Dennis Johnson and John Johnson
Larry Brown walked down the aisle of the bus transporting his Pistons, looking even more solemn than usual. Hours earlier, Detroit led Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals by three points with 10.9 seconds remaining. Brown instructed his team to foul, but the veterans in the huddle — Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton, and Chauncey Billups — resisted his order. Brown relented, but only on the condition that should Shaquille O’Neal catch the ball, they foul him immediately. O’Neal did receive the ball on the ensuing possession, but he quickly passed to Luke Walton, who found Kobe Bryant for an acrobatic 3-pointer that sent Staples Center into a frenzy. The Lakers prevailed easily in overtime, evening the series and leaving the Pistons reeling. “We’re crushed,” Brown told reporters after the game. “We had a winnable game. And everybody in that locker room’s down.”
These were the Lakers, a dream team recalibrated: Bryant and O’Neal in their primes, Gary Payton and Karl Malone in the twilight of their careers, heavy favorites to win the franchise’s fourth title in five years. With the series headed back to Detroit for three games, the Pistons had just handed them a second life. Brown sauntered to the back of the bus and thought about apologizing to his team, knowing he should have been more adamant about the foul.
“I remember in Philly … ” Brown started.
Ben Wallace cut him off: “This ain’t Philly.”
Brown kept going, his voice rising. Chauncey Billups listened until he’d heard enough.
“Go back to the front of the bus,” Billups told his coach. “We’re not coming back to L.A.”
Billups was right. The Pistons dominated the next three games and he snared the Finals MVP trophy, completing a seven-year odyssey that veered from lottery pick to draft bust to role player before finally settling at Mr. Big Shot. For one of the league’s most respected teammates and leaders, it was certainly a strange way to launch his career — he’s made eight stops in all, with the Clippers looking like the last one. Fifteen years ago, Billups won his first professional game by beating Jordan’s Bulls; now, he’s hoping to beat LeBron’s Heat, Kobe’s Lakers, and Carmelo’s Knicks for a second title. Like always, he’ll be filling a role — this time, the knowing veteran and calming influence, the guy who’s been there before.
“The best damn coach the Clippers can have is Chauncey,” said Butch Carter, who coached a young Billups in Toronto.
At every stop, there was a lesson for Billups. He’s been traded five times and amnestied once. He’s played for everyone from George Karl to Mike D’Antoni to Rick Pitino, and he’s played with everyone from Kevin Garnett to Carmelo Anthony to Lloyd Daniels. He’s also been in every conceivable situation, and over everything else, that’s what makes the 36-year-old Billups so valuable. He can relate to almost every NBA player because he has been almost every player.
“I always believed that to become a great leader, you have to be a great follower,” Billups said. These days, the Clippers follow him.
Today is Lottery Sunday, perhaps the most important event in Boston Celtic history since Red Auerbach drafted Larry Bird 19 years ago,” Dan Shaughnessy wrote for the Boston Globe on May 18, 1997.
Boston entered that lottery with unrestrained, unfulfilled, and unrealistic optimism. The organization had just undergone a massive face-lift after a disastrous 15-win season, luring an in-demand Rick Pitino from Kentucky with a whopping $50 million offer. Larry Bird announced his departure from the organization and his acceptance of the Indiana Pacers coaching job the same day the Celtics introduced Pitino. The legendary Red Auerbach relinquished his team presidency to Pitino.1 Blessed with two high picks and a 27.5 percent chance to land the no. 1 choice, the Celtics somehow ended up with the no. 3 and no. 6 picks, missing out on can’t-miss star Tim Duncan and even Keith Van Horn.2 Labeling the lottery disappointing is “the understatement of the century,” Pitino says now. “It’s what I banked on taking the job.”
The Celtics audibled quickly, deciding to revamp their backcourt with Billups (the third pick) and silky scorer Ron Mercer (the sixth pick, as well as Pitino’s former protégé at Kentucky). Pitino’s new general manager, Chris Wallace, remembered watching Colorado’s Billups notch 29 points and 10 rebounds against Texas Tech earlier that year. Billups scored the game’s winning basket,3 and he left a lasting impression on Wallace. “When we brought him in for a workout, [we realized] that in addition to his talent, there is also character, there is work ethic, there was substance to this guy,” Wallace said.
Yes, I’m back