You remember that bit from The Original Kings of Comedy, where Cedric the Entertainer is doing the impression of the old guy from the neighborhood who’s always talking with a cigarette hanging out the corner of his mouth?
Even if you’re too young to remember the bit, if you’re from the South, you know this guy. Every neighborhood had this guy. You could find him at your local service station. You pull up with your car’s engine rattling, and he comes strolling out, wiping his hands with that greasy red rag.
“Can you fix it, sir?”
“Can I fix it? Boy, I been here 30 years. Been here longer than you been alive. Of course I can fix it. Come on, now. I know a carburetor problem when I see it. Bring it in the garage.”
Except it doesn’t sound like that at all, because somehow he’s speaking in complete sentences while smoking a Winston at the same time. So it sounds something like, “Canahfixit? Beenherethirtyoddyearnow. Courseicanfixit. Cmonnah, knowadangcarburetorproblemwhenahseeitnow. Brangitinnagrage.”
Cigarette flipping every which way as he’s talking, breaking the laws of physics.
That was my grandfather. That was Papa, to a T. He opened the first African-American owned service station in the state of North Carolina, and he was the hardest working man I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t just blue collar. He was blue pants, too. Every single day, he wore the same outfit. Light blue work shirt, dark blue work pants, red rag hanging out of his back pocket, “JONES” stitched in red across his chest pocket.
If you lived in Winston-Salem and you needed a tank of gas or a carburetor or just a conversation, you went to see Mr. Jones.
We used to sit down for dinner at night, and his hands would be so greasy that we’d say, “Papa, you need to go wash up!”
He’d say, “I washed ’em already!”
He wasn’t lying either. Man, he worked so hard for so long that the grease was just ingrained in there. No soap could wash it away. It was literally skin-deep.
Everybody in Winston-Salem knew him. He was a legend. Nobody even knew me and my brother by our names. We were just “Mr. Jones’ Grandkids” to everybody. Even when I got to high school and I was making a name for myself playing basketball, it was always, “Man, Mr. Jones’ Grandson is pretty good.”
That’s the kind of weight his name carried. It followed us around. He was my best friend in the world. Whenever my mom was mad at me for something, I’d go see Papa. Whenever my coach was mad at me, I’d go see Papa. What is it about grandparents? I can’t explain it. They just get it, you know what I’m saying?
He was my boss, too. From the time my brother and I were like eight or nine years old, we’d be working at the service station every summer. Now that I think back on it, it was kind of hilarious, because he opened up at like seven in the morning, so we’d be sitting around drinking pots of coffee with him all morning just to wake up.
We’re not talking Starbucks, either. This was Winston-Salem, man. This was that Folgers best-part-of wakin’-up coffee, with like five teaspoons of sugar in it. Man, we’d be wired, just trying to make as much tip money as humanly possible. Every time somebody would pull up in their car, we’d pop up out of the chair. If they went to the full-service pump, we were cool. But if they went to the self-service pump, we were flying out there as fast as possible. Because we had about four seconds before they could open the door and get out. If we beat them to it, I mean, who’s gonna tell some adorable eight-year-olds that they can’t pump the gas?
We’d just act all innocent.
“Self-service? What’s that? We’re just here to help you, ma’am!”
We had our little hustle down perfect. This was in the days of cash-only. So we were dealing with round numbers. Everybody would say, “Put in 30 bucks worth, son.”
We’d start pumping … $29.10 …
“It’s all full, ma’am.”
Nobody with any sense of decency is trying to make an eight-year-old run back inside to get 70 cents from the register. It was always, “Keep the change, young man.”
That’s how we saved up for basketball shoes and whatever else we wanted. I remember my grandfather used to walk around with a big wad of cash in his back pocket, wrapped up in a rubber band. We’d say, “Papa, come on, we need some shoes!”
He’d say, “You can have them shoes. You just gotta work for it now.”
This was that Folgers best-part-of wakin’-up coffee, with like five teaspoons of sugar in it.
We’d be out there all summer long, drinking coffee, hustling. To this day, I smell gasoline and I think of those times. Everything we did, we did as a family. My family, we rolled deep to everything. Rolling deep to dinner. Rolling deep to Church. Even rolling deep to my dad’s rec league games. We used to go with him and run out on the court and shoot during every time out. My mom was actually the official stat keeper. Their team name — and this is how Tobacco Road it was — their team name was Professional Carpet Systems.
That was the carpet cleaning company where the guys on the team worked. It was like free advertising. But actually, my dad didn’t even work there. He was just a ringer. But they had one of the best teams, and he was trying to win a championship! He knew what was up. He was ahead of his time.
I remember he used to wear number 44, because George “The Iceman” Gervin was his hero. Me, I was more of an MJ guy. I had the MJ clock in my room. But then when I got to high school, A.I. was my guy. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted the crossover, and I wanted the braids. So before one of our big games in high school, I guess I was feeling myself. I’m like, Alright, I’m doing it.
I went over to my friend’s house the night before, and I got his sister to braid my hair just like Iverson’s. I knew my dad had to get up early for work, so I waited until it was late, and then I crept in the house. I didn’t make a peep, man.
I show up to our game the next night, and I’m feelin’ myself. The girls team always played right before us, so I’m in the stands, just chilling, watching them. All of a sudden, I see my dad walk in the door with my whole family. Our eyes lock from across the gym. No words.
I’m looking at him like, “What? … What?”
He’s looking at me like, “… Christopher. Emmanuel. Paul.”
He waves me over to him with that no-nonsense, right-this-damn-second wave. I’m trying to play it cool in front of my teammates. I get over there, and all he says is, “I better not see you come out in the first quarter with your hair like that.”
