Chauncey Billups’ return home was everything he hoped — and maybe one veteran move more.
When he was introduced as a member of the visiting Los Angeles Clippers’ starting lineup Sunday night, the full house at the Pepsi Center gave him a standing ovation. Even Tim Tebow showed up to watch, sitting courtside.
(During a timeout, Rocky, the Nuggets’ mascot, got Tebow to sign a football. Then he punted it into the stands. Rocky, not Tebow. Let’s just say Britton Colquitt has nothing to worry about.)
Billups is no longer bitter about the trade that uprooted him from his family and home town 11 months ago, but he did have a little something to say about it, pouring in a game-high 32 points, flushing six of 12 three-pointers and drawing a foul in the final 18 seconds that would have been funny if it hadn’t been so damaging to the Nuggets.
The result — a victory for his new team over his old one and happy goodbyes to the 30 family and friends he estimated were on hand.
“Everybody knows how I feel about Denver and these fans and the people here,” he said in the visitors’ locker room afterward. “It feels good to get that reciprocated and know that they feel the same way about you.”
Billups has come to terms with once again being a pawn in the NBA’s byzantine player movement rules, but he wasn’t so sanguine when he got thrown into the Nuggets’ Melodrama and shipped to New York with Carmelo Anthony even though, unlike Melo, he had no interest in leaving.
“I was just frustrated having to be caught up in that,” he said. “It really wasn’t my fight, although I had to go down. So that was frustrating, knowing that it’s going to be what it’s going to be but not because of anything I did. I’ve accomplished a lot in my career and I’ve done a lot. Being thrown into deals is for some people that haven’t accomplished what I’ve accomplished. So that was the frustration that I had from it, but it is what it is.”
I asked if it occurred to him it was the second time his hometown team threw him into a trade for salary cap purposes, a previous Nuggets regime having thrown him into the Ron Mercer trade to Orlando 12 years ago.
“Did it occur to me?” he asked incredulously. “Of course, man! Of course. It sucks, you know what I’m saying? But it’s kind of how this business goes. But everybody’s all good now. The Nuggets are good, I’m good. Everything happens how it’s supposed to.”
That wasn’t the last indignity of 2011. When the lockout ended, the Knicks released Billups under an amnesty provision that allowed them to wipe his $14 million salary off their payroll, leaving enough room under the salary cap to acquire center Tyson Chandler.
In a particularly demeaning feature of the amnesty provision, teams putting in waiver claims had to bid the salary they were willing to pay — that is, the part of the guaranteed $14 million they would take off the Knicks’ hands. The Clippers won the auction with a bid reportedly just over $2 million.
Billups lobbied publicly for teams not to claim him so he could become a free agent and choose a destination himself.
“If I get claimed by a team I don’t want to play for, I would absolutely consider retirement,” he told ESPN in early December. “The game’s been really good to me and I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me. I’ve made a lot of money and I’ve saved most of it. I don’t need the money now. I want to be able to play for something, a championship, and I want to be able to have my own destiny in my hands. If I don’t, then retiring might be a decision I make.”
Undaunted, the Clippers claimed him off waivers. Their second-year coach, Vinny Del Negro, went about trying to sell Billups on joining an improving young team that had last season’s rookie of the year, Blake Griffin, and was in the process of trading for four-time all-star Chris Paul.
“I talked to Chauncey a lot about it,” Del Negro said. “I just told him how I work and how we do things and the outside perception of the organization is not the actual thing that goes on inside our practice facility and inside our organization. I told him, ‘Once you get a feel for it, I think you’ll respect that.’
“I just told him honestly what I thought he could bring and I think it just took him a little bit of time to kind of realize that those weren’t just words, it was actually the fact. He’s such a pro and he knows how valuable he is to our team. After he got acclimated to everything going on, I think he’s in a good place now and we need him to play well and he knows that. And he’s going to be a big part of our continued growth and hopefully our success this year.”
He certainly was Sunday.
“I think we saw Chauncey do a similar thing to Detroit when we went back to Detroit,” Nuggets coach George Karl said afterward, referring to Billups’ way of reminding former employers that he remembers their letting him go. “When he gets in that zone . . . .”
So the conversations with Del Negro helped change Billups’ mind about retirement.
“He empathized with me a little bit and felt bad about the position that I was in because guys like myself don’t deserve to be in those positions,” Billups said. “He just told me how it really was. Like, how he coaches, what’s expected, what it’s going to be, how he thinks myself and Chris can play together and be effective. And it’s been good.”
At 35, Billups is no longer thinking about retirement. He’s back to wanting to play as long as he’s able to have nights like Sunday, his 42nd career game of 30 or more points.
“I feel like I’ve got some good years left in me,” he said. “As long as I can stay healthy and can be effective out there, I’ll keep going, man. I’ll keep going.”
With 18 seconds left in Sunday night’s game and the Clippers clinging to a two-point lead, the Nuggets fed the ball to Nene near the paint. Because of a defensive switch, the 6-foot-3-inch Billups found himself guarding the 6-11 Brazilian power forward. He tried to front Nene to prevent him from getting the ball. There was a little contact. Billups went flying, as if he’d been shot. A referee dutifully called Nene for an offensive foul. Karl went ballistic.
“We knew we was switching and I figured at some point I’d probably be on him,” Billups explained. “They wanted to exploit the mismatch, which they went to, Nene versus me. I was just kind of fronting him and as soon as he grabbed me and pushed me, I’m gone.”
“He must have hit you really hard,” I said.
“Yeah,” Billups said, not quite able to suppress a smile. “I mean, my back is hurting, everything. I need a chiropractor, man.”
The Clippers are Billups’ eighth NBA team if you count the Nuggets only once but also count the Magic, for which he never played a game. Thursday, when the Clippers and Nuggets play a rematch in L.A., will be his 1,000th career game. He and the Nuggets’ Andre Miller, who will hit the milestone in the same game assuming both play the intervening games this week, will become the 107th and 108th players in NBA history to do so.
“It’s crazy,” Billups said. “When I was growing up, I just wished that I played one NBA game and had that jersey and take a picture of it so I could just tell people I played in the NBA. That’s the blessing that I’ve had. One thousand. Hopefully, I make it there. One thousand. Unbelievable. It’s humbling, man.”
Both times they traded him, the Nuggets had their reasons. Mostly financial, both times. But whenever people start railing about the lack of loyalty in the modern pro athlete, think about Chauncey Billups. Denver has not produced a better basketball player. He wanted to be here. The hometown team sent him away not once, but twice. It was just business.
The Clippers are now 11-6, in first place in the NBA’s Pacific Division. The king of Park Hill may get the last laugh yet.