Chauncey Billups, hoops hero and family man, comes home to Colorado.
Chauncey Billups (Soc ex’99) is still a Colorado guy, which should surprise no one.
From his days as a star at Denver’s George Washington High School to his brief, thrilling run at the University of Colorado Boulder, throughout an itinerant but glorious NBA career, Billups has been the pride of the state and has returned its affection. Now, newly retired from the NBA, he’s settling into the life of a Denver family man and shaping the next phase of a remarkable life.
“It’s where we want to be,” says the basketball star known variously as “Smooth,” “King of Park Hill” and “Mr. Big Shot.”
Two main forces have determined Billups’ trajectory into mid-life — family and hoops.
In that order.
A legendary player in high school — four-time All-State, three-time Colorado Mr. Basketball — Billups turned down some of the nation’s most celebrated college programs for CU-Boulder, where the basketball team of the mid-1990s could offer no instant glory.
But playing in Boulder came with a huge advantage: It was easy for his parents to get to games.
What Ray and Faye Billups witnessed — along with millions of fellow Coloradans — was the transformation of CU basketball: Within two years, Chauncey Billups had turned the last-place Buffs into a Big 12 power.
“We were aware of Chauncey and his potential to be special by the time he finished his freshman year in high school,” says former CU-Boulder athletic director Dick Tharp. “His talent was evident and his personal demeanor impeccable. His decision to stay in Colorado provided the university with credibility in the Denver and national basketball circles.
“In essence, he was special from day one, and he never let anyone down.”
In 1997, Billups’ second season, CU finished second in its conference and earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1969, beating Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in the first round. Billups ended the season fourth in the Big 12 in scoring (19.1 points per game), third in assists (4.79 per game) and led the league in free throw percentage (.854).
After that electric season, he was named first-team All-Big 12. CU fans begged him to stay. But Billups had options — the NBA was calling — and responsibilities in mind. He was about to become a father, and his mother had lost a job she’d had for 25 years.
“I knew I had to begin preparing for the future, to be ready to take care of a family,” says Billups, who entered the 1997 NBA draft. “I also knew it was going to be an opportunity to help my mom and dad. They’d done everything for me.”
What they witnessed was transformation: within two years, Chauncey Billups turned the last-place Buffs into a Big 12 power.
He made a splash. Picked third overall, he went to the Boston Celtics and began a professional career that would lead him far from his Colorado proving grounds and in the process make him a national celebrity.
The early NBA years were rocky. Traded often, he played for Boston, Toronto, Denver and Minnesota before hitting his groove with the Detroit Pistons under head coach Larry Brown.
In his first season in Detroit, 2002, Billups led the Pistons to the Eastern Conference finals. A year later, he led the team to the 2004 NBA title and was named Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals.
That’s also when he cemented his reputation as “Mr. Big Shot,” a moniker reflecting his uncanny ability to sink big baskets when they were most needed. A five-time NBA All-Star, Billups ranks sixth on the all-time list for 3-pointers (1,830).
In 2008 he returned to the Nuggets for three seasons, playing so well that coach George Karl called him “a gift from the basketball gods.” He’s always been a nice guy, to boot: In 2009, he won the NBA Sportsmanship Award.
Billups moved around a lot in his final seasons and injuries often kept him off the court: In the final five seasons, he played for four teams, including, again, the Pistons. This year the team chose not to exercise its option on the second year of his contract.
At first, Billups, now 38, thought he might like to keep playing. He worked out with the Cleveland Cavaliers and says he considered “several other possibilities.” But none appealed to him as much as hunkering down in Denver with wife Piper and their children.
“The ironic thing is that I’m healthier now than I’ve been at any time in the last three years,” he says. “I think I could have played another two or three years, but I was tired of dealing with the injuries. Rehabbing sucks. Getting hurt sucks. And sitting on the end of the bench in a suit watching the guys play…that’s the worst.”
Watching his daughters play is a different story. Cydney, the eldest, is a junior in high school and a standout soccer player at Valor Christian. Ciara is a freshman and Cenaiya is a third-grader.“I spent a lot of years doing my best to provide for my family, making sure they had what they needed,” he says. “But that was a lot of time on the road, a lot of time away from home, a lot of time not getting to see my girls grow up.
“You don’t get that time back. I’ve got some catching up to do.”
The girls know their father is a celebrity. Now they’ll learn what it’s like to have him home.
So far, Billups likes retirement.
“It feels good,” he says. “There’s no stress, no pressure. I love the idea of more time with my family. I know I’ll miss the games, but it was just time.”
He’s learning the ropes in business — he co-owns 30 Wendy’s restaurants near St. Louis — and he’s active in the Porter-Billups Leadership Program, which provides leadership training to at-risk Denver students.
"In essence, he was special from day one, and he never let anyone down."
And he hasn’t put basketball entirely behind him. Hardly. Billups keeps a close eye on his old Buffs team: He’s a regular donor to the program and has sponsored “Chauncey’s Kids Roundup,” which supports visits by school children to the CU campus and basketball games. His brother, Rodney, is an assistant coach for the men’s team. And Billups himself appears in a vast mural in the Coors Events Center.
“Chauncey is nothing short of an icon, a true superstar,” said CU sports information director Dave Plati. “He’s attended many home games, has donated graciously to the university and has been there for anything we could have asked. You could not ask for a better Buffalo.”
Billups still has a toe-hold in professional hoops, too — in the fall ESPN hired him as a studio analyst — and he’s expressed interest in a front-office role with a NBA team.
“I’m confident I could be very good at that,” he says.
But first comes family.
Always in that order.
Photography by Lucas Gilman (in parking lot); CU Athletics (as CU Buff); NBA Photos Library (as Denver Nugget)