Billups: 'I just wanted to be a champion'

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Former Pistons guard Chauncey Billups had his jersey retired Wednesday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

Auburn Hills — When it was his turn, Chauncey Billups still wasn’t quite mentally prepared for his big night at The Palace.

Having gone through the routine last month for Ben Wallace’s jersey retirement, he got a preview, but that didn’t quite carry the same emotion.

Wednesday night was his night.

He was flanked by his wife and daughters and some of his “Goin’ to Work” teammates also in attendance — Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Lindsey Hunter and Mehmet Okur.

The night, with the Pistons playing against his hometown Denver Nuggets, was all about Billups.

Leading the Pistons to the 2004 NBA title and getting six All-Star selections, Billups, now an ESPN basketball analyst, was able to take it all in, finally.

“This is just a humbling day for me,” he said before the game. “It’s crazy; it’s like I really don’t believe that my name and my jersey is going to go up there with those guys’. As I went through my career, I never shot for that; that was never a goal of mine. I just wanted to be the best I could be; I didn’t know that was my best.”

At halftime, The Palace crowd cheered Billups on, as well as other Pistons greats in attendance, including former Detroit mayor Dave Bing, Isiah Thomas and Vinnie Johnson.

Current Pistons owner Tom Gores gave a speech, along with Thomas and Bing and Hamilton, but the ceremony reached a crescendo when Billups’ No. 1 was raised to the rafters, just after he proclaimed, “I, Chauncey Billups, will always and forever be a Detroit Piston.”

Sporting his ’04 championship ring, Billups reflected on his time with the Pistons, coming on the heels of a tumultuous start to his career, bouncing between four teams (Boston, Toronto, Denver and Minnesota) in his first five years.

With the Pistons, he found a home for six seasons, where he finally reached his ultimate goal and had his fondest memory.

“All I ever wanted to be was a champion,” he said. “Not an MVP or All-Star; I just wanted to be a champion, especially coming from what I went through my first five years in the league.

“My second-biggest moment was when all four of us (Wallace, Wallace, Hamilton and Billups) checked into the All-Star Game. All four guys made it and we checked in together and played the same way we played in the regular season, which was unpopular to do. That was a significant moment for me, to do it with my guys.”

Billups was the unquestioned leader of that championship Pistons group, which made five straight appearances in the Eastern Conference finals, but took only one title.

He made an impact on his teammates, even after their careers were done.

“My kids asked what’s the definition of a role model,” Hamilton said during the halftime ceremony. “I pulled your picture up and showed them.”

The most frustrating part of their string of playoff runs was not cashing in more championships — including a seven-game series against the Spurs in ’05 — to stitch together a larger legacy.

“The way my mind works, I feel like we almost underachieved here; we should have had more than one championship and been to the Finals more than two times,” Billups said. “When you lose in a Game 7 of a Finals, it tells you both teams should have won.

“We have one (title) and that’s something we have to live with and we all talk about.”

The lasting legacy of that Pistons team was that they didn’t have one superstar player, which flew in the face of the star-driven NBA at the time, but that was fine with the Pistons, who leaned on the “Goin’ to Work” mantra.

With two jersey retirements in a month, the next question centers around when there might be another from that team to be honored.

Billups has a good idea about who could follow.

“Rip Hamilton has to be next; I would love for him to have been next week or next month,” he said. “Rip Hamilton holds so many records and had a long run here and did a lot of great things in the community. I’m looking forward to that day — and then we can start peeling back more.”

Billups’ days in the league may not be done. He said he’s interested in having a front-office position at some point, but is looking for the right opportunity before he makes the jump from television.

“I do still have those aspirations. I’m not just going to jump in anywhere; I would like for it to be a good situation,” he said. “If it comes, that’s fine. I’ll look at it and if it doesn’t, that’s fine; I’ll be OK.”