Post-NBA life is sweet for Chauncey Billups. But could “retirement” just be an intermission before a dramatic second act?
One year into retirement from the National Basketball Association, Chauncey Billups is b-b-b-b-busier than ever. Television assignments. Board meetings. Business trips. Youth camps. Honey-do and Daddy-please lists, too.
Sitting on a bleacher while peering out at aspiring basketball players attending his annual youth basketball camp at Parker Fieldhouse, Billups laughs off the expectation of playing lots of golf while in retirement.
“You have to understand, I’m making up for a lot of missed time,” he says. “I’ve been away for most of my career. I have three daughters, and so basically it’s whatever they have going is what I’m doing. Whatever spare time I have, if I have spare time, I’ll delegate it to golf.”
Billups and his wife, Piper, have daughters Cydney, Ciara and Cenaiya. Cydney Billups, a senior-to-be at Mountain Vista High School, will be attending the University of Texas on a soccer scholarship. Ciara (a sophomore at Valor Christian) and Cenaiya (a fourth-grader) are fixated on the art of dancing. All the girls understand that, while their famous retired father is their biggest supporter, “it’s not like I’m 65-year-old retired man with all the time in the world,” Billups says. “I’m still a very high-aspiring dude who wants to succeed in business the way I succeeded in basketball. There are bigger things that I aspire to be great at that will take some time.”
Businessman Billups spends time in and out of St. Louis, Missouri, overseeing the 30 Wendy’s franchises he co-owns with Junior Bridgeman, the former NBA player and CEO of Bridgeman Hospitality, which owns more than 350 restaurants across the country. Television analyst Billups completed his first year of NBA studio work for ESPN, with the intention of returning for the 2015-16 season.
One year away from pro basketball, Billups is making a smooth transition from athlete to businessman. “I always feared that first year out. But I didn’t miss it at all—not until the playoffs started,” Billups says. “But the time was right. I gave the game all that I could give it, everything I had. I’ve been planning my future for the last five years. When it was time to make the decision to retire, I was at peace with it.
“At the end of the day, the things that made me great as a basketball player are going to be the things that make me great in whatever else I do—working hard, being dedicated and making sacrifices.”
Bridgeman saw that commitment when a mutual friend, knowing Billups’ interest in the restaurant business, introduced them. “Chauncey spent time with us in Kentucky to get all the numbers, the ins and outs of the business,” Bridgeman says. “Normally, I know right off if someone is sincere. Chauncey was genuinely interested. We spent a lot of time together, over two years before the Wendy’s opportunity presented itself.”
Billups has traveled a long road from high school phenom at George Washington High to the University of Colorado to the NBA. The same playful kid who relentlessly pedaled his green Big Wheel around his Park Hill neighborhood—until its faded Incredible Hulk stickers all but vanished—is now a proud 39-year-old family man who enjoys an occasional cruise around town in his Bentley or beloved vintage Chevy Camaro.
“Chauncey’s a special person,” says Lonnie Porter, recently retired Regis University men’s basketball coach and a very close friend of Billups and his family.
“When I first met Chauncey, well, it was eerie in a good way,” Porter says. “I had known his parents, Faye and Ray, for a long time. I’d known his dad since he was 14, when he was at Denver East while I was coaching at Manual. Ray was a heck of a basketball player himself.
“Chauncey was eight, maybe nine years old when Ray would bring him to Manual to watch some games. One day Ray told me, ‘He’s going to be real good, coach.’ I’m thinking, yeah right. I’ve heard that before. The whole time Ray and I are talking, this kid Chauncey never stops looking at me. I didn’t know what it was, but it was different. It was an intense look, as if he was hanging onto my every word. He never blinked.
“If you are a believer, you’ll know what I mean when I say this little kid had a look that said, ‘One day we’ll work together to make it better for other kids, to help kids.’”
The Porter-Billups Leadership Academy, now in its 10th year (and the 20th for Porter) offers academic and leadership skills training to elementary through high school-aged atrisk youth in Denver. Ninety-two percent of the enrollees have gone on to attend college.
Porter and Billups host an annual dinner and golf tournament to raise monies to benefit the academy’s operations, scholarships and endowments. An avid golfer, Porter knows how much Billups has come to enjoy playing the game. “He’s getting better and better,” Porter says. “When he gets more time, he’ll be in single-digits, for sure—maybe even scratch. He’s going about it the right way, taking lessons from pros who can teach him how to really play the game.”
“He’s definitely a golf fanatic, 100 percent,” says Erik Billinger, one of Billups’ instructors and head men’s golf coach at the University of Denver. “He practices with our team on occasion. That’s good for him because he sees how well these guys play—and they get to pick his brain on mental strategies.”
The best facet of Billups’ golf game “is his short game. I marvel at it,” Billinger says. “It’s that shooter’s touch around the greens. It’s a softness that he probably has from being such a high-percentage free throw shooter.”
