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ISTANBUL – Looking back, Chauncey Billups(notes) thinks about his immaturity, the seasons lost to foolishness, and it makes sense he’s here. He thinks of the loneliness, a lost soul drifting until Terrell Brandon reached down and lifted him with wisdom and guidance. Yes, he’s making up for lost time now, a thirtysomething determined to thrust himself into every championship circumstance left in his basketball career.
Mostly, he loves the mentoring. He talks to these Team USA kids in the buses, the hotels, moments of truth on the basketball court. He doesn’t lecture. This is a burden of responsibility that he goes out of his way to take upon himself.
“I never had this when I came into the league,” Billups said. “By instinct now, this is what I do.”
Practice was over at the Besiktas Turka Arena on Wednesday, and Billups was still the final player on the floor. He was getting some more shots up and making sure all those young players were watching him work. He turns 34 this month, and these national team summers perhaps ought to belong to the twentysomethings. Most of his peers can’t be bothered, but Billups desperately wanted a chance to play for Team USA. This team needs Billups in 2010 the way it needed Jason Kidd(notes) in 2008.
“Yeah, I’m making up for some lost time in my career,” Billups said. “I’m pretty sure there isn’t a guy my age in the league who’s experienced the kind of success I have, would volunteer to be here giving their summer up. But for me, in my first five years, I didn’t play very much. And when I did, I didn’t play that great. I’m still fresh. I’ve still got some really good years left in me. I’ve still got a lot of things I want to accomplish.”
He has an NBA championship and a Finals MVP, and the trade to Denver had been a chance to chase titles all over again. Now, it’s uncertain. He thinks he wants to be a general manager someday. Coaching? Billups shrugs and scrunches his face. “I’m pretty sure I could do it – and probably do a good job of it – but I don’t like the young egos, the young attitudes, in the league.”
He’s a student of the game’s chemistry, the way organizations run, the way teams are cobbled together. What unfolded over the past year in Denver – the dysfunctional management structure – troubled him and leaves him with some anxiety. Former GM Mark Warkentien made the trade for Billups with Detroit in 2008, was voted the NBA’s Executive of the Year and then was forced out this summer in that Nuggets cesspool.
Along the way, Warkentien sometimes had the power in the organization. Sometimes, it was executive Rex Chapman. Another adviser, Bret Bearup, has outgoing owner Stan Kroenke’s ear. Mostly, it was a cat-fighting mess that took its toll on the organization.
“I’ll just say this: I’ve never seen nothing like that before,” Billups said. “Nobody knew who was what there. Nobody knew who to ask a question. I’ve never seen uncertainty upstairs like that in this league. Never. …I know this: It had to come to a conclusion.”
It did, and the Nuggets are now left with this: a 30-year-old owner, Josh Kroenke, and a young GM, Masai Ujiri, who has mostly been an international scout. Billups has a strong relationship with Josh Kroenke, says they share a vision and he met with Ujiri on the new GM’s visit to Istanbul this week. Billups found Ujiri sincere, compelling and left the meeting with a respect for the man. “But with that being said,” Billups allowed, “there’s a lot of inexperience there. There’s not a track record there.”
Billups understood the level of performance and mentorship that Denver wanted out of him, and he gave it to them. Carmelo Anthony(notes) now wants to leave, and a league source told Yahoo! Sports’ Marc Spears that the Chicago Bulls have made themselves the frontrunner for the All-Star forward.
Billups told management this: Find a way to keep Anthony. There’s no trade out there that makes us better. Billups will talk to Anthony, but he says he’s not going to try to convince him to stay. “I can’t push my loyalty for the Nuggets onto him,” he said. ’Melo will do what he wants to do, and Billups knows it. “He’s not a kid anymore,” he said. “Carmelo is a grown man.”
If the Nuggets undo this roster, some sources with knowledge of the team’s management believe they’re inclined to want to keep Billups. Billups is the hometown kid, an ambassador, the perfect elder statesman for a young, transitioning roster. He has heard it too, and his message has been unmistakable: I love home, but I love winning more.
“For the rest of the time that I’m playing, I want to be playing for something,” Billups said. “I want to be trying to win a championship. I’m not the kind of guy who is just going to ride his career out, say, ‘I’ll play as long as I can and whatever happens, happens.’ No, that’s not me. I want to play for something. I want to play for the whole thing.”
The precariousness of these Nuggets has bonded Billups’ appreciation for what he had with the Detroit Pistons. He thinks about that championship season in 2004, that seven-game Finals loss in ’05, and understands that shaped everything he became in the NBA, and everything he wants to be when he’s still done playing. Joe Dumars was the general manager who believed in Billups, who turned over a team to him and surrounded him with an improbable cast that all fit together, that owned the East the better part of a decade.
When Billups becomes a GM, he’ll do it like Dumars. “I learned so much from Joe – how to treat guys, how to be honest and upfront with them,” Billups said. “He had the perfect balance of knowing when to be cool and friendly with guys, but also an ability to let guys know that this is a job and I am the boss, and there’s a way you’re going to have to do things here. But it was never like he made people feel he was looking down on them.
“He built that team perfectly, and I don’t think it will ever be done in that fashion again. No max guys, a lot of guys teams had given up on. …No, there will never be a championship team again like we had.”
For Billups, an NBA championship is most unlikely with or without ’Melo in Denver. Deep down, he knows it too. That’s all right. He’s still coming hard for it, all the way to this little gym on a big Istanbul hill to work up a good sweat on Wednesday. Oldest guy on the court, and here was Chauncey Billups chasing a world championship for the United States, chasing all that lost time and lost opportunity when he never had someone in his life like he turned out to be.