Larry Brown walked down the aisle of the bus transporting his Pistons, looking even more solemn than usual. Hours earlier, Detroit led Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals by three points with 10.9 seconds remaining. Brown instructed his team to foul, but the veterans in the huddle — Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, and Chauncey Billups — resisted his order. Brown relented, but only on the condition that should Shaquille O'Neal catch the ball, they foul him immediately. O'Neal did receive the ball on the ensuing possession, but he quickly passed to Luke Walton, who found Kobe Bryant for an acrobatic 3-pointer that sent Staples Center into a frenzy. The Lakers prevailed easily in overtime, evening the series and leaving the Pistons reeling. "We're crushed," Brown told reporters after the game. "We had a winnable game. And everybody in that locker room's down."
These were the Lakers, a dream team recalibrated: Bryant and O'Neal in their primes, Gary Payton and Karl Malone in the twilight of their careers, heavy favorites to win the franchise's fourth title in five years. With the series headed back to Detroit for three games, the Pistons had just handed them a second life. Brown sauntered to the back of the bus and thought about apologizing to his team, knowing he should have been more adamant about the foul.
"I remember in Philly … " Brown started.
Ben Wallace cut him off: "This ain't Philly."
Brown kept going, his voice rising. Chauncey Billups listened until he'd heard enough.
"Go back to the front of the bus," Billups told his coach. "We're not coming back to L.A."
Billups was right. The Pistons dominated the next three games and he snared the Finals MVP trophy, completing a seven-year odyssey that veered from lottery pick to draft bust to role player before finally settling at Mr. Big Shot. For one of the league's most respected teammates and leaders, it was certainly a strange way to launch his career — he's made eight stops in all, with the Clippers looking like the last one. Fifteen years ago, Billups won his first professional game by beating Jordan's Bulls; now, he's hoping to beat LeBron's Heat, Kobe's Lakers, and Carmelo's Knicks for a second title. Like always, he'll be filling a role — this time, the knowing veteran and calming influence, the guy who's been there before.
"The best damn coach the Clippers can have is Chauncey," said Butch Carter, who coached a young Billups in Toronto.
At every stop, there was a lesson for Billups. He's been traded five times and amnestied once. He's played for everyone from George Karl to Mike D'Antoni to Rick Pitino, and he's played with everyone from Kevin Garnett to Carmelo Anthony to Lloyd Daniels. He's also been in every conceivable situation, and over everything else, that's what makes the 36-year-old Billups so valuable. He can relate to almost every NBA player because he has been almost every player.
"I always believed that to become a great leader, you have to be a great follower," Billups said. These days, the Clippers follow him.
Today is Lottery Sunday, perhaps the most important event in Boston Celtic history since Red Auerbach drafted Larry Bird 19 years ago," Dan Shaughnessy wrote for the Boston Globe on May 18, 1997.
Boston entered that lottery with unrestrained, unfulfilled, and unrealistic optimism. The organization had just undergone a massive face-lift after a disastrous 15-win season, luring an in-demand Rick Pitino from Kentucky with a whopping $50 million offer. Larry Bird announced his departure from the organization and his acceptance of the Indiana Pacers coaching job the same day the Celtics introduced Pitino. The legendary Red Auerbach relinquished his team presidency to Pitino.1 Blessed with two high picks and a 27.5 percent chance to land the no. 1 choice, the Celtics somehow ended up with the no. 3 and no. 6 picks, missing out on can't-miss star Tim Duncan and even Keith Van Horn.2 Labeling the lottery disappointing is "the understatement of the century," Pitino says now. "It's what I banked on taking the job."
The Celtics audibled quickly, deciding to revamp their backcourt with Billups (the third pick) and silky scorer Ron Mercer (the sixth pick, as well as Pitino's former protégé at Kentucky). Pitino's new general manager, Chris Wallace, remembered watching Colorado's Billups notch 29 points and 10 rebounds against Texas Tech earlier that year. Billups scored the game's winning basket,3 and he left a lasting impression on Wallace. "When we brought him in for a workout, [we realized] that in addition to his talent, there is also character, there is work ethic, there was substance to this guy," Wallace said.
