive his bachelor’s degree in mass communications after playing in a road win against the host LA Clippers just the night before.
“I’m Chris Paul, now graduate of Winston-Salem State University,” Paul said at a Winston-Salem State post-graduation news conference. “Yeah, sounds crazy, don’t it? Man, it’s been an unbelievable experience for me. But to be able to do this here at home and to walk and to talk to these students today during the whole process is something I’ll never forget.”
Paul’s parents both attended Winston-Salem State but didn’t graduate as they opted to concentrate on raising him and his older brother, C.J. The Paul brothers regularly attended Winston-Salem State football and basketball games while growing up. Legendary Winston-Salem State men’s basketball coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines, a Basketball Hall of Famer, used to hang out at the service station owned by Paul’s late grandfather, Nathaniel Jones.
While Wake Forest will always also be in Paul’s heart, his heart also led him to complete his studies at Winston-Salem State. Paul enthusiastically went to the school, which was founded in 1892, to get his student identification card after enrolling and also bought Rams gear from the student store.
“I’ve been around these HBCUs my whole life and didn’t know that they [were] underfunded and they [were] not getting this and not getting that,” Paul said. “And I looked at myself, I was like, how can I help. And on the journey of trying to amplify HBCUs, it was like, ‘Well, it’s time for me to get my degree.’ Why don’t I just use those credits I got from Wake and see what transfers to Winston-Salem State. And it’s been the perfect marriage because now I can say that I attended both of the universities that are here in my hometown.”
C.J. Paul was the first in the Paul family to graduate from college when he earned a degree from the University of South Carolina Upstate. He also knew his brother yearned to connect to an HBCU due to his love for the predominantly Black schools.
“It was in his heart because we’ve been channeling and pushing HBCUs. And that’s the thing: he just wanted to show people he could go to an HBCU and graduate from a HBCU, and it’s no different than going to any other university,” C.J. Paul said.
The weight of Paul’s responsibilities as president of the National Basketball Players Association in the midst of the NBA bubble caused him to pause his studies momentarily. His father convinced him that it was OK to pause things when under extreme pressure. But the 18-year NBA veteran ultimately returned once his responsibilities cooled down with the help of his mother, who reminded him when assignments were due. Paul studied during downtimes in his Suns and family schedule, and even took tests early in the morning.
“I thought he was crazy at first, because a couple years ago, he was still the president of the union on top of playing basketball,” said Jada Paul, his wife. “He had so many things going on, and his eggs in all these different baskets, so I just couldn’t figure out how he was going to find the time to do it. I’m honestly not sure, but he found the time.
“Between Zoom calls and meetings, his advisers and his mom helped out. His mom was always like, ‘Don’t forget you had this assignment.’ His mom kept checking on his portal. So, it’s cool to see how everybody came together to make it happen. Little gentle nudge here or there.”
Said Robin Paul: “It was a long process, but he did it.”
“Around September is when we knew he was probably going to be finished [with school]. So, [my mom] was like, this is the graduation date. I said, ‘What time is it?’ And I looked at the schedule, I was like, ‘It’s perfect. They play in LA. We’ll all fly there.’ [I started] working through logistics and got it done.” — C.J. Paul
Paul was able to complete his college studies to graduate from Winston-Salem State in time to take part in the fall commencement on Dec. 16 at 9:45 a.m. EST. Once the 2022-23 NBA schedule came out, C.J. Paul learned the Suns played on the road against the LA Clippers on Dec. 15. Paul’s wife and two children, as well as C.J. Paul’s family, all live in LA. That coincidence made it easier for C.J. Paul to set up a private jet after the game for the Paul family to fly from the airport in nearby Van Nuys, California, to Winston-Salem.
C.J. Paul played the biggest role in setting up the private jets, transportation and hotel rooms for his brother’s graduation as well as tipping the pilots, drivers and flight attendants and keeping the entire party on schedule.
“We usually get the NBA schedule right around the beginning of August,” C.J. Paul said. “Around September is when we knew he was probably going to be finished [with school]. So, [my mom] was like, this is the graduation date. I said, ‘What time is it?’ And I looked at the schedule, I was like, ‘It’s perfect. They play in LA. We’ll all fly there.’ [I started] working through logistics and got it done.
