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ESPN documentary ‘Crossroads’ flips the script on black kids and lacrosse

Executive producer Chris Paul: ‘I still get goose bumps when I watch it’

“I’m from the ’hood. You don’t hear nothin’ ’bout no lacrosse. … If you ask anybody in my family, [they’d tell you], ‘Oh, that’s a white-person sport.’ “

True or false, that’s the narrative on lacrosse in many African-American homes, even though arguably the greatest to ever play the game likely looks like a family member. (Jim Brown. Yes, that Jim Brown.)

When Brandon, a senior at Charlotte Secondary School, a public charter school in North Carolina, uttered those words with a sheepish grin, he spoke for himself, and for most people he knows. He also spoke for Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul.

“I know much of nothing about lacrosse, but I fell in love with [the sport] being a part of this film,” said Paul, the executive producer of a new ESPN Films documentary, Crossroads, which chronicles the lives of a group of African-American boys who went from awkward lacrosse neophytes to North Carolina state finalists in just three seasons. “Sport teaches you so many different things,” Paul continued. “It doesn’t just teach you about wins and losses. It teaches you about trust, it teaches you about relationships and it teaches you about sacrifice.”

Directed by Emmy Award-winning sports documentary producer Ron Yassen, Crossroads is a familiar story: largely of at-risk, underprivileged African-American male athletes in need of a savior. In Crossroads, there are two: Teddy Walker, the school’s athletic director (who is African-American), and Bobby Selkin, an eye surgeon (who is white), whom Walker taps to coach a group of boys with whom he has little in common.

For Paul, who is from Winston-Salem, roughly 80 miles south of Charlotte, the film was far from just a project on which to put his name. It spoke to him.

“I’ve been involved in AAU and grassroots basketball for a long time,” said Paul, who starred at Wake Forest University from 2003-05. “In the African-American community, it’s basketball or football. No one ever puts a lacrosse stick in your hand, ever, so to see how Coach Selkin and his family take these guys in as well as Mr. Walker, I still get goose bumps when I watch it.”

Paul, entering his 14th NBA season, spoke with The Undefeated about Crossroads, which airs on ESPN on Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT. As Paul’s own career winds down, perhaps he, too, is nearing a crossroads — and the storytelling business is his next calling: “We’re always looking at different stories to tell. I just want to be able to help tell people’s stories the way that they would like.”

Charlotte Secondary player Isaiah Lott in the documentary Crossroads, which is executive produced by NBA player and North Carolina native Chris Paul.

Courtesy of ESPN Films

What attracted you to this story, and why did you agree to put your name on it?

Obviously, one of the biggest things was it being in North Carolina. That’s home for me. That’s where I’m born and raised, and when you see the story, you really get a chance to see how important sports are with our youth. I still get goose bumps when I watch it. Oh, man. I’ve seen the film four, five times already.

What was your impression of the cast, the players?

Man, first and foremost, they’re great kids. I think the resilience of the kids is what makes them special. They were introduced to a game that they had no clue about, but when they talk to you about it, they’ll tell you they fell in love with the game. Basically, they don’t want to let each other down, and a lot of ’em will tell you too is that it gave them something to do. It kept them out of trouble, and they ultimately became a family.

Do you think this film can play a part in changing some existing narratives and maybe even stereotypes in the black community?

I think it says a lot about sport in general, but I also think it shows kids that you can have an open mind. It showed me. I mean, I know much of nothing about lacrosse, but now I fell in love with it, obviously, being a part of this film. It shows you really have to have an open mind because sport teaches you so many different things. It doesn’t just teach you about wins and losses. It teaches you about trust. It teaches you about relationships — not just about winning or losing lacrosse games. I had a college coach like [Selkin], Skip Prosser, who taught me a lot more about life than just about the game of basketball. At the premiere, you saw Coach Selkin with the guys, and to see that some of the guys call his wife ‘Mom,’ that was really touching. That’s why I’m so proud of this film, and I hope as many people as possible get an opportunity to see it, because it’s more than just telling the story about lacrosse.

Lacrosse, much like basketball for you, created a realistic path to college for these players, which is something they never even imagined. Do you identify with them in that regard?

Man, basketball has taken me all over the world. It showed me friends who have become family. Like I always say, being on a team, everyone wants to feel a part of something. Whether it’s lacrosse, the school band, grassroots basketball, whatever it may be, there’s a sense of belonging. When you get a chance to be a part of it, I think it absolutely gives kids a different alternative than just being out on the streets and doing other things.

Teddy Walker and Coach Selkin truly saved these players. You know all about that, having had coaches and other mentors who’ve shaped you.

Absolutely. Three of the most influential men in my life have been my dad [Charles Paul], my late grandfather [Nathaniel Jones] and my college coach, [the late] Skip Prosser. Having those different mentors to teach you more than just about sports but about life. My dad taught me how to be a man. My college coach used to say, ‘If you can’t be on time, be early. Never delay gratitude.’ My grandfather taught me the meaning of ownership, hard work and providing for your family. You can see Mr. Walker, the angel that he is. He taught those kids about service.

Director Ron Yassen talked about how the film spoke to him on a personal level, and there are so many individual storylines in this documentary. Was there any one particular storyline that really touched you?

Definitely Mobley, who struggled with a speech impediment. Oh, my goodness, if you look at him and you see the confidence that he started to gain in just being around the team and being around the guys. A lot of the guys never thought that they would go to college or never had an opportunity or planned on going to college, and you see Coach [Selkin] has 100 percent graduation rate. Then the biggest thing too — and I don’t know if you know this, because I don’t think we put it in the movie — but they actually won the state championship this year.

Sounds like the film really impacted you. What else might we see CP3 putting his name on down the road?

Absolutely. Through our production company, we’re always looking at different stories to tell. I think for me, going into my 14th season in the NBA, I’ve had an opportunity to meet a ton of different people and just pay attention to different things that have happened over the course of not only my career but in other people’s careers. I just want to be able to help tell people’s stories the way that they would like. I feel like, for years, I’ve been sort of telling stories over all of these years, so I’m definitely open to doing other projects and will continue to try and do that.

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.