Only a handful of players returned to Boston from the previous season, as the team renounced the rights to nine players4 to splurge on free agents Travis Knight, Chris Mills, and Tyus Edney. Pitino couldn't even make it through the preseason before swinging his first deal, sending Mills to New York for three younger players, then explaining that he wanted his team to play fast and smart. He tabbed Billups as the franchise's guard of the future and promised that his team would unleash his signature full-court press.
"Playing for a guy like Pitino, he always has you under a whole lot of pressure to play fast, a crazy style of play for the pros," Billups said. "That didn't help. That didn't give me a chance to really slow down and listen to myself, listen to the game and what's going on. I never really had that chance. It was a recipe for disaster there."
They both found themselves in pressure situations, with expectations high because of their pedigrees and college success. The shot clock, now 11 seconds shorter than in college, proved a burden for Billups. NBA point guards need to make heady decisions. Pitino wanted him to play at a breakneck pace when Billups was still figuring out who he was. "I wasn't the best player on the court," he said. "I wasn't the biggest at my position or strongest. I went from high school to college and I was able to dominate as a freshman. Going into the NBA, I go to the bottom of the totem pole. It was the first time it had ever been like that."
Billups arrived in the NBA just before a new era of point guards emerged and revolutionized the position. He was a scoring point guard before scoring point guards became fashionable. Two Celtics legends, Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn, often argued on television over whether Billups should play point or shooting guard. Billups could shoot and bully his way to the basket past smaller, weaker guards, which made Cousy believe he should play off-guard. Heinsohn saw him as a point and preached patience with Pitino. "It was really funny to listen to two legends talk about that," Pitino said. "Tommy, wholeheartedly, thought the young man was a 1. He was on the money."
"I thought someday he was going to be an outstanding basketball player," Pitino added.
Just not then. Billups never knew when to pass or shoot. Edney remembers he and Billups formed a pseudo-support system for one another, routinely dismayed over their play and disheartened at being the source of their coach's angst. "At times, you would be like, 'I don't even know how to play this game,'" Edney said. "That was a real feeling sometimes." Billups told Boston assistant Jim O'Brien that the morning shootarounds were wearing him down. "The whole transition was a challenge," O'Brien said.
The team's patience ran thin quickly. At the trade deadline, just 51 games into his pro career, Boston traded Billups in a multi-player deal to acquire veteran All-Star Kenny Anderson. Pitino said afterward that he loved Billups but couldn't pass up the chance to grab a true point guard. Pitino was making the biggest mistake you can make in the NBA — instead of going through growing pains and building something substantial, he wanted to fast-forward the process. Billups missed playing with another future Finals MVP — Paul Pierce,5 Boston's 1998 lottery pick — by a scant four months.
"I had finally started to play well," Billups remembered. "The fans had started to embrace me and took me in. The team was all right, up and down. But I was finally starting to make my way and boom, the last day of the trading deadline, I get traded."
Richard Pitino,6 Rick's son, 15 at the time, refused to speak to his father for two weeks after the deal. Billups had been his favorite player. "We were struggling at the time and we needed it 'now,'" Pitino said. "Probably, that was a mistake. We should have taken our lumps and stayed with him."
"He wasn't really traded because of any great sense of disappointment about him or concern about his future," Chris Wallace said. "It was the price of doing business. Moving him enabled other things to occur."
Walter McCarty7 played under Pitino at Kentucky and in Boston before becoming his assistant in Louisville. He chalks up the miserable results to unrealistic expectations and clashing personalities. Other young players, including Antoine Walker and Mercer, routinely dominated the ball in Pitino's system.8 "All of us have egos and we have to find a way to manage those egos as coaches and players," McCarty said. "At that particular time, I don't think anybody did a good job of doing that, whether it was players or coaches."
This began a nomadic period for Billups, who bounced around the league without a position and, therefore, without an identity. He spent only a few months in Toronto before they rerouted him to Denver, with Billups narrowly missing out on playing with Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter. "He didn't have that leadership from a veteran player, so he didn't have that confidence," Butch Carter said. Denver went just as poorly. "We got him as a 2," then-Nuggets coach Mike D'Antoni remembers. "[His true position] was definitely the question mark without a doubt." In Orlando, Billups's bum shoulder prevented him from playing a single minute. By 2000, Duncan and McGrady had become the signature players from a disappointing 1997 draft. Keith Van Horn was fine — nothing great, but fine. Nobody else mattered, and in Billups's case, people were already calling him a bust. For the first time in his basketball life, Chauncey Billups was concerned that he wouldn't make it.