“[My brother] was determined that he was going to walk, so I said, ‘If you are going to walk, I’ll take care of everything else. So, to travel and return, it worked out beautifully that he was in LA playing [Thursday] night because all of us could just jump on the plane with him and fly here, and then we’ll all go back to Phoenix. So, it worked. It couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Paul was inspired to attend his graduation after seeing a cousin graduate from an HBCU in 2018 and by former NBA star Vince Carter. On May 20, 2001, Carter, then playing for the Toronto Raptors, attended his college graduation from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the morning before playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals that evening in Philadelphia against the 76ers. Unfortunately for Carter, he missed 6 of 18 shots from the field and a game-winning jumper in the season-ending loss.
“I was in high school at the time, and I was like, ‘Hold on, this is the playoffs and Vince Carter went back and graduated and then he went back for a game?’ ” Paul said. “And so, for me, that has stuck with me. I’m sure Vince don’t even know that I saw that, but it’s something that stuck with me for a long time for my whole life. And I always said, if ever given the opportunity and the days match up, I want to walk.”
Clippers vice president of communications Dennis Rogers worked for the then-New Orleans Hornets and LA Clippers when Paul played for both teams. As Paul walked to the visitors’ locker room after arriving Dec. 15 at Crypto.com Arena for the game against the Clippers, Rogers greeted him with a smile while playing the famous graduation song “Pomp and Circumstance” on his cellphone. Paul’s family members also watched the game from a suite.
Paul says he always plays relaxed and at his best when his family is in the building. Such was the case on this night as the Suns snapped a five-game losing streak with a 111-95 win over the Clippers. Paul had 15 points, 13 assists and 7 rebounds in 36 minutes. He quickly showered after the game, knowing he had a red-eye flight to catch.
The Suns were very proud that Paul was graduating and were pleased that he was able to attend the ceremony despite having a game against Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night. Paul returned from graduation to have 18 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds in 35 minutes of Phoenix’s 118-114 win over New Orleans.
“That’s exceptional when you can do both,” Suns president of basketball operations James Jones said. “Being in a leadership position in the NBA and NBPA and still find time to upgrade yourself with your graduation, I told him [Thursday] that it was impressive. That’s a sign regardless of what you were doing that there is always room to improve yourself.”
Said Suns head coach Monty Williams: “It’s a huge accomplishment when you consider being that great for such a long time [and] being president of the players association. But doing it at Winston-Salem State says a lot about his affection for Black colleges. Having a family that went through the Black college system and institution, I’m sure there is a level of affection for him.
“Anybody that has made that kind of money and had that kind of fame, to sacrifice and go back to get your degree, that’s an example to children and young adults everywhere that education is important even if you’re in entertainment or an athlete.”
After the win against the Clippers, Paul talked to the media about not only being excited about graduation but spending the next 10 days with his wife and two kids after the game through the Christmas holiday. While Phoenix and Los Angeles aren’t far apart, Paul’s schedule with the Suns and his kids’ school and sports activities in LA leaves very little time for them to connect and get quality time. Paul said he hadn’t seen his family for about a month before being with them on Thanksgiving.
“It’s not as easy to go to LA and visit my family as people think it is,” Paul said.
After the Clippers game, Jada Paul was waiting for her husband in an SUV that was set to go to the Van Nuys airport. Jada told her husband that their son Chris “Lil Chris” Paul Jr., was curious about the Winston-Salem State graduation and what it meant.
“So last week, Lil’ Chris asked me on the way to school one morning, ‘Well, Dad is graduating, but what does that mean? Is he going to go get a job now?’ So, I broke it down for him. But even today, graduation, [I broke down] the difference between the doctorates and the master’s and the bachelor’s degree candidates. And so, it was cool to see him understand it,” Jada Paul said.
Paul and Jada Paul arrived at the Gulf Stream G450 jet with the rest of the party already on the plane. Paul jokingly sat on his son as he entered the plane with wood grain and gold finishings and a South African flight attendant. The Paul’s children and C.J. Paul’s son and daughter were falling asleep before the 12-seat plane departed with family, security and two journalists. There was Creole and vegetarian food from Los Angeles’ Harold & Belle’s restaurant available for the passengers, including vegan options for the hungry Paul.
