New team. Same dude.

A lot of things were different in June of ’06. SLAM didn’t have an MVP vote, the Detroit Pistons were contenders and the economy was flourishing. Yep, a lot has changed. But, by the same token, a lot hasn’t. One unchanged, unaltered and unwavering truth is point guard Chauncey Billups. As he was then, Billups is still one of the clutchest guards playin’—and he’s still one of the most overlooked. SLAM 98 discussed it, and it’s time to rehash it now.—Tzvi Twersky

by Khalid Salaam

It’s embarrassing how much dick-riding goes on in sports journalism these days. It’s almost like nobody can do or say anything disparate from the status quo—just like it seems nobody has noticed that the best point guard in the League probably doesn’t reside in New Jersey or Phoenix. Maybe they’re just waiting for someone to nudge them. OK, fine—here’s how you test them: If you had to put your hard-earned money on it, who would you pick? And if you’re answer isn’t Chauncey Billups, then I have this theory on the Earth being round that I’d like to talk to you about.

Assuming you picked up the Chauncey cover, flip back to it now. See that cover line? The idea belongs to Jones, but I’m co-signing something ridiculous. At press time, the Pistons are the best of the best. We here at SLAM aren’t allowed to vote on the MVP (you know why), but we’re as emotionally invested as anyone else.

Playing the point is the most difficult position in the game, because you not only have to be aware of what everyone on your team is doing, but also what everyone on the other team is doing. Got to know when to push, when to fall back, when to pass and where to pass. The Pistons used to be known solely as a defensive team, but now they can hit that century mark if need be. And they do it in an efficient and annoyingly judicious way. CB directs the orchestra as the NBA version of Jack Shephard, leading his crew of castaways to the top of the League.

“Chauncey is our leader,” Ben Wallace simplifies. “He goes out and makes sure they’re in the place that they’re supposed to be and makes sure everybody gets the ball where they need to get it. Anytime there’s a tough situation, we lean on him to pull us out. He makes my job easier, he makes everybody’s job easier.”

Billups’ rise to the top is as unlikely a story as you’ll hear. Remember, he was the No. 3 pick in ’97, so it’s not like he fell from the sky. But for whatever reason, things didn’t materialize as expected, and by now it’s like a mythical tale, chronicling his trips to Boston, Toronto, Denver, Orlando and Minnesota before finding his spot in Detroit. For years, he was halfway to Yakima; now he’s halfway to Springfield.

“I never lost hope, never questioned what I am today, but there were definitely moments that humbled me and told me maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was,” Chauncey shares. “My lowest moment was probably when I got traded from Denver to Orlando. I got hurt probably 10, 12 games into the season and was out for the year with my shoulder. I couldn’t help either team. I was just rehabbing, and it was my free agent year. I was like, Man, it ain’t looking good.”

It takes resilience to survive the difficult times. It also takes the support of the people who really care about you. Not the sneaker companies or the sportswriters or even your coaches. You neMVPed to refocus, so Chauncey took it back to the source.

“My moms, pops and my wife, they were helping me get through it,” he says. “They told me to keep working, just keep trying to stay in the race. My grandpops, he’s passed now, but he used to always tell me stay in the race, man. ‘You’ve worked too hard, you’ll be all right,’ and I’ve always believed that.”

You know what came next. Joe Dumars showed him love, and Chauncey eventually showed him a Finals MVP award. But now CB wants that other Most Valuable trophy. We all know this award isn’t necessarily for the person who is actually most “valuable” to his team, nor is it designated for the best player in the L. It’s kind of both of those, combined with some recognition for said team’s impact. Let’s focus on who’s out there. Steve Nash is at it again, which is especially impressive considering the upheaval and injuries the Suns have faced. Still, Nash often struggles mightily on the defensive end. Chauncey made second-team All-Defense last season, and this year has arguably been even better. Then there’s Kobe, whose team was still sputtering around .500 at press time in spite of his great numbers. The Lakers really have to get higher than a No. 8 seed to make it legit. Meanwhile, the Pistons rolled through the first couple of months of the season with ease. Tim Duncan has been subpar this year by his own sky-high standards, and while you have to put Dirk up there after Dallas’ great start, there are still questions about his ability in crunch time. Billups thrives when it matters most. So who else is there?