What does it mean exactly to "make it"? Growing up in Denver's Park Hill, Billups was always a natural leader. Everyone called him "Smooth." His youth instructors — Harry Hollines, Horace Kearney, and Rick Callahan, who formed the University of Denver's backcourt in the mid 1960s — never had to give him the same directive twice. When one of his childhood friends, Mike Robinson, drifted toward crime and away from the basketball court, Billups threatened to quit the team if Callahan wouldn't reinstate him. "He was probably concerned with that more than anything else at the time," Callahan recalled.
Did Billups make it by putting Colorado high school basketball on the map? The state had featured players like Joe Barry Carroll and Micheal Ray Richardson, but never someone as impactful as Billups. He started varsity as a freshman, forcing a rising senior to transfer schools rather than compete for playing time with Billups. "He was a legend [in eighth grade] and everybody knew it," said Ed Calloway Jr., George Washington High School's coach.
The problem with "making it" is the ceiling keeps rising. Just two years after departing the University of Colorado, Billups banked his first million dollars. But he wasn't playing and he wasn't happy. What happens when you're not the best anymore?
"Chauncey is a star in high school, goes a mile and a half from home for college, and then he's thrown into the fire with Rick Pitino?" said Carter. "Say what you want; that just wasn't going to work."
During those trying times, Billups often talked with Hollines, who'd been drafted by the Suns in the '60s. He told Billups that he didn't have to be another Michael Jordan. He'd already made it. His job was to feed his family and stay in the league as long as possible. Billups wanted more than that. For once, fate intervened — the Minnesota Timberwolves offered Billups a two-year contract, inadvertently putting him in the perfect situation. They didn't need him to lead the team; they already had Terrell Brandon. They didn't need him to be their biggest star; they already had his old pal Kevin Garnett.9 For the first time, someone was asking Billups to be Billups. Play your game, do your thing.
"People had this negative perception of him as a basketball player," Timberwolves teammate Sam Mitchell said. "Because he came in and scored, they thought he was being selfish, which was the furthest thing from the truth. As I got to meet Chauncey, what I realized is people put labels on people that really stick. Well, how do you get those labels off? It's harder to get rid of a label than it is to gain one."
Brandon could relate to Billups. He apprenticed under Mark Price as a young point guard in Cleveland. Price didn't hesitate to teach Brandon everything he knew about the game, with Brandon quickly developing into a deft passer — by 1997, Sports Illustrated had labeled him the league's best point guard. In Billups, Brandon saw a family man and a younger version of himself — someone who could play and learn. "Once he got to Minnesota," Brandon remembers, "he saw that we were all secure with ourselves, no pressure, and he didn't have to come in and run the program. I had his back and I was going to show him how to do it because I knew he was next."
Brandon asked Billups to move his locker next to his. Billups quizzed Brandon about the mid-range game and confessed his troubles with decision-making. They stayed after practice and called one another at night while scouting opponents. "I had come from the school of 'Once your time is over, you have to know when it's time to move on,'" Brandon said. "Veterans shouldn't think that because it's not me anymore that you're not going to help a young player learn the game. If you're caught up in that and you've got nine, 10 years in the league, you should take a step back."
Billups also benefited from working with Mitchell, a veteran forward headed for a coaching career. Billups's reputation as a scorer — and not a point guard — trailed him to Minnesota. "Do you know how hard it is for players to look themselves in the mirror and say, 'It's me and not everybody else' and start changing?" Mitchell asked. "It's a difficult thing to do. And then when people are calling you a bust and you're the third pick of the draft? And to deal with those labels and to overcome them? It don't happen."
It did for Billups. "The thing that saved me was being honest with myself and saying it's not the coach's fault or the team's fault that I'm not playing," Billups said. "I'm just not ready and I have to look in the mirror and ask myself, 'All right, what do I have to do?'"
