Chauncey Billups was born in Denver, Colorado on September 25, 1976. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Ray and Faye, welcomed another boy, Rodney, and a girl, Maria, in the following years. The Billups family was a close-knit bunch. Faye doted on her children, and the kids looked out for one another.
Chauncey and Rodney were particularly tight. Both loved sports and were excellent athletes. Chauncey, however, possessed an inner drive that his little brother did not. His top two sports were basketball and football, and he worked hard every day to improve in both.
Chauncey looked out for his little brother, too. Rodney was a lazy kid, a character flaw that didn’t sit well with Chauncey. He dragged Rodney to practice whenever he said he was too tired to go.
By the fifth grade, Chauncey was flashing the combination of skill and instinct that defines special athletes. A youth basketball coach nicknamed him “Smooth,” because everything he did seemed so effortless. Chauncey also distinguished himself off the court. He was a natural leader, a disciplined student and well liked by everyone he met.
Like any young basketball fan in the 1980s, Chauncey was a big fan of Magic Johnson, but the player he identified with most was Joe Dumars. A stifling defender who could run the point or shoot from the wing, Dumars was the unsung hero of the Detroit Pistons teams that won a pair of NBA titles.
By the time Chauncey entered George Washington High School in 1991, he was already a celebrity in the Denver area. Within a year, he would be the state’s most recognized athlete. Chauncey was named Colorado’s Mr. Basketball after his sophomore season, and also earned the award after his junior and senior years. The personal accolades were flattering, but Chauncey was all about winning. In the 1993-94 season, he led the Patriots to the Class 5A state title, dominating rival Horizon High School with a scintillating performance in the final.
Going into his senior year, Chauncey was regarded as one of the nation’s top prospects. Kansas coach Roy Williams called him the most talented high schooler he had ever scouted—high praise considering that years earlier he had recruited Michael Jordan to North Carolina. Agents could be found in the stands at most of Chauncey’s games. So could gang bangers, who respected Chauncey so much that he was the one player they refrained from heckling.
As Chauncey pondered the next move in his basketball career, he found himself being pulled in several directions. Some advised him to skip college and head directly to the NBA. Others told him to cut a sweetheart deal with one of the powerhouse schools romancing him. But he had a different idea. Despite another stellar campaign as a senior at GW, the year was tough on him because of the passing of two grandparents. Leaving his family didn’t feel right to Chauncey, so he opted for the University of Colorado. For Chauncey, the chance to play in front of loved ones in nearby Boulder was too tempting to pass up.
The one thing the Buffaloes could not offer Chauncey was a proud basketball tradition. Coming off a sub-.500 season, the team had not been to the NCAA Tournament since the late 1960s. Coach Joe Harrington was trying to rebuild the program, and Chauncey became the centerpiece of that effort. But the 1995-96 season turned ugly for Colorado, both on and off the court.
The team posted another losing record at 9-18. This, however, was the least of Colorado’s problems. Harrington’s leadership came under fire when several players were declared ineligible and several others wound up in hot water for various indiscretions. Even Chauncey landed in trouble, after he and teammate Matt Daniel got caught stealing video rental coupons from a campus bookstore. Embarrassed, Chauncey wrote a letter of apology to the school’s administrators and the student body. His willingness to accept responsibility for his actions won him widespread praise and enabled him to rise above the mess.
Chauncey also won a lot of fans with his performance on the hardwood. The first-year guard enjoyed an outstanding campaign, averaging 17.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. Chauncey scored more than 30 four times and was deadly accurate at the foul line (86.1%). Rarely did he look like a freshman.
No matter how well he played, Chauncey could not save Harrington’s job. The coach was forced to resign, and in his place the school promoted assistant Ricardo Patton, who was charged with cleaning up the program. Among his first moves was showing the door to Mack Tuck, one of the team’s top scorers. To make up for the loss, Patton added Georgia Tech transfer Martice Moore, the 1993 ACC Rookie of the Year. Still, the pressure was all on Chauncey.
The sophomore took the court in 1996-97 more confident than ever. Over the summer, he had been selected to a squad of under-22 players that took on Dream Team III in a tune-up for the Summer Olympics. The aquad included a host of future Hall of Famrs, including Charles Barkley, John Stockton, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal..
Among Chauncey’s teammates were Paul Pierce and Tim Duncan. The young Americans gave their elders a scare, taking a 17-point halftime lead. before falling 96-90. In 10 minutes of action against the sport’s top players, Chauncey piled up seven points, two steals and two rebounds, while committing no turnovers. He rode this momentum into his second season with the Buffaloes.