Billups loves playing with friends at public courses such as DU’s home course at Highlands Ranch Golf Club, but he won’t hesitate to use his memberships at either Colorado Golf Club or Cherry Hills Country Club, where he carded his best round to date. “I shot an 84. I was smoking—on fire,” says a giddy Billups, who started playing golf in 2009.
“My game is coming around. I would like to work on it a bit more—I’m around a 14, 15 handicap right now. I love it. There’s nothing I’d rather do for four hours than play golf.”
Billups also has a golf simulator in his suburban Denver home. “It’s more of a social thing, for when the fellas come over,” he says. “I don’t practice on it much. I am a big practice guy but my thing is, you can really mess yourself up if you’re practicing the wrong thing, practicing bad habits.”
The “practice-makes-perfect” student approach helped Billups to become one of the most respected players in the NBA during his 17-year career, playing for seven different teams. He was a late bloomer to stardom, making his first All-Star Game appearance at age 29—the season following his MVP-winning performance in the 2004 NBA Finals.
“I’ve been a star player, a role player, a bench player, a guy on injured reserve and a guy who wasn’t good enough,” Billups says. “I’ve sat on every seat on that bench.”
Twice, Billups found himself wearing the jersey of the Denver Nuggets. Twice, he was traded. “I got mad every time he got traded,” Faye Billups said. “He never did, though. I asked him to get mad about it, but he always was content to move on.”
The lessons learned throughout his playing career have given Billups an abundance of confidence that he is ready, right now, to run an NBA team. Which begs the question: Could “Mr. Big Shot” help return the Denver Nuggets to the ranks of playoff contenders?
“I’ve been public with the fact that I’ve always had a desire to be a general manager, hire the coach, get the personnel . . . be that guy to put it together,” Billups says. “I’ve always had those aspirations. Everybody knows how I feel about my hometown. I live here. I’m always here. Do I think I could help the Nuggets? Sure, man. Sure. Absolutely.
“But, again, they have people they believe in, people that are good. Hopefully it’ll work out. I’m not the guy who sits back saying, ‘I hope so-and-so doesn’t do well and maybe I’ll get a shot.’ I don’t work like that. Hopefully they’ll do great and don’t need me. It’s no big deal. There are 30 teams. I know with my experience and what I’ve done, people need that. This league is getting younger and more immature. With that immaturity, you need a face and a guy that people will respect—someone they’ve seen do it and believe in.
“Have I been a general manager? No. Do I respect that process? I do. But there are many things about being a good GM. The qualities and on-the-job experience that you have to have, I have. I’ve seen organizations run poorly. I’ve seen them run great. I’ve played for great coaches and horrible coaches. I know what kind of egos you have to mix together to have a great team. I know what kind of egos will sour a team. I’ve seen all of it.
“Make no mistake—I’m happy doing what I’m doing. So, I’m not soliciting. Can I help and be good at it? Sure. It depends on who you hire around you. I’ve been on damn near every team in the league, so I know everybody.”
Billups’ talk of re-emerging in the NBA as a front-office man is not unlike that of John Elway, who took some time away from the NFL after retirement before running an Arena Football League team and eventually taking the reins as the Denver Broncos’ GM and vice-president of football operations.
“John and I became fast friends a couple of years ago,” Billups says. “I talk to him a lot about how effectively he’s been able to brand his name. That’s what I aspire to do, especially in this town. So I talk to him a lot about the things he’s done and the steps he took.”
For all that he’s accomplished, both as an athlete and philanthropist in his community, Billups always will have a place at the top of Denver’s Hometown Hero list.
“I often look back, especially now that I’m retired,” Billups says. “I think about my fl ight— growing up in Park Hill as an underprivileged youth, breaking through all the barriers because I believed and turned right when I was supposed to turn right and not go left… I was making decisions I didn’t know would affect me and lead me to the path it did.”
Billups did make one costly wrong turn. He was 13 and took his mother’s car to pick up friends on a snowy evening. “I thought it had been stolen,” Faye Billups recalls. “Then I saw Chauncey driving my car down the alley with his friends in it. I made his friends go home, and then I let him have it. I told him I was taking the basketball away for three weeks. His father thought that was too long, so I settled for a week and a half.”
Twenty-five years later, Chauncey Billups has put away the basketball for good. He won an NBA championship ring, earned Finals MVP and made five All-Star teams. He also kept the promise made to his mother to get his college degree. And he gives back by teaching youth how to play basketball—and more important, how to be good students and wise leaders in school.
“I thought Chauncey was going to do well in life when his high school classmates voted him a class leader,” Faye Billups says. “I don’t think it was because of basketball. It was because he got good grades and accepted responsibility.”
“The reason I got good grades,” Billups says, “is because I loved the game so much. I tricked myself into being educated. It was crazy, right? But I look back at what my life is, what it could have been and man, I’m just a blessed and lucky dude.”