There are players such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Blake Griffin, whose careers throw off smoke and sparks and noise like drag racers, right from the starting line.
Then there’s Chauncey Billups, who simply hummed as quiet and cool as an air conditioner.
For 17 seasons and seven different NBA teams, Billups was the proverbial duck who might have been paddling furious beneath the surface, but never gave the appearance of doing anything but gliding across the water.
He moved fast by taking it slow and he always seemed to be taking it slow, even when pushing the ball down the court in the middle of a fast break. He was the strong man who never felt a need to flex his muscles until the game got late and there was heavy lifting to do. He played with a warm smile on his face that could chill a defender. He was often the shortest one on the floor, yet the player who stood tallest when it was needed most.
Mr. Big Shot.
The standard line about the 2004 Pistons is that they were the last team to win an NBA championship without a superstar.
But that’s if you measure a star only by its brightness, as one that grabs headlines along the way to the more critical task, which is grabbing games by the throat.
Billups, Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace did work in concert, a symphony orchestra in high tops and shorts. But it was Billups who stood on the rostrum with the baton in his hand, making sure everyone hit the right notes.
“He’s at the head of the table and he determines how people eat,” none other than Kevin Garnett once said when they were teammates in Minnesota.
That’s the way Billups had always been since his days as a teenager at Denver’s Skyland Rec Center, when he was often the youngest player on the court. He not only found a way to fit in, but developed a way to earn the respect and the trust of the older kids.
Funny thing is, it took a while to gain that same respect in the NBA. After a standout college career at Colorado, he was the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft by the Celtics. But the franchise that prides itself on recognizing smarts didn’t keep around. Neither did the Raptors, Nuggets, Magic or Timberwolves.
So Billups finally wound up in Detroit in 2002 with a resume list of ex-teams that was longer than his arm, but not even a trace of doubt.
“My demeanor, how I am, it never swayed,” he said back then. “A lot of guys in this league when they’re not playing a lot of minutes, they get a chip on their shoulder, they’re mad at everybody. I’ve never been that way.”
Billups came to the Pistons at a time when then-president Joe Dumars was constructing a team in the “three-peat” era of the Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant off-court bickering, where he wanted talent to work together like five fingers inside a glove doubled up into a fist, where effort took a backseat to ego.
The point guard with the butler’s name and the sniper’s nerveless confidence was the perfect choice to pull it all together and be the driving force. Billups was the steady hand on the reins of disparate personalities that knew how and when to take clutch situations in the biggest of games into his own grasp. Thus, the nickname, Mr. Big Shot. The player who could miss his first 10 shots of the night and then coolly put No. 11 into the bottom of the net with a game or a playoff series on the line.
You could picture him in a tuxedo ordering a vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.
Billups, Chauncey Billups, was always the player who could lock and bar the door, the one that took the guessing and drama out of that final minute. Send him to the line and he’d drill those six straight free throws to seal a win. Leave him an opening and he’d stop up and drain that long 3-pointer without thinking twice.
“Who else would you want with the ball in his hands at that point than Chauncey?” Dumars asked.
He was a five-time All-Star from 2006-2010, was MVP of The Finals when the Pistons took down the mighty Lakers in 2004, a two-time All-Defensive second team member and, notably, in 2013 was named NBA Teammate of the Year by a vote of his peers. The only question left is whether Hall of Famer voters five years from now were really paying attention.
Let the others throw off loud sparks. For 17 seasons Billups just hummed. Perspiring, but never letting you see him sweat.