In one week, Chris Paul has gone from the anointed one to a tragic charity case with his legacy on the line. ESPN basketball savant Stephen A. Smith called it "sad" and underscored his point by making a long, pensive face.
Look: After blowing a 2-0 series lead, Paul and the Phoenix Suns face NBA Finals elimination tonight in their best-of-seven series with the Milwaukee Bucks. If the Bucks win, then Paul will reach his 16th straight year without a championship. The reaction from an adoring media is already funeral-like. That just means they don't really know what a champion is and that they never believed in the first place that Paul is among the all-time great point guards.
Are we really supposed to feel sorry for him now? Are we really at the tragedy phase? This is the moment for Paul. This is it. No one has the right to a championship. It is not a lifetime achievement award. You actually have to take it. You have to be at your best at the hardest possible times. Paul has the chance to prove himself now.
These NBA Finals have been a referendum on Paul. At least, they have been since we got past the episode of Real Housewives of ESPN starring Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor: Two strong women squabble for power, turf, and a bigger contract.
We talk about Paul's legacy as if his years as a star will never have happened without a championship on top. The truth is that we think too much about legacies. You play to win a championship, not to win history. And while sports writers seem to think it'll be tragic for Paul to lose tonight, he actually has a safety net. You saw it in Game 5, sitting courtside.
LeBron James. A blatant attempt to try to get his good friend Paul to join him with the Lakers next year. He looked like a college coach sitting in the stands admiring a star high school player.
"I'm proud as hell for CP," James told ESPN. "I'm here for CP. He came to my first Finals appearance, and this is me giving it back to him. We support each other. We've been a brotherhood since we came into the league."
So Paul has two NBA championships just sitting there waiting for him to take. This year's with Phoenix and next year's with LeBron.
In a world of concocted superteams, all titles are not created equal. Paul's possible titles come with different meanings and values. They tell separate stories about Paul and leave opposite legacies.
How would you feel if Paul joined the Lakers to win a title? I would not blame him one bit.
Paul was supposed to have been traded years ago to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he would've set up shop with Kobe Bryant. It's true that Paul would have won championships with Kobe had NBA commissioner David Stern not canceled the trade when other team owners complained that the Lakers would be too good.
The fear was that the Lakers would also get Dwight Howard and form a superteam.
It seems so unfair now, as the league is built on superteams, with star players recruiting other ones. It comes across as different, contrived, fake. You think of the legends as being around while a team grows around them. It seems more natural that way. A champion seems more invested that way, rather than joining someone else's party.
I'm not sure that matters any more. Paul is already playing for his fifth team. He goes down as the first superstar journeyman. He won't be the last.
He is 36 years old, and this is probably his last real shot to win a title on what will be seen as his team. Winning one on LeBron's team is not the ideal, but when you've played a long career with less than the competition, it's only natural to want to see what would happen if you changed sides.
Paul hasn't chased the superteam for 16 years, instead working tirelessly, patiently, with class and drive. He brought this Phoenix team together. Still, in his career he has lost three series after taking a 2-0 lead.
There have always been reasons. At some point, you do have to prove it. Paul was excellent in Games 1 and 2 of this series, then had an inexplicable turnover late in Game 4 and a crushing mistake with a foul in the final seconds of Game 5.
Paul's wrist hurts; he wears a compression sleeve on his leg, maybe something with his hamstring. Those aren't temporary excuses. That's called being 36, with 16 years running NBA offenses on your body.
He still has something to prove.
If you want to feel sorry for him, please don't. Give the man the respect to let his legacy live or die based on his fight. If he never wins a title, then he can go down as Patrick Ewing or Charles Barkley. There is nothing wrong with that.
No pity here. No charity case.This is Paul's chance to figure it out. That's what champions do.