ON THE RISE
Three months into the campaign, Colorado’s record stood at 14-3, and the Buffaloes were ranked 18th in the nation—the first time they had cracked the Top 20 since 1969. Chauncey was leading the way, doing his best work in conference play. In January, his 28 points paced an 87-78 upset at Missouri. Four nights later, he victimized Texas Tech, ending the Red Raiders’ 35-game home winning streak with a buzzer beater.
Behind their feisty point guard, the Buffaloes finished the year with a school-record 22 victories and recorded a first-round upset of Indiana in the NCAA Tournament. Though they got smoked in their next game by North Carolina, Chauncey had engineered a stunning turnaround at Colorado. Named First Team All-Big 12 and Second Team All-America, he topped the team in scoring and passing, was a terror on defense and, most important, made Boulder an acceptable destination for in-state talent.
That spring, Chauncey faced the toughest choice of his life. Considered the best point guard available in the NBA draft, he was a certain lottery pick. The argument for going pro was the multi-million dollar contract that awaited. The arguement for staying in school was the benefit of an extra year of high-level basketball experience.
After huddling with family friend Rick Callahan—and considering the star-crossed fate of Donnie Boyce (a former Buffalo whose NBA aspirations vanished after a knee injury in college)—Chauncey declared himself eligible for the draft. As expected, his name was called early. Boston picked him third overall, after Duncan and Keith Van Horn.
Chauncey thought the Celtics were a perfect fit for him, especially given coach Rick Pitino’s up-tempo style. But while the Celtic coach professed his love for his rookie, he was still smarting from missing out on Duncan. Chauncey opened the 1997-98 season on a strong note, scoring 15 points and adding four assists in his NBA debut, a 92-85 victory over the Chicago Bulls. Three months later, however, Boston shipped him out of town, trading him to Toronto for spare parts. Chauncey tried to make the best of a bad situation with the Raptors and finished his first campaign with decent numbers (11.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.9 apg and 1.34 spg) on a dreadful team.
The silver lining around this dark cloud was a trade to the Nuggets prior to the 1998-99 season. Chauncey welcomed the move to Denver for obvious reasons. He also looked forward to playing in the same backcourt as Nick Van Exel, a point guard with a similar style to his. Like the rest of his NBA brethren, Chauncey had to wait until January for the lockout to end. When the season finally started, Denver didn’t have enough in the tank to make the playoffs, though Chauncey improved his numbers to 14 points and four assists a night.
Eager for a full year in Denver, Chauncey was devastated when he dislocated his left shoulder in December of 1999. Then, after undergoing surgery that ended his season, he received more bad news—the Nuggets traded him to Orlando. Chauncey never suited up for the Magic, spending his few months with the team rehabbing his injured shoulder before they let him walk.
A free agent, Chauncey signed with Minnesota. At first, the Timberwolves weren’t sure how he best fit with the team. The franchise was still reeling from the death of Malik Sealy the previous spring, and head coach Flip Saunders felt Chauncey was a good candidate to fill the void. He began the 2000-01 season starting in the backcourt with Terrell Brandon. while rookie Wally Szczerbiak and rising star Kevin Garnett anchored a highly mobile front line.
The T-Wolves got into a good groove after the first of the year, winning 12 of 16 in January. Saunders, however, was still fiddling with the lineup and ultimately decided his squad was better with Chauncey coming off the bench. He struggled in the role. After scoring in double-digits for the campaign’s first two months, his average dipped below 10 a game. But with Minnesota playing well, Chauncey accepted his role. The Timberwolves finished at 47-35, including a franchise-record 30 victories at the Target Center. But they were no match for the Spurs in the playoffs. In their best-of-five series, San Antonio won easily in four games.
Despite the early postseason exit, Minnesota GM Kevin McHale liked his nucleus and did some fine-tuning over the summer, adding veterans Joe Smith and Gary Trent and rookie Loren Woods. The T-Wolves got off to a flying start in 2001-02, posting a 30-10 record after their first 40 games. Garnett was maturing into one of the league’s true superstars, Brandon was healthy after knee surgery and Szczerbiak appeared in his first All-Star contest.
As Chauncey went, however, so did Minnesota. When he shot well and was active on defense, the Timberwolves were a hard team to handle. When he struggled and Saunders took him off the court, they were vulnerable.