As the jet departed around 11:15 p.m. PST on Dec. 15, Paul yelled out, “Get up, bird! Get up, bird!” Paul Jr. couldn’t help but chuckle. After the plane went to a mile high, Paul stood in the middle of plane and beamed about being in the presence of his children as they slept. He briefly woke up Paul Jr. to say something to him.
“It always feels good to be around my family,” Paul said before sitting back down next to his wife.
The jet landed at a private airport in Winston-Salem at about 6:30 a.m. EST after a flight of about three hours and 40 minutes. The entire party was whisked to the Marriott Winston-Salem, not far from the graduation ceremony, to get some sleep and to get ready for the graduation. Instead of taking a quick nap, Paul watched YouTube with his children before preparing for his big moment.
On Dec. 14, Winston-Salem State University made national headlines as two campus police officers, one Black and one White, arrested a Black female student in a classroom after a disagreement over an assignment with a female teacher. The incident was filmed by a classmate and placed on social media. Winston-Salem State spokesperson Haley Gingles told CNN it “appears to be a disagreement over a class assignment.” Gingles told CNN that the student was arrested by school police and charged with disorderly conduct, and they were called by another faculty member after de-escalation efforts failed.
Robinson was asked about the incident in the post-graduation news conference that Paul took part in. Robinson didn’t answer after Gingles said all questions needed to pertain to the graduation. Robinson did, however, write in an open letter on Dec. 14: “We understand that the weaponization of police is a prevalent problem in our community; however, that is not what happened in this incident. We know this situation has caused a great deal of trauma to those involved and our campus community at large, but please know that every available resource is being extended to bring a resolution.”
Paul met the unidentified student for breakfast the hotel lobby restaurant for about 30 minutes before departing to the graduation, Andscape learned. She gave him an emotional account of her side of the story and took a picture with Paul afterward. Paul said he was shaken after talking to the woman and had to refocus on the way to his graduation.
“She said she was in handcuffs for an hour. There was no way it should have got to that. I asked her what she wanted done. She said she loved Winston-Salem State and she didn’t want to leave there,” Paul said.
Paul wore a red graduation robe and cap alongside his fellow Winston-Salem State members of the Class of 2023. He enthusiastically took countless selfies and videos with students and people attending the graduation. One student fixed Paul’s tassel correctly to the correct side of his cap. Paul had a pleasant surprise as his cousin Jonathan Haggler was also graduating. Two students also tried to tape a dance for TikTok not far away from Paul.
After students receiving doctorates and master’s degrees walked into the arena for the ceremony, Paul walked into the venue wearing special red, white and black Jordans with an Winston-Salem State emblem on them for those receiving bachelor’s degree and took a seat while “Pomp and Circumstance” was played. One Winston-Salem State graduate had $7,000 Nikes on that he preserved with plastic bags covering them until the ceremony.
After learning they wore the same size 12, Paul told him: “Send me your address and I will get you a pair like the one I’m wearing.”
Paul, who grew up about 15 minutes from the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex, had about 75 family members in attendance. Winston-Salem State graduate and lawyer Olivia N. Sedwick gave the commencement speech while the school choir stole the show with two songs. In the early parts of the ceremony, Robinson proudly stated that Paul was funding a mobile banking account through the Black- and Latino-owned Greenwood financial technology company for each graduate (around 350) worth $2,500. Paul stayed in his seat while the crowd roared in appreciation trying to locate him among the other graduates.
“The way that I made it about me was trying to make it as normal as possible,” he said. “All these students here have fought their butts off for a while to get their degree and I wanted to make sure that in no way I was trying to show them up on their special day. They had a lot of family and loved ones that’s here to support them and to see them and I just wanted to be a graduate, just like them.”
When the time came to get his diploma, Paul got up from his seat and walked slowly in line toward the stage not far from where his wife, kids, parents, and other loved ones were sitting. Finally, after “Christopher E. Paul!” was announced, he walked onto the stage with a smile and took a picture with Robinson before walking off.