“I think we got the best team in the League, and I’m the catalyst,” Chauncey says. “I make that 600 Benz go, I really do. And I’m not a self-promoter or nothing, but it is what it is. I think Steve Nash changed the face of that award as far as who can get it or who can’t get it. I think Nash is having just as good a year this year as he was having last year, and there are some other guys as well, so I’m not the only one, but I think I am deserving. If Nash won it last year for what he did, then I can win it this year for what I’m doing.”

There it is, for everyone to see. He’s not going to sell himself to us—the media that is—so leave it to us to mention that as of early March he was averaging 19 points and 8.8 assists per, both career highs. Of course he wants to win it, it’s the most prestigious award in the game. But he’s not going to beg for it, figuring he’s done enough to warrant the respect, the acknowledgement. It’s like those Ebay commercials where they talk about it; he has that quality that cannot be easily explained. It’s that combination of tangibles and intangibles that makes great players truly awe-inspiring.

“Chauncey is a great guard, but more than that, he’s a great leader,” Tony Parker says. “I have to play my best against him because I know he will be playing his. He’s a very smart player and he’s very physically strong. It’s obvious that he’s a very good player.”

Tony should know. They went toe to toe in seven grueling games last June, and unless Shaq starts playing like he’s six years younger, Dirk discovers his inner bad-ass or Amare proves he’s actually Steve Austin, it seems Pistons-Spurs II is inevitable. That this Pistons team is on auto-pilot is a testament to Billups’ steadying influence. Sun up, sun down, there are few players who play with his level of
intelligence and confidence. And that’s not even counting the “Mr. Big Shot” stuff.

“That is a great name, and it carries a lot of pressure, you dig?” acknowledges the man who carries more AKAs—“Smooth” and “C-Billz” most notably—than E-40. “I was just in a lot of late-game situations when I came to Detroit, and for the first time I was called upon to make shots. I’ve been a clutch player all my life, I just didn’t get the opportunity until I got to Detroit. But finally I did and it worked out. Now when I’m in those situations I relish them. I want people to look for me
to make shots.”

There are some things you really can’t teach. There’s no TV script to follow; Billups doesn’t have to be the hero, yet there he is, victorious, more times than you can count over the last couple of seasons. Up at the postgame podium, chillin’, cool as the first handshake you gave to your new stepdad. “There’s nothing going on in my mind really,” CB explains. “I play those last five minutes like I play the first five. I don’t put any extra pressure on it. Sometimes people put too much pressure on it and they’re thinking they gotta do this and gotta do that. I play with a sense of calmness, I’m always on an even keel, never too high up or too down. I’m the same, and that’s why I think I’ve been successful in a lot of those situations.”

Fittingly, in Motown, Chauncey Billups is the People’s Champion. The whole team is, really, but Chauncey gets much of the fan support. In fact, readers of the Detroit Free Press voted him Michigan’s top sports figure for 2005. When he answers questions about the rabid fans who fill The Palace every night, all the jock-speak goes away.

“I’m tellinAll-Star '06g you, it’s unreal,” he says. “You almost get to the point where you feel like you owe them a great performance every time. They are just so passionate; they love the game so much and they love us as a team so much, we feel like we can’t let them down.”

His fan base is increasing now, as his first All-Star berth can attest, but getting his due from the fans or national media is not the priority. Atoning for last year’s season-ending disappointment is what it’s all about. “Losing Game 7 on the road…that was probably the biggest difference. I used to relive that game before the season when we used to talk about, ‘What if Game 7 was at the Palace?’ And that’s been my only motivation, to be honest. Not Larry Brown leaving, not Flip coming in, none of that even matters. Winning another championship is the only thing.”

Now, it’s only another month or so until we know for sure, until the fireworks start for real. Of course, you never know how things might turn out. Somebody could get hurt. Nothing is guaranteed. But again I ask, if you had money involved…

“I can do everything,” CB says. “I know the game, I know different things people don’t pay attention to. There are a couple of guys who can score better than me, who can pass better than me, do this better than me. But all around, I don’t think there is anybody who can do all the stuff I can do.”