Minnesota ended the year at 50-32, but there were plenty of questions heading into the playoffs. Could Garnett raise his game? Did the team have enough depth? Could Chauncey be more consistent? The T-Wolves weren’t able to answer any of them. They were swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, and McHale began slashing at his roster. Among the cuts was Chauncey, who once again had to find a new basketball home.
MAKING HIS MARK
Chauncey did not have
a particularly long line of suitors waiting for him, but he did have an
ardent one in the Pistons. The team was coming off a strong regular season,
but a loss to the Celtics in the playoffs had dampened spirits in Detroit.
GM Joe Dumars was certain that Chauncey was exactly what the club needed:
an unorthodox point guard who was an excellent scorer and who also had
an appetite for stingy defense.
With Chauncey in the mix, coach Rick Carlisle’s Pistons were a much more dangerous team. Richard Hamilton found himself open more often on the perimeter, while Ben Wallace, always a terror on the boards, became a bigger part of the offensive flow. But both knew who to get the ball to in the fourth quarter. Six times during the 2002-03 season Chauncey sank a game-winning shot, and he led the league in baskets in the final two minutes that either tied the game or put his team ahead.
Chauncey seemed to get stronger as the year wore on. In February, he was named NBA Player of the Week after averaging more than 22 points a game and shooting better than 44% from behind the 3-point arc. For the month of March, he ranked as the league’s 11th best scorer. Chauncey finished his first campaign in Detroit at 16.2 ppg and 3.7 rpg, both career highs.
At 50-32, the Pistons drew the Magic in the postseason’s first round, and they were pushed to the brink. Orlando surprised most fans by racing to a commanding lead in the series. But Chauncey led a furious comeback as Detroit became just the seventh team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit. He was at his best in Game 6 in Orlando, pouring in 40 points in a 103-88 win.
The Pistons also took their next series, beating the Philadelphia 76ers in six. But the victory came with a price. Chauncey sprained his left ankle in Game 1 and sat out three contests in all. Without him at full health for the Eastern Conference Finals against New Jersey, Detroit stood little chance. The surging Nets registered an eye-opening four-game sweep.
Detroit’s performance against New Jersey certainly got Dumars’s attention. He reacted by canning Carlisle, and then luring Larry Brown from Philly. The veteran coach favored a more open style of offense that emphasized team play. Brown asked his troops to share the ball and move without it. Brown also talked a lot with Chauncey, making him realize that he didn’t have to hoist up shot after shot to be effective.
The Pistons didn’t immediately adjust to Brown’s system. In fact, it wasn’t until Dumars took a gamble and pulled the trigger on a deadline deal for the tempestuous Rasheed Wallace that the team really came together. Wallace immediately moved into the starting lineup, giving Brown another solid scoring option on offense and a ferocious rebounder and shot-blocker on defense. In March, the Pistons won eight in a row by at least 15 points, a streak never before accomplished in the NBA.
Game after game, Chauncey contributed whatever the team happened to need at any given moment. His heady play proved vital to the club’s success, and he became Detroit’s unquestioned floor leader. In a February game against Minnesota, Chauncey burned his former team with his second career triple-double, scoring 20 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists. He ended the year at 16.9 points, but more important, he increased his assists numbers to nearly six a night.
Despite their 51-win season, the Pistons were considered a playoff dark horse. The Nets had been to the finals twice in two years and were expected to make it again. Most figured the NBA champion would come out of the West anyway, with either the Lakers or Spurs seizing the crown.
Detroit made a statement
in the first round, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in five games. Next
they choked off the New Jersey offense in a hard-fought seven-game semifinal.
In another epic defense struggle, Chauncey & Co. beat the Indiana Pacers in
six games, allowing just 65 points in each of their last two victories.
In the franchise’s first appearance in the NBA Finals since 1990, Detroit faced off against LA. No one gave the Pistons even an outside shot of beating Kobe, Shaq and company. When the club won Game 1, the experts called it a fluke. But Detroit’s game plan had worked to perfection. Brown figured Bryant and O’Neal were going to get their points, so he had his team smother the rest of the rest of the Lakers. Chauncey pressured guards Gary Payton and Derek Fisher, while the tandem of Wallace and Wallace hit the boards with a vengeance. Though LA won Game 2 in overtime, they needed a miracle jumper from Kobe to do it.
The Pistons headed back to the Palace of Auburn Hills believing the series was theirs for the taking. They were right. Detroit swept the next three to capture the franchise’s first NBA title since the glory days of Dumars. Chauncey, who averaged 21 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.2 steals, was named the series MVP. But the Pistons were celebrated more for their overall team effort. Basketball fans lauded them for playing the game the way it was meant to be played.
