It was the most profoundly patriotic experience of his life, but the first moment of pure exhilaration in Chris Paul's Beijing Olympics came when another nation's flag was the center of attention.
Team USA opened Olympic play by facing the host Chinese team in a game that was watched by an estimated 1 billion people worldwide.
"What gave me goose bumps was the national anthem for China," the Hornets point guard says. "Just looking around the arena and hearing everyone sing their national anthem, you know that something special was about to take place."
Paul's thrilling three weeks in Beijing began by playing in the most watched game in the history of basketball and concluded with the Americans winning the gold medal. The experience left the 23-year-old with a lifetime's worth of memories and a keener appreciation for both his sport and his homeland.
As the baby-faced visage of the Hornets franchise, Paul is both voluble and eloquent off the court. But he is hard-pressed to summon words that sum up his first Olympics.
"I feel like that was probably the greatest experience of my life in that it's something you can't describe," Paul says. "When you see everything that goes into the Olympics, you see all the villages and all the buildings that were built just for three weeks. It's crazy, and to know that I was a part of it is something that no one can ever take away from me, just like my medal."
That the Americans would claim their gold medals was hardly a foregone conclusion. The previous six years had been the most humbling stretch for USA basketball since it began using professional players.
Team USA failed to win a medal in the 2002 World Championships. It lost three times on its way to a bronze medal finish in the 2004 Olympics. And bronze was the best it could do in the 2006 World Championships.
Featuring a retooled roster with a collection of complementary pieces as opposed to a dozen megawatt superstars, the single-minded Americans romped through the tournament and held off Spain in the championship game to claim their first Olympic gold since 2000.
During its undefeated Olympic run, Paul scored eight points a game and led Team USA in assists. Only LeBron James and Kobe Bryant played more minutes.
"I think a lot of people were surprised that we won the championship game by (only) 11 points, but we weren't surprised," Paul says. "It shows you more and more that basketball is not America's game. It's the world's game now."
And if there's one player the world wants to watch, it's Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who, in China, would appear to be only slightly less popular than oxygen.
"If we were walking and getting crowded by a lot of people," Paul recalls, 'all we had to do is point and say Kobe's over there and they would run away from us in a heartbeat."
Unlike previous Olympics, members of the U.S. men's basketball team were conspicuous spectators. Though they were headquartered at a Beijing hotel, Paul says he and his teammates spent considerable time in the Olympic Village, meeting athletes from across the globe. They were some of aquatic supernova Michael Phelps' most recognizable fans, routinely cheering him on as he made Olympic history.
Paul reveled in the camaraderie he built with his teammates and the kinship he shared with the other American athletes. "Some of it made me feel like I was back in college," he says. "Because when we were in college, at times we would go watch the women's team play, and every time the U.S. women's team played we went to the games. It was fun to cheer for someone else. It was fun to chant "U-S-A.' Every event that we went to, we had a team to cheer for."
Paul and his teammates gave fans plenty to cheer about, too.
Their average margin of victory was 27 points. They played with panache and artistry, toughness and tenacity. They even played some defense.
And by the end of the tournament, Paul was moved by another, more familiar piece of music, one that had inspired and motivated the team from early on.
"The first day we met together in Las Vegas they played the national anthem for us before we ever shot one basketball," Paul says. "And it was Marvin Gaye when he sang at the (1983 NBA) All-Star game (in Los Angeles) and we watched it before we ran out on the court before the semi-final game. And that was our theme song. They say every great hero has a theme song. Well, our theme song for the entire Olympics was the national anthem."