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John Shulman rests his chin on his right hand as he watches the UTC men's basketball team take on Reinhardt in December 2010 at McKenzie Arena. Shulman was an assistant for the Mocs from 2002 to 2004 and their head coach from 2004 to 2013.

As John Shulman was preparing his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball team to face Wake Forest and point guard Chris Paul in the opening round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament, he noticed one thing never changed as he watched Demon Deacons game tape.

"Paul was involved in a mess in every single game they played," Shulman, now the head coach at Alabama-Huntsville, said Monday afternoon. "He's just meaner and nastier. He just wants it more than everybody else."

The record will show that a meaner, nastier Paul helped Wake erase a three-point halftime deficit that March 17th night in Cleveland, Ohio, against UTC, the Demon Deacons ultimately prevailing 70-54.

But can a 36-year-old Paul now similarly will the Phoenix Suns to their first NBA title — and his first, as well — when the Suns host the Milwaukee Bucks Tuesday night in the opening game of the best-of-seven NBA Finals (9 p.m., ABC)?

Can Paul, the shortest starter on the floor at six feet even, cement his reputation as one of the best point guards in league history after injuries and bad luck have so often cut short his championship dreams in the past?

And if the Suns fail, should Paul still be considered one of the NBA's top five or six point guards ever, especially since he's never so much as reached the Finals before this season, much less won it?

"Chris has done whatever it took to win his whole career," said Casey Long, the former Mocs great who guarded Paul for much of that night in the NCAA tourney, but also played against him when the two were in high school in North Carolina. "He's a true point guard. He's out there to make everybody better.

"One of his greatest strengths is that he's always been able to meet people where they're at. He adapts to their strengths and weaknesses. It's never my way or the highway with him. That's why he's had such success in Phoenix this year, because he's figured out what everybody else on the team needs from him to be successful."

If you think Long is pulling hard for his old friend and adversary to get a ring, you're only half right.

Because while Long has known and admired Paul for decades, he's also friends with Bucks forward P.J. Tucker, who played at Texas and knew Long throughout high school.

"I want them both to win," he said. "But how amazing is it that two guys who were on the same AAU team are now both in the NBA Finals on different teams?"

For that reason alone, Long — now an assistant coach at Murray State — won't pick a winner.

But it doesn't take a basketball junkie to understand that Paul deserves to be rated among the best of all-time, regardless of whether or not the Suns ultimately win the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Merely consider that the 2005-2006 Rookie of the Year has led the league in assists four times, has career averages of 18.3 ppg, 9.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds. Nor has it just been offense that's made him special. Over his 15 seasons he's averaged 2.2 steals per game, including 2.1 in the playoffs, which puts him in the top 10 all-time.

There's also this: When he went to the Oklahoma City Thunder a year ago, they were given a two-percent chance of reaching the playoffs. They made it. The Suns hadn't been in the playoffs for 10 years before Paul arrived this offseason. Now they're four wins from the franchise's first-ever NBA title.

Said Shulman, using words every opposing general manager, coach, player and fan would surely echo: "If he plays on your team you love him. If he plays on the other team, not so much."

Long could attest to that first-hand long before the NCAA tourney loss to Wake.

"When I was in high school, the state of North Carolina had the State Games each summer at N.C. State," recalled Long. "My junior year, my high school, Seventy-First High out of Fayetteville, played Chris's high school, West Forsyth from Winston-Salem. Chris beat us on a floater at the buzzer."

Somewhat amazingly, Paul and Tucker aren't the only connections to Shulman and Long who'll be in the Finals. Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne, who grew up in Bartlett, Tenn., was recruited hard by Shulman and Long at UTC before signing with Murray State.

"Oh, Coach Shulman loved Payne," said Long. "Every time he watched him, he'd say, 'That kid will be in the NBA one day.'"

That said, Shulman won't be rooting for the Suns because his good friend Mike Dunlap is an assistant on the Bucks, which has also led to Shulman's son John Carter becoming a huge Bucks fan.

"Chris Paul is a villain in our house," chuckled Shulman on Monday.

Come tonight, Paul will likely be a hero or a villain to everyone watching the Finals. Players who play with such heart and purpose and passion often elicit polarizing responses from fans.

But both Shulman and Long believe that's also why Paul has finally reached the Finals.

"Chris is one of the very few players I've ever seen who's been able to sustain the intensity he had when he was young all these years," said Long. "It's very rare to see someone sustain that for as long as he's been able to. Very rare. He's never been willing to settle for less than his best or your best."

Added Shulman: "His competitive edge, that's what makes Paul so tough. That competitive edge is advantage No. 1, 2 and 3 with him."

And that competitive edge is why the Suns should finally finish a season No. 1. Make it Phoenix in seven.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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