Detroit opened the 2004-05 intent on a repeat performance. They had a new obstacle in the East, as Shaq was now wearing a Miami uniform. The Pistons roared through the regular season with 54 wins, with Chauncey expanding his leadership role and raising his stats to 16.5 points, 5.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game. Beyond the numbers, he was doing a lot of the little things that enabled Detroit to win in Brown’s system.
The Pistons generated their biggest headlines for an ugly brawl that erupted during a November game against the rival Pacers. The incident derailed Indiana, as Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal all were disciplined with heavy suspensions. Detroit, a decidedly more veteran club, handled the situation with much cooler heads.
The Pistons entered the playoffs as the two-seed, expecting a showdown with the Heat in the conference finals. Detroit opened the postseason against Brown’s former team, the 76ers. The Pistons won the first two at home before dropping an overtime battle in Philly. Chauncey then seized control of the series, leading the team with 48 points in the next two games to close out the 76ers.
Before Detroit squared off against Miami, the team had to outslug Indiana in the conference semis. The hype surrounding the series heightened for obvious reasons. But the Pistons hardly resorted to thuggery. After falling behind two games to one, they rallied for three victories in a row, including a pair on the road. Chauncey was at his best in Game 4, scoring 29 points and dishing out six assists. With their leader showing the way, the Pistons clamped down on the Pacers and cruised into the Eastern Conference Finals.
Miami was favored by many heading into the series, despite a less-than-healthy O'Neal. Dwyane Wade, however, was playing like a superstar, and the Heat bench was providing valuable minutes.
Once again, Detroit found itself down two games to one. Chauncey helped even the series with a 17-point, seven-assist effort in Game 4, but the Heat stunned the defending champs with an 88-76 victory two nights later. With their backs against the wall, the Pistons responded with a 25-point trouncing in Game 6, and then closed out Miami on the road in Game 7. Chauncey came up big in the finale, posting 18 points, eight assists and four boards.
The NBA Finals was a classic that went the distance. After dropping the first two games against the Spurs in San Antonio, the Pistons returned home to take the next two. Defense was the calling card for the winner in each contest. Detroit couldn't break 76 points on San Antonio's home floor, and the Spurs were equally ineffective in their losses.
Game 5 looked to be the crucial contest of the series, and Chauncey tried to do his part, pouring in 34 points. But too often he thought shot first, and the Detroit offense failed to get important buckets when they were needed most. Behind 26 points and 19 rebounds from Tim Duncan, the Spurs won 96-95 in OT and seized a commanding edge.
No team in NBA history had ever taken the last two games of a Finals series away from home, meaning the Pistons faced daunting odds entering Game 6. But with Brown imploring team basketball, Detroit controlled the action and claimed a nine-point victory with relative ease. That set up the decisive Game 7, which was a seesaw affair into the fourth quarter. The Pistons eventually ran out of gas, as San Antonio captured its third title in seven years by a score of 81-74. Chauncey was surprisingly quiet with just 13 points.
Detroit’s bid to reach the championship round for a fourth consecutive year ended in disappointment, with a conference finals loss to the Heat. Prior to that, however, it was shaping up to be a magical season. At midyear, Chauncey and his teammates had a 37–5 record—the best start ever for a Detroit sports franchise.
The Pistons finished with a franchise-best 64 victories and set a record by putting the same starting five on the floor 73 games in a row. Chauncey had the NBA’s best assist-to-turnover ratio and established new career highs with 18.5 points and 8.6 assists per game. He also made his first All-Star team, leading all reserves with 15 points in just over 15 minutes of play.
The Pistons began the 2006–07 season missing an important piece. Ben Wallace turned down a lucrative offer to play instead with the Bulls. Without his presence in the middle, Detroit was a .500 team. The fix came from an unexpected source: Chris Webber. The veteran joined the Pistons just prior to midseason, and they ended up once again with the best record in the East. Chauncey had another fine season, playing in the All-Star Game again and finishing in the Top 10 in assists for the second year in a row.
The Pistons looked ready to claim another title after rolling over the Magic and Bulls with just one loss in nine games in the first two rounds of the playoffs. They continued to impose their will on the Cavs in the conference finals—Chauncey’s fifth in a row— beating Cleveland in the first two contests of the series. But the team ran out of gas, and Cleveland swept the final four games.
