Chris Paul and the Thunder: Leadership in the Time of COVID

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter & Digital Editor | mailbag@okcthunder.com

The NBA hasn’t played any games in six weeks and for millions of fans around the world, it feels like planet Earth has stopped spinning without their basketball fix.

But similar to the way everyone else wakes up each morning, gets dressed (or not) and finds a way to be productive from home or at their essential job, life hasn’t completely stopped for the Thunder either.

There are hypothetical games to be played in the future. Bodies need to be ready.

NBA teams are living organisms that feed off of energy and connection. Team bonding still needs to happen.

There are no more bus rides and long flights, no locker rooms or film rooms, but the Thunder has tried to adjust and control what it can during the social distancing that the NBA has encouraged during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leading the Thunder players has been Chris Paul, and who else would it be? The President of the NBA Players’ Association, the valedictorian of his high school, the former mentor in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program is naturally inclined to take charge and point his teammates in the right direction.

Just like office workers have traded in conference rooms for online Zoom calls, so has the Thunder. Paul has organized the digital video chats over the internet as a chance to touch base with everyone on the team, make sure that veterans can keep open lines of dialogue with the youngsters and ensure that each player keeps themselves in the best physical shape possible despite the adverse circumstances.

“We just get a chance to call and talk and connect with each other and actually see one another,” said Paul. “Now, we have to figure out how to adapt and be better.”

In an inversion of a normal NBA season, players are getting ample time with their families but desperately missing their basketball brethren. There is an uncanny closeness to the 2019-20 Thunder squad, a team that had to reinvent itself on the fly with an influx of newcomers like Paul, Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, among others.

After the team’s identity was finally captured, the product was one of the best records in the entire NBA since Thanksgiving, a meteoric run over a three-and-a-half month span. That extended hot streak vaulted the Thunder to a 40-24 record and a dogfight to host a first round series in the Western Conference playoffs with 18 regular season games to go. No one knows what, if anything, remains in the future for this 2019-20 campaign, but Paul and his teammates relished every moment of this year’s squad.

“This has been one of the funnest years I’ve had in the league, just with our team,” said Paul, a 15-year veteran who has played for four different franchises and made the playoffs 11 times. “I get excited with our Zoom calls because it makes me even more confident that we’re going to find a way and get back to playing.”

“We’ve spent a lot more time with each other than our actual families,” Paul continued. “When you’re on a team like we have where there’s genuine happiness for each other, you always want to see what you can achieve.”

All of us humans, as we go about our daily – at times monotonous – routines, are staving off entropy, are resisting the temptation to cut corners, are watching out for any signs of slippage. Those are all factors for NBA clubs during a normal season too. Coaches and players made sure that they and their teammates maintained good habits during the dog days of January and must do so again now in our new atomized existence.

“The biggest thing is as we talk as team, we talk about the mental aspect of it,” Paul noted. “We’re just trying to talk and communicate with the guys as much as possible about competing with yourself during this time. That’s the thing that we’re trying to stay focused on.”

Each player, sequestered in their own unique homes or apartments, is having a different experience physically at this time. The Thunder training and support staff has done everything possible to get assets into players’ hands for them to work out, lift weights, maintain their cardiovascular levels and even hone their jump shots, if they’ve got the space.

As many Thunder fans saw during the HORSE challenge on ESPN, Paul has an outdoor hoop in his backyard in southern California. Many players would be envious of that set up right about now, but even Paul is yearning to be back in an even more comfortable zone – a practice facility or indoor gym.

“The last time I shot inside of a gym was layup lines against the Jazz,” said Paul, referencing the Thunder’s game on March 11 at Chesapeake Energy Arena that got postponed just seconds before tip-off.

“This is the thing with having 450 players in the league,” said Paul, donning his NBPA President hat for a moment. “Some guys have access to a weight room. Some guys don't. Some guys have access to facilities where they can train, where they can run. You just never know.”

It’s not just fans across the world who are anxiously anticipating some sort of decision about when they’ll be able to see NBA basketball again. Players are feeling that way too. They’re “itching to play” as Paul said, but also know that there’s no blueprint for what a return to action might look like. There have been creative solutions discussed but they will all have to check a variety of health and safety-related boxes on forms held by governments, health officials and NBA and NBPA executive leadership.

“There’s a lot of hypotheticals out there and it’s great that people are brainstorming, and everybody wants us to get back to play. But safety of the players, the families, the fans, everyone, all that comes before any of it,” Paul noted.

Right now, everyone is looking for answers, but it seems that the questions are coming in even faster, like a rising tide invading a coastline. Sometimes, leadership doesn’t mean having all the answers. Sometimes it means being able to say, “I don’t know the answer, but I’m going to find out.”

“This is such an interesting situation that we're all in,” said Paul. “This is a situation where no one knows. The virus is actually in complete control.”

Thunder players are fortunate to have Chris Paul among their ranks, a leader to announce that type of honest, genuine perspective during this time. He’s not presenting false hope nor is he pouting. He’s staying vigilant, keeping his eyes up for information and ideas, and using his position of influence and leadership to keep his Thunder teammates informed, connected and inspired.

Regardless of when the balls bounce again, that’s valuable for the entire Thunder organization.

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