Chauncey Billups has reason to smile after guiding the Nuggets to the top of the Northwest Division.
DENVER – They pawed at him, tugged his grey shirtsleeves and hugged his thick legs, boys and girls, about 20 in all, screaming and squealing as one. Chaun-CEE! Chaun-CEE!
It's been six weeks since the Detroit Pistons sent Chauncey Billups home, and he's returned yet again to his old Park Hill neighborhood. The Hiawatha Davis Rec Center is 1,200 miles and a couple 3-pointers from the Palace of Auburn Hills. No B-B-B-Billups here. Only Chaun-CEE, the local kid made good.
On this night, Billups has helped transform the center's gym into a makeshift holiday store, purchasing $3,000 worth of toys for nearly two dozen families. The children wander between the tables, plucking away their dolls, board games and soccer balls before rushing toward their basketball Santa. Soon, Billups is waist-deep in the grade-school mob, distributing autographs and hugs.
Christmas has come early, and perhaps no one knows this more than Billups' current employers. On Nov. 3, Pistons GM Joe Dumars delivered the Denver Nuggets the present of their dreams, express-shipping them a heady, veteran point guard in return for Allen Iverson. All that was missing was the gift wrap and a bow atop Billups' head.
The Nuggets needed someone to stabilize them, someone to lead, and Billups has done all that. Denver has gone 16-6 since his arrival, giving the team its best start in franchise history, along with a perch above the Northwest Division. No longer do these Nuggets appear to be all talent and showmanship. Just maybe, Billups has given them the grit to end their run of one-and-done playoff failure.
"I think Chauncey's the best thing to happen to Denver so far," said Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony. He didn't say whether he meant the team or the city.
The tattoo on Billups' left shoulder says enough: "King of the Hill," a title bestowed upon him by his neighborhood. Bracketed by Colorado, East Colfax, East 52nd and Quebec streets, Park Hill is in northeast Denver; its demographics running south to north, black to white, high income to low. Billups grew up here, as did the families of each of his parents, Ray and Faye, their kin stretching a mile in each direction from the Hiawatha Davis Rec Center.
To this day, Billups calls the rec center "my everything." He spent much of his childhood there, playing basketball, dominoes, cards, pool. Anything and everything. The gym has since been rebuilt – a hotbox before, it now has six baskets, two levels and a running track overhead – but the center's old coaches and staff members still keep the graying box scores showing Billups' 0-for-7 afternoons.
"We used to call him 'Bricklayer,'" said Harry Hollines, the center's former director, jokingly.
Even then, Billups showed an unusual ability to relate to adults and accept coaching. Whereas most boys started launching shots the moment their shoes touched the court, Billups stuck to the fundamentals, sliding his feet, jab-stepping, zipping a sharp bounce pass. Mike Brown, the Cleveland Cavaliers coach who began his career as a video coordinator and scout for the Nuggets, once worked a youth camp that Billups attended.
"I thought he was a man back then," Brown said. "His presence was just something that you wanted to follow."
Billups went on to star at George Washington High School, and when the ACC and Big East came calling, he said no thanks. The University of Colorado in nearby Boulder was just fine. Home was still home.
Billups helps distributes toys he purchased for 20 families at his holiday event in Park Hill.
No matter where Billups' career took him, from Boston to Toronto to Denver to Minnesota to Detroit, he always returned to Park Hill in the summer. He and his younger brother, Rodney, who starred at the University of Denver, hold a free basketball camp for 300 children each year. Billups' foundation has a scholarship program at local Regis University, and each summer he sponsors a team – and plays – in the pro-am league at the rec center. On some days, he just stops by to shoot pool or play dominoes.
"You'd think he'd just walked in off the street corner," said Tony Wells, the center's longtime track coach.
That sense of community further endeared Billups to the neighborhood. Park Hill has produced plenty of talent. Former New Jersey Nets All-Star Michael Ray Richardson. Billups' cousin, current Tennessee Titans running back LenDale White. But no one's shadow has stretched farther than that of Billups. "He'll be royalty forever," White once said.
Billups had told friends and family in recent years that he was interested in someday joining the Nuggets' front office. His chances of playing for them, he figured, were done. He was happy in Detroit. He'd signed a five-year, $60 million contract ($46 million of which was guaranteed) in the summer of 2007 that figured to take him to the end of his playing days. Dumars had promised a shakeup in the wake of the Pistons' loss to the Boston Celtics in the East finals, but it was hard to argue with the team's success. The Pistons had made six straight trips to the conference finals and won the NBA championship in 2004 with Billups as the Finals MVP. These were not the Minnesota Timberwolves.
On the evening before the trade, Billups called his dad and spoke favorably about the potential of the Pistons' younger players. It wasn't until later that night that he got a strong sense a trade was in the works.