After the season, Chauncy opted out of his deal with the Pistons, figuring he would be worth substantially more on the open market. He figured right. Just a few days after he became a free agent, Detroit inked Chauncey to a four-year, $46 million contract that included a team-option fifth year.
Chauncey rewarded the Pistons by leading them to a sixth straight conference finals. On the season, he averaged just under 18 points and seven assists per game. The Pistons won 59 games, the second-best total in the East behind the restocked Celtics. In the playoffs, Chauncey led Detroit to an opening-round victory over the 76ers. hewas playing well in the next round against Orlando when he strained a hamstring and finished the series on the bench. Fortunately, the Pistons held a comfortable lead at the time and were able to advance.
Chauncey was back on the floor for the conference finals against the Celtics. The Pistons had several chances to control the series, but they let them slip away. In the Game 6 finale, Detroit led by 10 points heading into the final quarter and lost 89–81.
The team fired coach Flip Saunders and began a rebuilding program. Chauncey knew he would not be long for Detroit. In early November of 2008, he was shipped back home to Denver along with Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson. Chauncey was a good fit with the Nuggets and worked particuarly well with Carmelo Anthony. The team got off to a good start and cruised to 54 wins—their highest total since joining the NBA in the 1970s.
Chauncey put up his usual strong numbers as Denver grabbed the second playoff seed in the West. The Nuggets disposed of the Hornets easily in the first round. In Game 5, the Nuggets won by 58 points. During the series, New Orleans dared Chauncey to shoot from the perimeter. He obliged with 19 three-pointers, including a team-record eight in one game.
In the next round, the Nuggets polished off the Dallas Mavericks in five games, with Chauncey leading the team in rebounds and assists in the finale. He now had Denver—where else?—in the conference finals.
The Nuggets squared off against a superior Lakers team, but they put up a gallant fight. In Game 4, Chauncey and JR Smith each netted 24 in a 120–101 blowout that tied the series. However, LA took the next two games to keep Denver out of the finals.
Denver coach George Karl continued to look to Chauncey for his scoring touch in 2009–10. He responded by establishing a new personal best of 19.5 points per game. Chauncey recorded just five games of 30 points or more, meaning he consistently scored between 15 and 25 points a night. One of those 30-point games came against the Knicks on the same night Anthony scored 50. This made the duojust the third teammates in NBA history to have a 30–50 night.
Back home, Carmelo refocused on his health and his relationship with Bzdelik. The two had their differences at times during the '03-04 season, mostly in how to execute the offense. But they shared an important quality—both hate losing.
Unfortunately, the lowlights outshone the highlights for the Nuggets. All three team captains—Chauncey, Carmelo and Kenyon Martin—missed time to injury, and Karl was diagnosed with cancer. Somehow the team scraped together 53 wins, but Denver was upended in the first round of the playoffs by the Utah Jazz.
The 2010–11 season was played in the shadow of the impending departure of Anthony, whose contract was set to expire at season’s end. Once the Nuggets were convinced they could not retain Melo’s services, they began shopping him. And with Anthony gone, there was no reason to keep Chauncey’s salary on the books—despite the fact that he wanted to stay in Denver and retire a Nugget. When Anthony was traded to the Knicks, Chauncey was part of the package.
As the new floor general of Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense, Chauncey’s job is to keep the shooters happy. Between Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, he‘s got three excellent options every time down the court. Chauncey looked good in his first four games in a New York uniform, and then was sidlined by a sore quad muscle. The team will ikely be careful with him, since a playoff spot is all but guaranteed.
Knicks fans are thrilled to have a second superstar on the floor in the person of Anthony, but it’s Chauncey’s presence that’s getting them excited about the postseason for the first time this century.
CHAUNCEY THE PLAYER
Chauncey does not fit into the mold of the classic NBA point guard, mostly because he often looks to shoot before he passes. But in today’s NBA, this is the mindset of most floor leaders. His point of divergence is his willingness and effort on the defensive end.
When Chauncey’s feeling it, he’s an excellent scorer. His range extends beyond the 3-point line, and he is dangerous from inside it, too. Chauncey has a good first step, which makes him adept at penetrating the lane. His powerful frame enables him to absorb contact and get to the foul line, a place where opponents hate to see him. Chauncey is one of the league’s top free-throw shooters.
As a leader, Chauncey has proved that not only can he handle pressure, but that he thrives under it. Indeed, when he hangs up his uniform, there will be more than a few basketball experts singing his praises for the Hall of Fame.
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