THE SMILE onChauncey Billups's face opens slowly and grows as he begins to speak: about thecatfish dinners at M&D's Fish & Barbeque Cafe, and the Sunday brunchesat A&A Fish Market & Restaurant. His lips are curving north into agrin. About catching cousin Jaidah's high school basketball game last week, andthe courtside view he had of a middle school clash between cousins Jevon andMetise a few days later. His teeth are starting to show. About the 25-minutedrive 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, towatch 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 spentsix-plus seasons with the Pistons, faded quickly. Billups is home again. Backin the state that first embraced him when he was a three-time Mr. Basketball atDenver's George Washington High, and that fell in love with him when he passedon 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 thecity that has been home to four generations of Billupses, where blood relativesnumber more than a hundred and a night on the town feels like a high schoolreunion. "Being here, it's priceless," says Billups. "It really isa dream come true."
For everyone.Since Nov. 3, when Billups was acquired from Detroit (along with forwardAntonio McDyess and center Cheik Samb) for guard Allen Iverson, the Nuggetswere a robust 15--4 at week's end with Billups in the lineup. (They were 16--7overall, the second-best mark in the Western Conference.) Further, Billups'snumbers with Denver—18.9 points and 7.0 assists—have made him a bona fideAll-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 JohnElway. The Nuggets' community relations staff has been inundated with requestsfor their point guard, and the loudest ovation during pregame introductions isreserved for the city's native son. More than 50,000 fans in Boulder gave him awelcome-back roar before the Oklahoma State--Colorado game last month. Thephone at his parents' house doesn't stop ringing with ticket requests."Chauncey bought me and his father season tickets," says Faye, "butwe really need a thousand." Faye was probably the most excited to hearabout the trade, not only because she gets to see her son for more than acouple of holidays and six weeks in the summer, but also because she gets tospend more time with his wife, Piper, a (surprise!) Denver native, and theirthree daughters: Cydney, 10; Ciara, 8; and Cenaiya, 2. "Mom's way moreexcited 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 anundisciplined run-and-gun unit that lacked leadership and any discernibledefensive presence. Enter Billups, a never-rattled floor general and a two-timesecond-team All-Defensive selection whose leadership skills were validated bythe championship ring that he won with the Pistons in 2004. Round peg, meetround hole. "What I've felt from him as much as any player I've coached inDenver is winning," says Nuggets coach George Karl. "It's winning andnothing else."
Billups hasstepped into his role as easily as he has his new uniform. He has a coach whoempowers him to run the team as he sees fit and a roster full of players whoare eager for guidance from a former Finals MVP. "He's got the ring, he'sgot championship experience," says guard Anthony Carter. "We defer tohim." During the first half of the Dec. 10 game against the MinnesotaTimberwolves at Pepsi Center, Denver was battered on the boards and fell behindby 12 points. In the quiet Nuggets locker room at halftime, only Billups'svoice was heard. He blasted his teammates for a lack of effort. He told them tohave some pride. He reminded them that they would regret losing games like thisin 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 onthe floor and you can almost see him thinking. If the situation calls for himto score, his mind recalls the lessons he learned from Nick Van Exel, ashoot-first point guard whom Billups backed up in his first tour with Denver (a58-game stint bridging the 1998--99 and 1999--2000 seasons that was abortedwhen the coaching staff couldn't figure out whether he was a point guard or atwo guard). If the moment calls for patience, Billups channels his innerTerrell Brandon, who taught Billups to play with poise during their two seasonstogether in Minnesota. "[Billups] knows how to run a team," says UtahJazz coach Jerry Sloan. "That's what good point guards do—they control andhelp other people play the game more easily."
With the Nuggetstrailing by one in the third quarter against the Timberwolves, Billups pushedthe ball up the court on a fast break. But instead of taking the ball to thebasket, he pulled up and launched a three-pointer five seconds into the shotclock. On the surface it appeared to be a bad decision. But in the few secondsthat the ball was in his hands, Billups had noticed Anthony in prime reboundingposition underneath the basket. The shot missed, but Anthony was there tocorral the rebound and put in an easy two. When he is reminded of the sequencea day later, Billups recalls it instantly. "I make that shot, we take thelead and the ceiling blows off," he says. "I miss, I know Melo puts itback and we get the same result."
WALK THROUGH theNuggets' locker room, a spacious, curved space dominated by sky-blue carpeting,and you'll find no shortage of players who have benefited from Billups'spresence. Take center Nen√™, who missed 66 games last season while recoveringfrom testicular cancer. When Denver jettisoned Marcus Camby in a cost-cuttingmove in July, Nen√™ expanded his workouts to prepare for his new role as astarter. He polished his post moves and added a 15-foot jump shot to hisarsenal. But during the preseason, he remained the fourth or fifth option inthe offense. Not with Billups in the lineup. During games, Billups makes aconscious effort to keep his big man involved, and in timeouts he encourageshis teammates to keep feeding Nen√™ in the post. "He's our most efficientplayer," says Billups. "He has to get his touches."
Next, wanderacross the room to Anthony's locker. For most of his career Anthony has had towork for his shots off isolations and post-up plays. Billups's goal: to getAnthony a handful of easy buckets every game. "I don't have to play as muchwith the basketball as I did in the past," says Anthony. "I've had alot of fun in my five years, but right now I'm having the most fun I've everhad."
Nobody, however,is having more fun than Billups, who continues to enjoy his welcome-backmoments. Before his third game with Denver, Billups did a double take while hewas in the pregame layup line when he spotted a face in the crowd that hehadn't seen since junior high. That's junior high. "Mary George," saysBillups. "And she looked exactly the same." He pauses before lettingout a long, hearty laugh. "I love it. It's great to be home."
"[Billups has] got the ring, he's got championshipexperience," says Carter. "WE DEFER TO HIM."
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Chris Mannix weighs in on the future of one of Chauncey Billups's former teams,the Timberwolves, under coach Kevin McHale.
Photograph by Greg Nelson
MUTUAL ADMIRATION Denver was 15--4 under the firm hand of Billups, who was welcomed back with Elway-like fervor.
DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
HOT HANDS Aided by the savvy of Billups, Anthony (left) was able to tie an NBA record for points in a quarter (33).