When news broke of Chauncey Billups’ retirement, my initial reaction was that I wanted to write a sprawling career retrospective about the guy who has, hands down, been my favorite basketball player since the turn of the millennium. But then, of course, Grantland re-published Jonathan Abrams’ fantastic profile of Billups from 2012 and left me floundering about how to approach this. I won’t spend time debating his Hall of Fame credentials, as my esteemed colleague has already made a solid argument in favor of. Instead, I thought I’d write something a little more personal.
I’ve never been one to collect or wear basketball jerseys, but I do, however, own a total of two. One is a Michael Jordan jersey. The other is a Chauncey Billups jersey, gifted to me almost a decade ago by a friend who is not particularly interested in basketball but who had obviously listened patiently to me on a number of occasions while I waxed ecstatic about the former Finals MVP and how he was the most underrated and criminally-underappreciated players in the game.
As someone who stands exactly 6-0 and who played basketball competitively in my younger days, I always gravitated toward point guards. I idolized Isaiah Thomas, Gary Payton, Mark Price, and Kevin Johnson during the early 90s and later Allen Iverson, Jason Williams, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, and Chris Paul. I was always astonished and inspired by players who were essentially my size who could dominate the game at the highest level.
Billups, though not nearly as flashy or spectacular as some of the aforementioned players, had an air about him that I found utterly captivating. It was a combination of things. He had a calming presence on the court. No matter how intense the situation, Billups was cool as a cucumber under pressure. He took care of the ball. He made good decisions. He rarely ever screwed up by doing something stupid. He played under control.
He was smooth while still being aggressive. He picked his spots, got his teammates involved, and always stepped up when the situation called for it. He played gritty defense and capitalized on mistakes. He also knew his limitations. He wasn’t the most athletically-gifted player on the floor, but he was able to use his quickness and his craftiness to his advantage. He maximized his strengths and minimized his weaknesses. This spoke volumes to me as a player.
He was also a natural leader. On those mid-aught Pistons teams filled with disparate personalities and egos, Billups was the glue that held everything together. As he entered the twilight of his career, he naturally evolved into a mentor for younger players, most notably Chris Paul, who always refers to him as an “older brother.” Watching Paul grow as a player, it’s easy to recognize the tremendous influence Billups had on him. More than Derek Fisher, Steve Kerr, or Jason Kidd, Billups has always struck me as someone who would make the logical progression into a head coaching position in the NBA one day.
For now, I’m going to spend the rest of my afternoon reminiscing about a guy who was a respected voice in every locker room, a humanitarian off the court, and a cold-blooded gangsta on it.
What’s your favorite part of Billups’ game?
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