Man, I turned around and ran straight to the bathroom and took the braids out on the spot. I came out for shootaround with the waviest afro in the world. I mean, picture it. It was ridiculous. My family still laughs about it.
That night was the end of my A.I. look. It lasted 15 minutes. I still tried to imitate the crossover, though.
As a kid, I was actually a huge Tar Heels fan. But when I had to make my decision on where to play in college, UNC had some great guards, and the coaches told me that I’d have to wait for Raymond Felton to go to the NBA before they had a spot for me. We couldn’t afford college without a full scholarship, so I had to be realistic. I knew I wanted to stay close to my family so they could see me play, and I knew I wanted to be in a great academic environment.
When my signing day came, I didn’t have a table with a bunch of hats like all these kids do now. We weren’t out there shooting music videos. No ESPN cameras, no nothing. I sat at a folding table in the school gym and signed a piece of paper, and everybody clapped.
The only hat we had there was the one on my granddad’s head. It was a Wake Forest hat. He walked up to me and gave me a big hug, and he put the hat on my head, and I remember he was smiling so big, with those loose teeth in his mouth, because he was rocking the dentures.
And he said, “I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life.”
He was so proud. That night, me and him went to see Wake Forest play at The Joel, and I can still smell the popcorn. I can still hear the band. I can still remember looking at the uniforms, and the shoes, and thinking, Man, everything is so clean. That’s gonna be me wearing those shoes. My granddad and the whole fam are gonna be up here, right in this spot, watching me out there.
College, man. The ACC.
Chris Paul, Wake Forest University.
The next night, I was out at the high school football game, just sitting in the stands. I got a phone call from my brother.
I said, “What’s up?”
He said, “Hey, I’m driving back home.”
He was at college down in South Carolina, three hours away.
I said, “What? You’re driving, home?”
“Yeah … Papa’s sick.”
“He’s sick? I was with him last night.”
“Yeah, I’m on my way. Call mom.”
I started doing the math in my head. Why’s he coming home? What’s going on? Nothing made sense. I got up and ran out to the parking lot, and before I could get to the car, my cousin ran up to me.
I said, “Papa’s sick. We gotta …”
He said, “No. Papa … he got murdered.”
I didn’t believe him. Somebody must be confused. Nobody would kill my grandad. That’s just crazy. It’s impossible. There’s been some kind of mistake or something. We got in the car and drove 20 minutes over to Papa’s house, and as soon as we got off the exit on Clemmonsville Road, before we could turn onto the street …
I saw the lights first. Red and blue, flashing. Then I saw the ambulances, and the police cars, and all the people standing in the street. I heard my aunt screaming, She was saying, “Somebody knows who did this! Somebody knows who did this!”
I got out of the car and just started running toward my grandad’s house. Still didn’t believe it. I was running and running … and then my uncle stopped me, and he wrapped me up in a big hug, and all I saw was the white sheet laying over my grandad, right on the floor of the garage.
I just … broken. I couldn’t even tell you what happened the next few days. I was somewhere else.
Some teenagers had jumped him as he was getting out of his car. They tied him up and put duct tape over his mouth so nobody could hear him. They took his money and left him there. He couldn’t breathe, and his heart gave out.
All over a wad of cash.
My best friend. My guy. Gone.
You know, a lot of people heard about my granddad’s story because I went out onto a basketball court a few days later and scored 61 points — one point for every year Papa was alive. That was my little tribute to him, and I guess it’s good that people heard about his story because of that night.
But you know what? His real story has nothing to do with the game of basketball. He made his mark on this world by the way he treated people. He was the rock of our entire family. He was the rock of the community. He was my best friend in the world.
When my grandmother died of cancer, I was just eight years old. And I’ll never forget, I was sitting next to Papa at the funeral, and I was crying my eyes out. He had his arm around me, and he told me, “Don’t cry. You have to be strong for your mother. Don’t cry, now.”
He had the strength to say those words to me in that moment, when he had just lost his wife.
Growing up, I had some friends. I had a bunch of homies. But nobody was like my grandad to me. People ask me sometimes if it hurts that he never got to see me play at Wake Forest, or get drafted into the NBA.
It definitely still hurts.
There was one moment in particular, after I made my first All-Star Game. There’s always this brunch that the NBA puts on, and they invite all the legends. My dad came with me, and I’ll never forget the look on his face when I got to introduce him to George “The Iceman” Gervin and Dr. J.
He was so happy. He was smiling. It was such a big moment for us, coming from where we came from. Professional Carpet Systems, number 44. And now he’s sharing stories with The Iceman, eating pancakes.
I wish my grandad could’ve been there to feel that moment with us.
But you know what? Those moments are all just basketball. What I wish the most is that my grandad was around to meet my kids, especially my son. They would’ve been partners. They would’ve had such a good time together.
The pain doesn’t go away. But neither does his legacy. I see it now with the way my son looks at my father. I get it now. My dad, and all he wants to do is put a smile on my son’s face.
Grandparents, man. They just get it, you know? They really do.
I’m still Mr. Jones’ Grandson. His presence is a part of everything we do as a family. When I got to the NBA, I started my foundation in his honor, and my goal was really simple. I just wanted to do what he did for me, for as many kids as possible — I wanted to make them feel like no matter where they come from, they’ve got a chance to do big things in this life.
“You can have it. Just gotta work for it now.”
Every year, two students from North Carolina go to Wake Forest University on a scholarship in the name of Nathaniel Jones. My grandad. My best friend. The first African American to own a service station in the state. The only guy who could give you life-changing advice with a lit Winston in his mouth.
Sometimes I think about his hands. Four decades of grease. No soap in the world could help. It makes me smile.
His legacy can’t be washed away, either.
My family, we still roll deep.
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