Billups continued playing both guard positions, slowly evolving into a valuable backup. When Brandon sustained a serious knee injury during the 2001-02 season, Billups's chance had finally arrived. Flip Saunders joked that he could become another Tom Brady — from the bench to a championship in months — only Billups wasn't kidding around. He helped the Timberwolves win 50 games before they were swept by Dallas in Round 1 of the playoffs, with Billups averaging 22 points per game in the series. It took four stops, five coaches, and five years, but Billups had finally established himself as a legitimate NBA starter.
"He actually calmed down in those situations where there was more pressure," Saunders said. "That's a very unique skill to have."
For once, Billups had perfect timing — he was hitting free agency again, only with the leverage of being an up-and-coming star with a strong pedigree.10 Billups visited Pistons general manager Joe Dumars's home, and the pair discussed his erratic past. "I'm sure it was somewhat cathartic to him, to sit there and rehash everything that had happened," Dumars said. "My basic response to him was now that I've heard all the obstacles that you've had in the past, my job is to ensure that you have none of those obstacles here in Detroit. So it was good for him, but it was also good for me to hear because I wanted to know what he felt impeded him from becoming the player he could become."
Billups signed a six-year, $35 million contract with Detroit, but not before agonizing about moving again, as well as leaving behind his buddies Brandon and Garnett. Midway through his first season, Dumars noticed something wrong: Even after being blessed with the security of that contract, Billups still looked over his shoulder.
"What are you looking around for?" Dumars recalled telling him. "You're looking like we're going to trade you or bench you. Not happening. You're the guy. We're committed to you. Quit looking over your shoulder. You're going to lead this team."
Billups thanked him and never looked back. He averaged 16.2 points, shot 39 percent from 3, and led the underdog Pistons to the playoffs, beating McGrady's Magic squad and Allen Iverson's Sixers before New Jersey swept them in the Eastern Conference finals. "It was the first time anyone had ever given him the ball and said, 'This is your team. We believe in you,'" said Rick Carlisle, Billups's first coach in Detroit. "He took the ball and ran with it."
Larry Brown replaced Carlisle the following season, bringing with him a reputation for driving his point guards hard. He wanted them to be an extension of himself on the court. Some could take it. Some couldn't. Early in his Detroit tenure, he summoned Richard Hamilton and Billups into his office and asked them to sacrifice their shots and get others more involved. Billups left disgruntled but not defiant.
"I never had another discussion with either one about that," Brown said. "Chauncey looked at me straight in the eye, made sacrifices for the team every single day. You look at the success that team had and that was a direct result of him buying in."
Those Pistons were competing for a title in a league perennially dominated by superstars — the previous 25 NBA titles had been won by teams led by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Moses Malone, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, and Hakeem Olajuwon, and future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant. The 2004 Pistons had stars, but no superstars. They were equals. They argued like brothers would. "If you heard us on the basketball court," Hamilton explained, "you would think we didn't like each other. We were blunt with each other. That was the only way we knew how to communicate in the heat of the moment."
In basketball, chemistry is both the most overrated and underrated aspect of the game. How a multimillionaire feels about another multimillionaire shouldn't affect his ability to put a ball into a basket or defend it. But watch certain contenders that have played together for long enough, like Billups's Pistons or Duncan's Spurs, and you'll see something palpable. Rhythm. Poise. Awareness. Trust. And it starts off the court. "We all know, as far as guys who have won in this league, you build relationships off the floor and they become better when you're on the floor," Tayshaun Prince11 said. "Chauncey was always the guy. We hung out together, ate dinner and things like that, and we built that friendship. Once we got on the court everything was just connected from there."
Brown bristles at the notion that the 2004 Pistons were devoid of superstars, saying, "I hate this thing about guys teaming up. I don't think Michael or Magic or Larry Bird or any of those guys, it would even enter their minds. They would have all felt the responsibility to do it themselves. They were good enough to make other guys better. I always take offense when people tell me we didn't have any superstars. They equate that to only one end of the court in my mind. Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, all in my mind, Rip, Chauncey, Tayshaun, they were stars to me. They did whatever it took to help us win."
