Farewell to a Champion

Occasionally an athlete comes along who makes you change your mind about athletes in general. Sometimes it’s level of play, sometimes it’s being an upstanding citizen off the field or court.

And sometimes, if you’re really, really lucky, it’s both.

Chauncey Billups is both. The King of Park Hill, who would routinely destroy me in the parks between our houses in large pickup games on afternoons during the summer, who was just as likely to break your ankles with a nasty crossover dribble as he was to help what was left of you off the asphalt. Even then, as a 15 year old, we all knew that Chauncey was headed for great things in this world.

When you’re that good at that age, there’s really no doubt where you’re going, what you’re destined for. And Chauncey was destined for great things.

Of course, it almost didn’t end up that way.

Chauncey Billups, from the non-existent basketball hotbed known as Denver, had beginnings as humble as his heart. His father worked overnights at the Safeway processing plant off I-70 for years to give his sons (Chauncey and his brother Rodney) a chance to attend college. Chauncey, of course, spurned basketball factories like North Carolina and Michigan State for a chance to stay close to home and play for the Golden Buffaloes in Boulder.

In life, just like on the court, Chauncey did things his way. And his way was always the best.

He went pro after his sophomore year at CU, and was drafted fourth overall by the Boston Celtics and new head coach Rick Pitino. Pitino famously gave up on Billups early, after only 45 games or so, before sending him packing and sending him on a soul-searching trip of the NBA’s cities. He was traded to Toronto in 1998. Then Denver. Then was traded to (but never played for) Orlando. Minnesota picked him up to back up starter Terrell Brandon, and when Brandon was injured, Chauncey finally had a breakout NBA season.

He went to Detroit and helped turn their fortunes around, earning the nickname Mr. Big Shot for clutch moments in big games, and of course won the Finals MVP award when the Pistons defeated the Lakers in 5 games. He averaged 21 points and  assists in those Finals and was a dominant force in a series dominated by dominant names like Shaquille and Kobe.

He’d wandered through the wilderness. He’d finally arrived.

He made another Finals appearance, losing this time in a clutch-and-grab, defensive struggle series to the dominant team of the decade, the San Antonio Spurs. The Detroit ride was over.

Given the opportunity to come home to Denver — again — in the Allen Iverson trade, he did so and immediately made his presence known, influencing young Carmelo Anthony and taking an overmatched Nuggets squad to within two wins of the Finals.

When John Elway is announcing you as “the True #7” at a home playoff game, you have arrived.

It would be wonderful if the story ended there, but sadly it does not.

Anthony wanted a trade to the Knicks. The only way to make the deal work (and get something in return for a certified NBA Superstar) was to include Billups in the package to New York. The returning hero had vanished once again, this time for good.

He played out the string in MSG, but wasn’t the same leader he had been in his two previous spots. The Knicks let him go. The Clippers picked him up. In Lob City with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, he shined once more. In his return to Denver, he blew the roof off the Pepsi Center, scoring 30 and hitting seemingly every shot he took.

Days later, he ruptured his Achilles tendon on the court in Orlando. “He (Billups) means everything to us,” said Paul. “He’s the best guard I’ve ever played with. He did so much for us, both on the court and off. He brought something to this team that you can’t even measure.” That’s the most accurate analysis of Chauncey Billups that I’ve ever read. He brings the unmeasurable. The intangible. And he brings his big shots, too.

Pain written on his face, he says his career is not over. And it may not be. But if it is — and that’s unfortunately a very real possibility — I’m honored to have known, played with and watched one of the great athletes of Denver’s history.

So long, Chauncey. See you out there.

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