"The first thing you have to deal with when someone tells you you're being traded is just that," Billups said. "You're being traded."
Billups now says he would have "probably not" re-signed with Detroit if he thought there was a chance of him being moved. But while he clearly wasn't happy about the way his stay with the Pistons ended, he couldn't argue with where they sent him.
"I guess he was a little bit sore at first," said Cleveland center Ben Wallace, a longtime teammate of Billups in Detroit. "But if you're gonna get traded, wouldn't you like to go home?"
For Billups' family and the Park Hill community, there was no bitter with the sweet. They were happy only to have him back. "The ceiling was too low as high as I jumped," said Billups' brother, Rodney. "I had to change my number because we were getting so many calls."
Billups jokes that his mother is more excited to have her three granddaughters back than she is her eldest son. He makes two, three, sometimes four trips to his parents' house each week. Unlike in Detroit, where his star status made it difficult to go out in public, Billups can take his family to eat in relative peace.
"Since he's come back, it's been all positive," Billups' father, Ray, said. "All positive."
That wasn't the case the first time Billups was traded to Denver, after the Nuggets acquired him from Toronto in a three-team deal midway through the 1998-99 season. He had yet to establish himself in the league, and teams weren't sure whether he was better equipped to play the point or off-guard. He also wasn't quite ready for the role of hometown hero.
"I was 22 years old, just came into a lot of money and being in the NBA," he said. "It was just kind of overwhelming for everybody to want a little bit of your time."
After missing most of the next season with injuries, Billups was sent on his way. The Nuggets tried to bring him back when he became a free agent in 2007, but they didn't have the salary-cap room to make an offer that approached the deal he received from Detroit.
"When he left here early in his career, I never thought he'd come back," Rodney said. "Wishes do come true."
Billups wasn't quite sure how the Nuggets would accept him after the trade. Iverson had been popular among his teammates, and Anthony and Kenyon Martin both sounded disappointed about his departure. But Billups did know this much: He could help the Nuggets if they let him. They lacked self-discipline, and he could give them that.
"I knew I would be able to change that fast because I would be the one with the ball in my hands," he said. "All that run-and-gun, fast shots, crazy shots, I would be able to affect that because you can't do it if you don't have the ball."
Carmelo Anthony has benefited from having a true point guard like Billups at his side.
Nuggets coach George Karl had already spent much of training camp trying to give the team more of a defensive mindset, no small challenge considering Anthony and Iverson were liabilities on that end of the floor and shot-blocking center Marcus Camby had been traded to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Nuggets played fast and loose, they were fun to watch and they won 50 games last season. But they still got swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
"After failing to even scare L.A., I said if we're going to be a Western Conference playoff team and be successful, we're going to have to change," Karl said. "In a very unique way, everything we wanted to change, Chauncey believed in and was."
The Nuggets needed to share the ball. Billups is unselfish. The Nuggets needed to improve their defense. Billups is a rugged and willing defender. The Nuggets needed someone to lead. Above all else, Billups does that.
Billups isn't a screamer like Kevin Garnett. He guides and counsels, pointing his teammates in the right direction, talking to them between free throws. Already, he has done the unthinkable, giving Anthony a conscience. Two days after the Nuggets' recent loss to the Houston Rockets, Billups stayed long after practice, forever chatting with Karl on how they can work together to move the team forward.
Said Anthony: "Maybe we needed that guy on the court to say, 'I know George is the coach, but, no disrespect, I'm running the show now. I'm the general on the court.' "
The Pistons, meanwhile, have only recently begun to gain some traction since Billups left, splitting their past 12 games. Iverson has been fined twice: first by the team for skipping practice; then by the league, which docked him $25,000 for comments he made to a fan in Charlotte.
Billups still frequently talks with Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton and Antonio McDyess. Asked if his former teammates say they miss him, a big grin starts to stretch across his face. "Definitely," he said.
The Nuggets still have work to do to distinguish themselves as legitimate contenders for the West finals, evidenced by their lopsided loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday. The attention to detail isn't there every night. J.R. Smith, their mercurial young guard, remains flighty. "We don't have a commitment to get better by every player," Karl said.
Still, the culture has changed around these Nuggets, and a lot of that credit goes to Billups. Iverson didn't lack for fans here, but Billups is one of them. Just the other night, Karl went to a local sandwich shop and was stopped by an elderly man who said he used to run the clock for Billups' high school. He told Karl how much his wife loved Billups, how much everybody loved him.
"There's obviously a spirit to his years here in Denver and at the University of Colorado," Karl said. "It's there. It's not flaunted. It's not exuberant. But the kid must have been pretty damn good."
No one needs to tell the people of Park Hill that. The King is back. For Chauncey Billups' old neighborhood, for these Nuggets, Christmas came early.