Paul hears his name announced all the time at NBA games in front of thousands of people. But in Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex where the minor league Carolina Thunderbirds hockey team plays, where he played high school basketball games for West Forsyth, the man seen nationally on State Farm commercials was nervous.
“It’s a lot of gratitude,” Paul said. “I don’t know. I’m not nervous usually during games or anything, but when we stood up and we starting to walk before you get to the stage … first of all, they call you by your government name when you are about to walk across the stage. But there were nerves. It was an excitement. It was a feeling of completion as far as that.
“But it was just knowing my family was there. I played many high school games in that annex, and it was so dope to look over and see my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, my parents who had been there that whole time, and then to see my wife, my kids, it just felt normal.”
After Paul took a picture with his diploma, Gingles escorted him to his private SUV and told him he could depart for the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where a Winston-Salem State news conference would take place with him, Robinson and three other students. Paul turned to Gingles and asked, “Isn’t the chancellor still in there? Why do I need to leave? I want to go back to my seat.”
After Gingles told Paul that the chancellor was departing after the ceremony, he opted to return to his seat for the rest of the ceremony. Afterward, Paul and Robinson were quickly taken away to the news conference. Paul changed into a Winston-Salem State cardigan sweater. His proud mother and father were the first to hug him upon arrival.
“My baby graduated from college. I have two graduates. Both sons have graduated college. It was beautiful,” Robin Paul said proudly.
After the news conference, Paul enjoyed a celebration with family, friends, including former NFL head coach Jim Caldwell, that included fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie, sweet tea and more. During the roughly two hours with his loved ones, Paul was congratulated by everyone and reminisced about his North Carolina days.
Paul Jr. truly enjoyed the entire event and was inspired by it all. He didn’t see his mother graduate from college but seeing his father get his diploma from an HBCU had an impact on the 13-year-old.
“I’m hoping to learn more about it because I kind of want to go to HBCU and just be surrounded by Black excellence and be surrounded by people that look like me and not be judged,” Paul Jr. said. “But I want to learn more about it. I already know I’m going to college, but I’m going to the NBA, so after probably I’m going to finish school, too.
“I never thought I would really see [him graduate] since he left [Wake Forest] so long ago. As a kid, I think my dad’s never going to retire [from the NBA]. He’s always going play basketball and have the same job. So, it was cool to see him get a degree and his plan after NBA.”
“I’m hoping to learn more about it because I kind of want to go to HBCU and just be surrounded by Black excellence and be surrounded by people that look like me and not be judged.”— Chris Paul Jr.
When asked what he hoped his two children learned from his graduation, Paul said: “I just hope that it shows them the importance of completion. I told my mom and my dad that I was going to graduate. And I think everybody has to be on their own schedule, their own time. Don’t be in such a hurry to do this or check this off. But, yeah, for my kids, I just hope that they see that at times you can do a little more and you can give a little more.”
Once the family gathering was over with plenty of soul food still left, Paul and his wife took one of three SUVs back to the airport together. During the drive, the 37-year-old reminisced while passing landmarks that had an impact on him. He talked about the cigarette factories in Winston-Salem and how he toured one in an elementary class trip. He talked about dealing with a jealous person at nightclub and how he decided he didn’t want to go to clubs after that. He reminisced about how good the food from the local Mountain Fried Chicken was when he ate there after Wake Forest games, and his wife chimed in that it is “bomb.” The SUV also drove near his grandmother’s house and his grandfather’s old service station.
“My dad used to play in a rec league around here. He always liked to do a behind-the-back dribble,” Paul said.
The day that Christopher E. Paul officially became an HBCU Winston-Salem State graduate will always be a proud and memorable day for himself and his family. For a moment, Paul was just another student with a robe, cap, and diploma. And then suddenly, Paul and his beloved family were back on the Gulf Stream heading to back to Phoenix, where the exhausted NBA star was fast asleep in no time after drinking the needed water for hydration and enjoying vegan food from his local favorite Dom’s restaurant in Winston-Salem.
“I get to be with my wife and my kids for the next 10 days. It’s like, my happy place,” Paul said. “So, we’ll take this flight back, probably try to get to the house [Dec. 16], get my body worked on, hopefully lay and watch a movie with them and just enjoy that time.”
Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.