After Brown's rebuffed trip down the aisle of that bus in 2004, the Pistons beat the Lakers, claiming the franchise's first title since the Bad Boys of the late '80s. Billups averaged 21 points, five assists, and one angry telling-off of a Hall of Fame coach. "That was really big for me," Billups remembered. "From what I had been through in my career and all the people who said I couldn't make it and wouldn't be a top player. All the questions. All the doubters, all the things I've been through and to do that and climb that mountain was a validation for me. It was what I always thought I could do and the player I always thought I could be."
It may be a long time — if ever — before we see another "superstar-free" championship in this era of free-agent alignment. "We thought we were the best five alive," Rasheed Wallace said. "We felt like we could take on any five in any era of the NBA. That's how close-knit, that's how together we were … I'm not comparing one team to another, but I know we kicked a lot of ass for a long time."
Dumars won't venture that far: "We understood it was not the typical way to build a championship roster. To be able to duplicate it, there's no way I can sit here and tell you it's easy or we'll see it again. I don't know if we'll ever see it again."
Prince agreed, pointing to superstars playing together as the biggest reason why it might not happen: "Once a couple start doing it, then it continues to grow from there. It might happen one day. It might take a while. But I think in the near future, it's not going to happen, just from the fact that all these talented guys are starting to get together and trying to win a championship that way. You can't blame them, because everybody wants to win and have the best chance at winning. But the way we did it, I don't think you'll see that for a while."
Billups blossomed over the next few years, making five straight All-Star teams, hitting countless timely shots and earning himself the imaginative nickname "Mr. Big Shot." Another championship would have cemented Billups's case as the Walt Frazier of his generation — an elite defender and leader with a knack for coming through in big moments — only the Pistons suffered agonizing losses to the 2005 Spurs (Game 7 of the Finals) and 2007 Cavs (when LeBron James caught fire and shot them out of the Eastern finals). Billups assumed their 2004 title guaranteed that he'd finish his career in Detroit, never expecting Dumars to make a massive mistake — dealing Billups home to Denver for Allen Iverson at the beginning of the 2008-09 season. Denver needed a steadying influence to corral an eccentric roster with younger stars like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. Detroit needed to start rebuilding, rolling the dice on one more playoff run with Iverson (who memorably bombed) before rebooting with loads of cap space in the summer of 2009.12 Billups did as Billups does — he brought the Nuggets to their first conference finals since 1985, coming within two wins of the Finals before Kobe's Lakers pulled away. For Billups, it was his seventh straight conference finals appearance. The Pistons? They haven't won a playoff series since Billups left.
"I think, in hindsight, everybody knows that it was one of the worst things that could ever happen to them, getting rid of Chauncey, not only because of his ability to play, but also his leadership on that team," Saunders said.
Dumars remembered trading Billups as "the hardest and toughest thing I've ever had to do in this position," adding, "It's a guy that I have looked at as a little brother and a guy that I've got deep, deep affection for, a guy that I still talk to. And I'll leave it at that."
Nobody wanted Chauncey Billups," Sam Mitchell said. "And I laugh now. All these teams praise him. All these teams had a chance to have him. And look at the teams that had him. They didn't know what to do with him and they shooed him out the door. It's funny how the NBA is. But as soon as the lights come on and you start playing well, everybody wants you."
We end there, right? The player with the up-and-down career arc, finally standing atop the mountain, returns triumphantly home to Denver with his family and friends, and maybe even a bust in Springfield, Massachusetts?
"How did the NBA get to be such a nasty business?" Mark Kiszla wrote in the Denver Post on February 22, 2011. "In order for the Nuggets to stop being held hostage by disgruntled forward Carmelo Anthony, they had to sacrifice hometown hero Chauncey Billups in a blockbuster trade with the New York Knicks. There is relief in Denver, but no joy."
Once again, Billups found himself a spare part in yet another trade — this one, one of the biggest of the last few years. Nuggets president Josh Kroenke apologized to Billups and his family when he announced the trade, calling it the hardest aspect of the deal. And Denver fans lambasted Anthony online and on talk radio shows, blaming his selfishness for ruining a potential contender and costing them their hometown favorite. Billups doesn't blame him, saying that Anthony "was under so much stress and pressure that I wasn't disappointed with how he handled it. I just think he didn't know how to handle it. He listened to whoever he listened to and they planned it out, but I think that in hindsight, I'm pretty sure he would tell you he wishes he would have handled it a little differently.
