For Chris Paul, Studying at an H.B.C.U. Was a ‘Natural’ Fit

Dennis Felder has been teaching sports management at Winston-Salem State University for 38 years, and his rules apply to all of his students, even a 12-time N.B.A. All-Star.

So when Chris Paul, the Phoenix Suns point guard, introduced himself as Chris, Felder let him know he didn’t use nicknames.

“I said, ‘No, no,’” Felder recalled in a phone interview this week. “‘No, no, no.’”

The roll sheet said Christopher, so that was what he would be called.

Class started at 7 a.m. Eastern time, which meant Paul was often dragging himself out of bed at 4 a.m. in Phoenix.

“Dr. Felder,” Paul said, “he don’t play.”

On Friday, Paul, 37, will graduate from Winston-Salem State. The Suns will have an off day after completing a four-game road trip, so he will fly to North Carolina to wear a cap and gown and walk in the ceremony.

Paul started pursuing a bachelor’s degree in 2003 at Wake Forest University, but he left for the N.B.A. after two years. To finish his degree, he chose the nearby Winston-Salem State — a historically Black university that both of his parents attended. It is part of his quest to bring attention and resources to historically Black colleges and universities.

“I grew up in the backyard of all the H.B.C.U.s,” Paul said. “So, it was natural for me.”

During the 2011 N.B.A. lockout, he arranged a de facto All-Star game at Winston-Salem State that featured stars including LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and donated $25,000 to the school. But it wasn’t until 2017 that he really began to think about the help H.B.C.U.s needed.

That year, Paul attended his cousin’s commencement ceremony at North Carolina A&T, an H.B.C.U. in Greensboro. The speaker, Laila Ali, the former boxer who is the daughter of Muhammad Ali, talked about the legacy of H.B.C.U.s and the financial challenges they faced. Many had been closing or losing their accreditation because of falling enrollment or lack of finances.

Her speech made Paul consider more deeply how he could help those institutions. Among the prestigious alumni of the schools, which offered Black people higher education during segregation, are the civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Vice President Kamala Harris; the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois; the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall; and the author Toni Morrison.

“Black colleges need all the positive and interesting public relations they can get,” said Derrick White, a professor of history and African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky. “I think one of the challenges about being chronically underfunded by the state, both in the public and private realms of Black colleges, is that if you’re unfamiliar with Black colleges, then you just have no idea that they exist.”

Xavier University of Louisiana and Virginia Union University participated in an H.B.C.U. basketball event organized by Paul in Connecticut this fall.Credit…Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images

In the past few years, H.B.C.U.s have attracted more attention as well as more funding in part from private donations, such as the hundreds of millions of dollars donated by the billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott last year. This month, Durant gave $500,000 to Bowie State, a historically Black university in Maryland. Lately, H.B.C.U.s have seen renewed interest from students, drawn by their environments, historical significance and increasing visibility.

“A lot of positive things happened,” Paul said. “I think we all have to look at ourselves and see what we can do more.”

The Importance of Historically Black Colleges

H.B.C.U.s, or historically Black colleges and universities, have long nurtured excellence, and a sense of pride and belonging among students.

  • Growing Visibility: Thanks to star hirings and generous donations, H.B.C.U.s are having a moment. But not every institution is benefiting.
  • Studio Art Programs: Thanks to new forms of financial support, H.B.C.U.s are starting to expand their offerings, with the goal of fostering a new generation of artists.
  • A New Generation: Historically Black colleges are increasingly becoming the first choice for some of the nation’s most sought-after talent.
  • Campus Spirit: Eight Howard University students were called to document a meaningful part of campus culture. Here is what they chose.

Paul has donated to H.B.C.U.s and provided tuition assistance to their students. He has urged the N.B.A. to include an H.B.C.U. showcase during the league’s All-Star Game and hosted virtual graduation events for H.B.C.U. students during Covid-related shutdowns, according to his representatives.

He sought ways to influence curriculum as well. In 2016, Paul and his brother C.J. took a class at Harvard Business School on the business of entertainment, media and sports.

