I'm a trained reporter, so I know how to ask questions. Open-ended questions that elicit answers. Simple follow-ups like "What do you mean?", which lead to deeper information. My kids are, hands down, my toughest interviewees -- especially when asked how school went today -- managing to respond to every question with one-word, dead-end answers. Not so last Friday, when my teenage son and daughter couldn't wait to tell me about a former NBA point guard who talked to their entire Connecticut high school that day about drug abuse.
Maybe you're familiar with the story of Chris Herren. They weren't. They learned about his eye-popping talent, how it, and every penny he made, was squandered in a blur of addiction that started with what he thought was innocent marijuana use in ninth grade and escalated to binges of cocaine, oxycontin, crystal meth and heroin. They and their classmates were riveted, some of them sobbing, others raising their hands and sharing personal demons brought forth by Herron's sincerity in wanting to keep teens from following the same self-destructive path.
After listening to Herren, the weekend house parties in town were canceled. Voluntarily. That's influence.
"He's an athlete," my 16-year-old son said, when I asked why his classmates responded so powerfully. "He's cool, popular. He's someone we can relate to."
Now imagine you're a pro athlete today who wants to improve lives. You're the best point guard in the NBA, and you have far more resources -- money, fame, credibility, networks -- than Herren has or ever had before getting bounced from the Association in 2001 after two seasons. How do you best put those assets to use while not short-changing your day job?
This is the challenge facing five-time NBA All-Star Chris Paul, who took the time to talk with me recently about what's fair to ask of athletes as part of a featured conversation with the Aspen Institute's Project Play. The goal of the project is to convene thought leaders and explore ideas that can help stakeholders build healthy, active communities through sports, a topic Paul is familiar with as a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
We're sitting on stools in the Los Angeles studios of ESPN, discussing results from SportsNation polls that show most fans say athletes should do more in their communities and those who do are viewed in a highly favorable manner.
"For me, it's all about who you are," Paul says. "Some [athletes] may feel a responsibility. Some may not. One thing I've talked with my family and team about is doing more. Trying to make an impact."
When he arrived in Los Angeles in 2011, advisers told him he could be the next Magic Johnson. Not on the court. In the community.
The Magic Johnson Foundation started in 1991 with a focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and expanded into educational and other programs that address the needs of ethnically diverse urban areas. The effort helped build Johnson's credentials as a civic leader and open up doors that would extend his relevance well beyond his playing days. Paul was told that no L.A. athlete since Magic has had that social footprint.
"Magic is just a symbol for excellence in giving back and impacting the community," he said. "What better role model could I have?"