Chauncey Billups is Back
After being traded in 2008, the NBA star is back. But this time he’s looking to mentor the next generation of Pistons players
Everyone loves asking Chauncey Billups if he still knows how to play basketball. After 17 years in the NBA, you don't just forget those skills overnight, he says—but at age 37, his body can. Normally, he answers any naysayers on the court with a series of last-minute three-point jumpers that earned him the moniker "Mr. Big Shot." But the All-Star point guard isn't out to prove anything. After five years, he has come "home" to the Motor City to help rebuild a strong team—and to retire a Detroit Piston.
"Being traded was tough for me because I never wanted to leave. From the way my career had gone before that, bouncing around, I finally felt like I had a home. We had a great run here. I never wanted to leave, but business is business," he says. "Fast forward (to) this summer: Once I realized there was an opportunity to come back here and end my career the way I wanted to, the deal went along quickly. And I am happy to be back."
At the Pistons training facility behind The Palace of Auburn Hills in late October, towering basketball players walk the hallways giving each other really high-fives. Assistant coach Rasheed Wallace, who was part of the Pistons' NBA championship 2004 dream squad with Billups, sprints to the restroom to wash his hands before lunch. And Joe Dumars—president of basketball operations, and the man who included Billups in a trade for Allen Iverson in 2008—soon follows.
Since the break up of the '04 championship team of Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Billups, the Pistons have suffered directional issues. Enter Billups, back by popular demand at the request of Dumars, to serve as a mentor and role model to a team of mostly 20-somethings.
"This is my 17th year, man. Some of these guys were in kindergarten when I came to the league. And they are on my team. Not that I am smarter than any of these guys; I've just seen a lot more," says Billups of his role as mentor.
Billups appears to be feeling good after the day's practice. He is fresh off a preseason home game win over the Washington Wizards where he scored one of his signature jumpers. Still, he acknowledges that his all-star days are behind him.
"I know that I am past my prime. I am not fighting that. I had a good run. I had a great 15 minutes of fame and I enjoyed it. I am not here to be the star anymore. I am here to try and help these guys know what it means to be a Piston," says Billups. "When I first came to the Pistons, I was like 26. Obviously, I am a little older than what I was—but also a lot wiser. So you just have to play smarter out there."
Sharing the team's plan of action this year, he continues: "This is a franchise with a lot of history; a storied franchise with a lot of success. Obviously, as of late, it hasn't been very successful at all. I think we are just starting to make that foundation again. And get back to respectability and, from there on, get back to dominance." As for his own skill, he says, "It's all going to depend on my health if I can play, because my desire won't change. And my will to play and win won't change, for sure. But if I am not healthy enough to play, then I think at some point, if that's the case, I would rather step away and give some of these younger guys an opportunity to live their dream."
At age 20, Billups was drafted into the NBA by the Boston Celtics in 1997 as the third overall pick, but bounced around the league playing in Toronto, his hometown of Denver, Orlando and Minnesota. He says it wasn't until 2002, when he became a "Detroiter," he felt ready to start and lead.
"More than anything, I finally was ready. I learned something at every stop, but I just wasn't ready. I was young. The opportunity to start and lead a franchise, I just wasn't ready. A lot of those stops meant different players, different veterans who helped me along and taught me how to study the game," Billups says. "Once I finally got here, I was ready. And I just never looked back since then."
It was during his initial tenure with the Pistons, from 2002 to 2008, when his career really took off—as did the Pistons' prospects. He was recognized five times as an NBA All-Star, starting in 2006. But the peak of his success was in 2004, when he led the Pistons to an NBA championship and won the NBA Finals MVP award. This June, he received the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, recognizing the best player in measure of selflessness on and off the court.
Off the court, Billups founded the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy with Regis University in Denver in 2006, which assists kids at risk of not attending college with scholarship money.
"That's probably the best thing that is near and dear to my heart," says Billups—besides his girls, of course: wife Piper and three daughters, Cydney, Ciara and Cenaiya. "(The program) has nothing to do with sports at all. So that's my baby right there. That's my thing." Before he was drafted, he was in talks to start a similar academy in Detroit.
"There's a lot of time involved in that, man. One thing about me is, I don't just lend my name to anything," Billups says. Also in Denver, he opened the Chauncey Billups Elite Basketball Academy in 2010 to discover and support local talent.
"I am going to be there. I am going to touch it and feel it. And make sure everything is going right. So there is a lot of time involved in that," he says.
He acknowledges at the end of the day, he is more of a big heart than a big shot.
"That's not my personality," Billups says. "I love any nickname that was earned. And it's nothing that I gave myself. I earned that name. To hear people call me that, it makes you feel good. It makes you feel like, 'job well done.'"
But Billups is already imagining life post-basketball. Looking off into the yonder years, he sees golf—lots of it. And Wendy's.
"(Golf) is my hobby," he says, with bright eyes and a smile. "I just started about four years ago. And I love it, man." He recently hosted a golf fundraiser to benefit the Autism Alliance of Michigan with one of his former teammates, Richard Hamilton. Last summer, he became a Wendy's franchisee after buying 30 of the fast-food restaurants in the St. Louis area. You won't see him in any of those cheesy spicy chicken commercials—at least not yet, he says, laughing. Ideally, he would like to rub elbows with other retired greats as an ESPN commentator.
For now, he's content to be back as a Piston, helping rebuild the franchise he's loved and groom the next generation of NBA greats. For them, he has this advice: "Be on time. Be professional. Come to work wearing nice clothes, shake people's hands and look them in the eyes. Stuff I tell my kids, I find myself telling some of my teammates. It's more than just basketball. I want these guys to grow up and be good people. I am not the only guy in this league that made big shots and had great nicknames. I understand that. There will be more big shots coming down the line, coming soon."