“All I could think about was, This is one of the dopest classes I’ve ever taken — where else is it offered?” Paul said. “And that also took me into a rabbit hole and diving into H.B.C.U.s. What classes do they offer at this school? At that school?”

Paul worked with Anita Elberse, who taught the course at Harvard Business School, to bring it to H.B.C.U.s, starting with an introductory session at North Carolina A&T in 2018. Elberse taught about one case based on Paul’s experiences, and another related to the Walt Disney Company.

“He’s good friends with Bob Iger,” Elberse said, referring to the Disney chief executive. “And so he was able to give an in-depth and also behind-the-scenes look at, ‘Hey, here’s what I learned from Bob Iger, here’s how he approaches the challenges that he has as a C.E.O.’”

It has been an accredited course at North Carolina A&T since 2019, and will be offered at Southern University in Louisiana starting in the 2023 spring semester. Paul has committed $1.5 million over five years to bring the class to five different H.B.C.U.s, said Carmen Green-Wilson, the chief of staff for CP3 LLC, which handles his off-court endeavors.

When the N.B.A. finished its 2019-20 season at Walt Disney World, Paul promoted H.B.C.U.s with his pregame wardrobe choices. This year, he became the only athlete who was named to President Biden’s board of advisers on H.B.C.U.s. His production company has also produced three documentary series about H.B.C.U. programs to highlight their impact on their communities and the challenges they face.

In the fall of 2020, Paul enrolled at Winston-Salem State to finish his degree, with an interest in mass communication and sports management.

“When you start something, you want to see it through; you want to finish it,” Paul said. “And even though I was blessed and fortunate to go to the N.B.A., I still wanted to graduate.”

Classes were all conducted remotely then, and he stayed up to date on assignments through the learning platform Canvas.

“The very first time, we’d have to send an email to one of our classmates and tell them what our name is and what we do,” Paul said. “I’d get a few classmates that would hit me back and start putting messages in my mailbox: ‘Are you who I think you are?’”

The former N.B.A. player J.R. Smith has enrolled at North Carolina A&T and is playing on its men’s golf team.Credit…Peter Casey/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

He’s proud of his student ID card, which, he said, he keeps with him all the time. This time around, though, being in class feels different.

“I wasn’t the best student when I was coming through school,” Paul said of his time as an undergraduate nearly 20 years ago. “But I have a greater appreciation for a lot of this stuff now.”

After Paul registered for Felder’s class, Felder got a call from Paul’s mother, who had taken one of his classes years before, the professor said. He told her to make sure Paul was on time.

“He is a very respectful young man,” Felder, 71, said. “‘Yes. Yes, sir.’ The whole gamut. Never had a problem with him whatsoever. So you can tell that he has been raised and he still respects his parents and individuals. Except when you get on the basketball court. That’s a whole different ballgame there.”

Felder said Paul sometimes spoke to students as a guest speaker, drawing on his experience as an N.B.A. player with business and executive experience. His class presentations became events.

This fall, Paul took a course in organization and administration and delivered two presentations over videoconferencing; one was on his tenure as the president of the N.B.A. players’ union. Most students’ presentations lasted only 10 minutes, but Paul took so many questions his took up the entire class period.

“We even had like the next class that comes in after us, then they came in and they were asking him questions as well,” said Niesha Douglas, who taught the course.

Paul, who will graduate with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, is opening accounts with $100 for each of his 350 classmates, using the banking platform Greenwood, which seeks to support financial growth for Black and Latino customers.

A fan of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team in his youth, Paul remembers in 2001 when Vince Carter, who played at the school, left the Toronto Raptors in the middle of a playoff series to attend his graduation ceremony.

“Even though he’s in the N.B.A., he still made time to finish what he had started,” Paul said. “And so that was inspirational to me.”

As soon as Paul knew his graduation date, he checked it against the Suns’ schedule. When he saw they were off that day, he decided, “Whatever I’ve got to do to be there, I want to do it.”

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