"But he got what he wanted," Billups added. "He wanted to go to the Knicks. Denver let him get what he wanted. I'm sure for him, it's a success."
Billups and D'Antoni were reunited again, this time on much better footing. New Yorkers serenaded Billups in his first game as he clinched a victory over Milwaukee at the free throw line. Unfortunately, he injured his knee in their first playoff game and sat out the rest of Boston's sweep of the Knicks. "I really believe if I was healthy the whole time, we would have made a nice run," Billups said. "I thought we had a good chance to be pretty good with me in there."
That summer, New York amnestied the final year of Billups's contract to free up enough cap space to sign Tyson Chandler. In a rare moment, Billups's frustration boiled over — he warned other teams not to claim him during the amnesty process and told Yahoo Sports, "I'm tired of being viewed as the good guy. After a while, you just kind of get taken advantage of in these situations."
These days, he's a little more diplomatic: "They put the rule in; they were going to use it. But I just wanted to be in the driver's seat for my own self and not be some dangling meat out there for whoever takes the biggest swing."
Billups relented when he joined the new-culture Clippers, realizing quickly that it was the perfect place for him to lead. Terrell Brandon watched the Clippers and noticed Billups and Chris Paul talking on the bench the same way Brandon and Billups had chatted once upon a time, thinking that everything had come full circle for his old friend. But that's when misfortune struck again — Billups tore his Achilles during a game against Orlando, knocking him out for the season and leading many to think he might retire.
"He was very determined," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro13 said. "I give him a lot of credit. From a therapy standpoint, from a workout standpoint, he never missed a therapy session. He stayed in good condition with his weight. That's just his personality. He wants to prove to everybody that he can come back and play at a high level."
When the Clippers were struggling last March, the veterans pushed for an injured Billups to travel and sit on the bench with the team for road games. Within a few weeks, you could see Billups mentoring various players, talking to them during timeouts and looking like a de facto associate coach. Nobody was surprised when he re-signed with the Clippers last summer, finally returning to playing action on November 28 and quickly getting thrown into some big crunch-time spots. We're seeing pieces from previous stops in Billups's final one: Minnesota (he's playing both guard spots), Detroit (he's being counted on for big shots), Denver (he's the leader of an eclectic team), and even Boston (the expectations for the Clippers might be a little too high). Fifteen years into his NBA journey, he's angling for one more title.
After that? Who knows? Billups doesn't know when he might retire, but nearly all of his former coaches — Saunders, Carter, and Brown among them — said it would be a seamless transition for Billups to move down the bench. Others wonder if Billups could take over an NBA front office like Dumars did, or maybe even take over the National Basketball Players Association for Billy Hunter someday.
"I never really wanted to coach in the NBA," Billups said. "If I coach, I want to coach players that are trying to get somewhere: high school, college. Some of the guys in the NBA, once they make it here, they're like, 'I'm here now. I'm good. I did what I needed to do. I don't need to listen.'"
The thought of dealing with those simply satisfied with "making it" turns him off, if only because that mind-set would have killed his career years ago. You can't teach other people how to care if they don't want to care. But if you care for the right people? That's a little different. For instance, when his old friend Mike Robinson was convicted on organized crime charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1994, Billups sent Robinson money for commissary and took his phone calls even as he dashed to playoff games. He spoke on Robinson's behalf when he became eligible for parole. He helped Robinson become a master fitness trainer while he was incarcerated, pledging that he'd help Robinson gain employment. Four years ago, Robinson was released after serving 14 years of his sentence. He now trains Billups every offseason.
"Chauncey's not the type of person to gloat or speak about what he does," Robinson said. "He lets his actions speak for himself."
So who knows what will happen to Chauncey Billups? We only know what we see right now — another contender, another key leadership role, a 15th NBA season for the guy who was nearly forgotten after three. Only three 1997 draft picks are still playing in the NBA: Duncan, Billups, and Stephen Jackson. Two of them are leaders; the other one needs to be led. And that's the thing: A leader isn't born or built. It's always a little bit of both. Chauncey Billups would never tell you that. But he'll show you.