Chris Paul is about to play the biggest game of his life with the conference finals within reach. To reach this point, he's had to bust it with blood, sweat and definitely tears.
The amenities in life he enjoys, they are the fruits of his labor. His character, the product of a southern family that is inseparable. His game, a culmination of determination and talent wrapped up in a package that was never supposed to be big enough to accomplish what he's done.
In short, Paul has earned his player's card in the league. In light of the O.J. Mayo situation, Paul's experience is a shining example, and he wants to share that experience with the next generation of basketball stars.
"If I could talk to them I would tell them it's not worth it," Paul said. "I appreciate the stuff so much now. When you do make it, you don't feel like you owe anybody anything. The college kids that get into it with these runners who buy them what they need … at the end of the day, nine times out of 10 it's things you don't really need."
Paul couldn't be happier with how he played his hand as a high school and college star. His next step is a contract that will ensure financial security for a long line of CPs. He's proud of the fact that he's earned everything that has come his way—and earned the rights and privileges that come with his status in the game.
Paul graduated high school in 2003, the same year a certain future Cleveland Cavalier commanded 99.9 percent of the nation's attention. Paul, rated the top point guard in his class, was second fiddle to LeBron James just like the rest of his high-level classmates. Now, there's a hunger in his voice and perspective forged from making good decisions.
"When I was in college I can say I never received a benefit from Wake Forest or a booster," Paul said. "At the time, I wondered why I wasn't getting this and that, but I got used to it. I told myself I would work for it. Looking back I'm thankful I never received an extra benefit. I don't owe anyone anything."
It's not Paul's job to educate America on extra benefits, but maybe someone can learn a message in conjunction with Mayo's messy departure at Southern Cal.
I can't help but think these recent revelations are related to an encounter I had with Mayo a couple years ago. "Dave, can I have your number? I need to talk with you. I'll call you in a few days."
That was one of the last conversations O.J. Mayo and I had during his high school career. It came during the 2006 Kingwood Classic in Houston, Texas when he pulled me aside in between games. Looking back, Mayo was going through a crisis. You didn't know exactly what it was, but it wasn't difficult to read his body language.
At the time of the encounter, he had recently switched AAU teams – a big deal for a high-profile kid – and I'm sure he wasn't looking for a critique of his game.
Concerned, I let a few days pass and then tried to reach him on his cell. I never had the opportunity to ask him what he wanted. Surely I wouldn't have been able to solve his problem, but I always wondered if in some way I could have assisted him.
My gut says O.J. was looking for advice and figured a neutral party might shoot him straight. Unfortunately, we never connected.
We can speculate about what lies ahead for Mayo, Southern Cal, BDA Sports, Louis Johnson and rest of the cast embroiled in the saga, but what good will that do? I'm thinking we borrow a page from the steroid scandal and look ahead. Senator Mitchell asked baseball to forget the past and focus on making sure the future is different.
With that in mind, and operating off the logical assumption that agents, runners and street hustlers aren't going away, will current high school kids be scared straight after the public ordeal Mayo is going through?
Travis McKie, a 2010 small forward out of Richmond (Va.) Marshall, is a high-major prospect. He's not O.J.'s level, he's only striving to be that good. McKie, a big time student and national Top 100 level player, thinks there's a lesson to be learned from Mayo.
"It'll make you more aware of what could happen," McKie said. "If you're on the playground, people might want to give you money. It's bad for O.J., but it lets young athletes know that you can't trust everybody."
"You learn that people are going to take advantage of you. They saw the money and they go at you early. Like the guy said, they pimped O.J. Mayo. High school kids can't trust anybody. You can't get anything from anybody because you'll have to owe them in the end. You don't take money in high school. The consequences are going to be very bad."
McKie's a good kid with a great reputation. On the court he's flourishing, but he's not a household name. He's never had anyone approach him (yet) but says he comes from a strong enough family that it wouldn't matter. McKie wouldn't take the bait. Would his peers be able to pass on the short term gains?
"Maybe (they aren't) as strong as me," he said. "Money is a powerful thing. You can't turn it down if you don't have it. If you're smart enough to know not to take it you'll be okay."
The message resonating on TV this week is clear: accepting inducements is nothing but a public relations nightmare, not to mention illegal per NCAA standards.
McKie didn't exactly need the message but he got it loud and clear. Hopefully his classmates did, too. Some college coaches are naturally skeptical.
"The only thing that high-level college basketball will learn from O.J. Mayo is not to get caught," one major college assistant coach said. "People don't understand. It's like getting involved with the mob. It's not just something you pull out of; it's not that easy. The whole thing is really sad."
Let's say this ordeal got a lot of kids at least thinking about the consequences of accepting cash and gifts. That's a good off-shoot of a bad situation. Now, is there a way to cleanse the environments kid play in?
"There's so many people involved, I don't know how you control it," Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel said. "There are so many AAU tournaments and camps and the fact of the matter is those people have access to those camps and those kids.
"If college coaches can't be there, why would the NCAA send anyone there? But, who can be there? Runners and agents. How do you clean that up?"
The NBA and NCAA are putting their minds together in an attempt to tackle the matter. We'll know more after those meetings transpire this summer. There's a school of thought percolating in college basketball offices that next spring there will be no AAU season open to college coaches. Stay tuned. In the meantime, expect colleges to be more cautious when it comes to recruiting the higher maintenance players.
"There are agents calling me telling me they have control of certain kids," one elite conference head coach said. "I'm blown away by this stuff. It's amazing. It's deflating."
And expect the top players to continue to be confronted by the same influences. Mayo wasn't the first and he won't be the last. Undoubtedly, right now as you read this, there are a handful of kids experiencing what Mayo went through.
One former advisor to a player who skipped college entirely recalled the first time he noticed an outside influence. "I asked him where he got the Avirex leather jacket from and he said, ‘My mom bought it for me.' I looked at him and told him to give it back. It was an agent who was taking care of him through the cousin and that's when I knew it hit the fan.
"If they think (O.J.) is the first person this has happened to they're crazy. They've got to do something about it. Those (high-profile) kids want more. They aren't going to want a $25 a week stipend."