This is an advance copy of an article from the December 22, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Energized by being reunited with family and friends, Denver native Chauncey Billups has guided the previously directionless Nuggets to the brink of first place in the West By Chris Mannix
The smile on Chauncey Billups's face opens slowly and grows as he begins to speak: about the catfish dinners at M&D's Fish & Barbeque Cafe, and the Sunday brunches at A&A Fish Market & Restaurant. His lips are curving north into a grin. About catching cousin Jaidah's high school basketball game last week, and the courtside view he had of a middle school clash between cousins Jevon and Metise a few days later. His teeth are starting to show. About the 25-minute drive from his South Denver residence to the home of his parents, Ray and Faye, a trip that he makes nearly every afternoon when the Nuggets are in town, to watch TiVo'd episodes of Desperate Housewives and The First 48 with his mother. He's practically giggling now.
Is Billups happy? Try ecstatic. The sting of being traded from Detroit, where he had spent six-plus seasons with the Pistons, faded quickly. Billups is home again. Back in the state that first embraced him when he was a three-time Mr. Basketball at Denver's George Washington High, and that fell in love with him when he passed on scholarship offers from Big East and ACC schools to sign with Colorado, which he led to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 28 years. Back in the city that has been home to four generations of Billupses, where blood relatives number more than a hundred and a night on the town feels like a high school reunion. "Being here, it's priceless," says Billups. "It really is a dream come true."
For everyone. Since Nov. 3, when Billups was acquired from Detroit (along with forward Antonio McDyess and center Cheik Samb) for guard Allen Iverson, the Nuggets were a robust 15–4 at week's end with Billups in the lineup. (They were 16–7 overall, the second-best mark in the Western Conference.) Further, Billups's numbers with Denver—18.9 points and 7.0 assists—have made him a bona fide All-Star candidate in a conference loaded with elite point guards (see: Paul, Williams, Kidd, Nash, Davis).
As a result, Billups has been greeted with the same enthusiasm shown to Broncos hero John Elway. The Nuggets' community relations staff has been inundated with requests for their point guard, and the loudest ovation during pregame introductions is reserved for the city's native son. More than 50,000 fans in Boulder gave him a welcome-back roar before the Oklahoma State–Colorado game last month. The phone at his parents' house doesn't stop ringing with ticket requests. "Chauncey bought me and his father season tickets," says Faye, "but we really need a thousand." Faye was probably the most excited to hear about the trade, not only because she gets to see her son for more than a couple of holidays and six weeks in the summer, but also because she gets to spend more time with his wife, Piper, a (surprise!) Denver native, and their three daughters: Cydney, 10; Ciara, 8; and Cenaiya, 2. "Mom's way more excited about the grandkids," says Billups. Faye agrees and laughs: "He's right!"
And the Nuggets? They're thrilled too. Going into the season Denver was viewed as an undisciplined run-and-gun unit that lacked leadership and any discernible defensive presence. Enter Billups, a never-rattled floor general and a two-time second-team All-Defensive selection whose leadership skills were validated by the championship ring that he won with the Pistons in 2004. Round peg, meet round hole. "What I've felt from him as much as any player I've coached in Denver is winning," says Nuggets coach George Karl. "It's winning and nothing else."
Billups has stepped into his role as easily as he has his new uniform. He has a coach who empowers him to run the team as he sees fit and a roster full of players who are eager for guidance from a former Finals MVP. "He's got the ring, he's got championship experience," says guard Anthony Carter. "We defer to him." During the first half of the Dec. 10 game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Pepsi Center, Denver was battered on the boards and fell behind by 12 points. In the quiet Nuggets locker room at halftime, only Billups's voice was heard. He blasted his teammates for a lack of effort. He told them to have some pride. He reminded them that they would regret losing games like this in April when they were fighting for playoff position. Those words resonated. In the second half Denver hustled to a nine-rebound edge over the T-Wolves and, keyed by forward Carmelo Anthony's NBA-record-tying 33 third-quarter points, escaped with a 116–105 victory.
Watch Billups on the floor and you can almost see him thinking. If the situation calls for him to score, his mind recalls the lessons he learned from Nick Van Exel, a shoot-first point guard whom Billups backed up in his first tour with Denver (a 58-game stint bridging the 1998–99 and 1999–2000 seasons that was aborted when the coaching staff couldn't figure out whether he was a point guard or a two guard). If the moment calls for patience, Billups channels his inner Terrell Brandon, who taught Billups to play with poise during their two seasons together in Minnesota. "[Billups] knows how to run a team," says Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. "That's what good point guards do—they control and help other people play the game more easily."
With the Nuggets trailing by one in the third quarter against the Timberwolves, Billups pushed the ball up the court on a fast break. But instead of taking the ball to the basket, he pulled up and launched a three-pointer five seconds into the shot clock. On the surface it appeared to be a bad decision. But in the few seconds that the ball was in his hands, Billups had noticed Anthony in prime rebounding position underneath the basket. The shot missed, but Anthony was there to corral the rebound and put in an easy two. When he is reminded of the sequence a day later, Billups recalls it instantly. "I make that shot, we take the lead and the ceiling blows off," he says. "I miss, I know Melo puts it back and we get the same result."
Walk through the Nuggets' locker room, a spacious, curved space dominated by sky-blue carpeting, and you'll find no shortage of players who have benefited from Billups's presence. Take center Nenê, who missed 66 games last season while recovering from testicular cancer. When Denver jettisoned Marcus Camby in a cost-cutting move in July, Nenê expanded his workouts to prepare for his new role as a starter. He polished his post moves and added a 15‑foot jump shot to his arsenal. But during the preseason, he remained the fourth or fifth option in the offense. Not with Billups in the lineup. During games, Billups makes a conscious effort to keep his big man involved, and in timeouts he encourages his teammates to keep feeding Nenê in the post. "He's our most efficient player," says Billups. "He has to get his touches."
Next, wander across the room to Anthony's locker. For most of his career Anthony has had to work for his shots off isolations and post-up plays. Billups's goal: to get Anthony a handful of easy buckets every game. "I don't have to play as much with the basketball as I did in the past," says Anthony. "I've had a lot of fun in my five years, but right now I'm having the most fun I've ever had."
Nobody, however, is having more fun than Billups, who continues to enjoy his welcome-back moments. Before his third game with Denver, Billups did a double take while he was in the pregame layup line when he spotted a face in the crowd that he hadn't seen since junior high. That's junior high. "Mary George," says Billups. "And she looked exactly the same." He pauses before letting out a long, hearty laugh. "I love it. It's great to be home."