Thanks to lessons with PGA Professional Erik Billinger, the Nuggets captain intends on remaining Mr. Big Shot long after his hoo
Chauncey Billups stands across from the first tee box at Highlands Ranch Golf Club, his eyes widening at the sound of driver connecting with ball. Watching a foursome begin its round of golf, the Denver Nuggets’ star, who turns 34 this September, speaks of how much time remains on the back nine of his professional basketball career.
“The window is closing, man,” Billups says in a concessionary tone of voice. “Honestly, I feel like I can play another three years at a high level. The way I look at it is, my first five years (in the NBA) I didn’t play that much. Those years sort of bought me some of the great years I’m having as a wily veteran—they call me ‘Old Head’ in the locker room . . .
“I feel like I can play another four years, but at a high level I have another three (years) in me.”
It seems odd, hearing Billups speak about his career nearing its end. I still remember it before it began—him starting as the freshman point guard in his first varsity basketball game for George Washington High School in the season opener against South High School in December, 1991. On a night when most of his footwork and slick ball fakes were stymied by an even slicker gymnasium floor, Billups scored eight of his 17 points in the fourth quarter to lead GW to a 67-51 victory.
Almost 20 years later, it’s hard to imagine Billups hanging up his adidases. He’s already looking toward different challenges. One is continuing the work that already has earned him the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for outstanding charitable contributions and community service. Four years ago, he and Regis University men’s basketball coach Lonnie Porter started the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy, a non-sports summer academic institute. This year he launched the Chauncey Billups Foundation to assist low-income families.
Another challenge is golf. Last year he finally made good on a promise to take lessons, and chose to do so at Highlands Ranch Golf Course with the club’s PGA professional, Erik Billlinger.
“It’s been a couple of years that I’ve been saying I’m going to get out and play,” Billups says. “My wife (Piper) always teased me like, ‘Yeah, right—you said that last year.’ I came out (to Highlands Ranch Golf Club) with my brother (Rodney) and two cousins. I thought it would be more fun if we went out to learn together.
“We’re all on the same level, but I’d like to say I’m a little better than they are.”
Mr. Big Shot became Mr. Big Putt the very first time he and his crew played the course last year. On the 203-yard par-3 17th hole, Billups carded the first three of his golf career.
“I hit a beautiful shot onto the dance floor,” Billups recalls, the excitement still fresh in his voice. “And it was a lucky putt. I was jumping around, yelling . . . they had to remind me to be cool.
“I made the putt and said, ‘I’m all in.’”
Not long after the Nuggets were eliminated from the 2009 Western Conference finals by the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, Billups began taking golf lessons from Billinger, a former member of the University of Denver golf team whose credentials include earning the Colorado PGA Section’s Player of the Year in 2008. Billinger has taught at Highlands Ranch since 2003.
In Billups, Billinger has a pupil who ranks sixth on pro basketball’s all-time list for free-throw shooting, has been named to five NBA All-Star teams and was Most Valuable Player of the 2004 NBA Finals.
All of that, along with being Denver’s hometown hero—the “King of Park Hill” who chose to stay in his home state to play college basketball at the University of Colorado after leading GW High to two state championships.
No pressure, right?
“We hit it off right away,” says Billinger, who was introduced to Billups through a mutual friend. “I have confidence in what I do.”
Under a predominantly gray morning sky, Billinger schools Billups on how to be effective in swinging out of sand. Billups is an eager listener.
Count Billups’ teammate, J.R. Smith, among those athletes who have forsaken lessons and relied on physical gifts and video technology to teach themselves how to play golf. Billups prefers instruction. He is obsessed with perfecting the fundamentals, which has enabled him to sustain a lengthy career in the NBA.
Billups expects the same traits will help him learn golf’s subtle intricacies.
“People point to things like being the most athletic person, but the guys who are fundamentally sound and do things the right way are the most successful,” Billups says. “You’ve got to be confident and have enough about you to fight through it. Some people get frustrated (with golf) and want to take a two-, three-week hiatus as opposed to sticking with it and respecting the process.
“For me, I’ve always been a great student, a great listener and very coachable—no matter what level I’ve been at in my career. That’s the one thing that carries me as I take these golf lessons. I know how to listen and try to duplicate what I’m being told.
“Some people, you’re absolutely right, they’re like, ‘Hey, I can do this’ . . . They hit a couple of balls and they think they’ve got it all figured out. I think my attitude helps me as far as taking (golf) lessons.”
Billinger doesn’t cut his famous pupil any slack. “Chauncey has his bad habits in his golf swing like we all do,” Billinger says. “He’s really only played five or six months and still is pretty fresh.
“We put him on video to see what was there to work with. Then we went to the fundamentals—the set-up, the grip. His grip has been an issue for a while—he’s got a strong left hand, strong in a sense of its rotation, which messes his game up.
“His swing was a D-minus, but now it’s a B-minus—close to a B. But he started from nothing, so everything was an F. That’s why I was lucky to get him, because he only was going to get better. It’s not like he came here like (Charles) Barkley—with 10 years of bad habits.”
Billinger’s patience, Billups says, has helped him overcome the frustrations golf tends to impose upon new students of the game.
“You can have an awesome day, come back the next day and feel you’re doing the same things but just look like crap, man,” Billups says. “Erik has a good way of making you feel like you’re still making progress—even though you don’t feel that way. I always feel like in order to be a great teacher you, at some point, had to be a great student.”
From his NBA experience, Billups knows how important good coaching is. In 1997 he led CU to its first NCAA tournament victory in three decades (an 80-62 win over the Bobby Knight-coached Indiana Hoosiers). Three months later he was selected third overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1997 NBA draft. But Billups played for five teams—including the Nuggets—in his first five years before signing with the Pistons in 2002.
No coach—including Dan Issel—seemed to find a way to maximize Billups’ abilities. In 2003 the Pistons hired head coach Larry Brown and Billups’ game blossomed. His hustle and leadership on and off the floor spearheaded Detroit’s run to the 2004 NBA championship.
“My early years I was always better than the guys I played against—size-wise, athletically . . .” Billups says. “I could get by and do well without knowing everything. Finally I got to a point where everybody was as big and strong as me—or better. I’d never seen that before.
“So I had to rely and listen to my coaches. I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. Larry Brown was huge for me.”
In 2007 Billups and the Pistons agreed on a five-year contract worth $60 million, but the following summer, he let on to family and friends that he would welcome a return to Denver.
When he arrived, courtesy of a trade that sent Allen Iverson to Detroit, Billups returned to Denver as a champion, an All-Star and polished floor leader—one who bolstered the Nuggets’ stature as a legitimate NBA championship contender.
However, last year’s Nuggets team won 53 regular-season games before making an abrupt and disappointing exit from the playoffs.
“We still feel like we’re a championship-caliber team—although I do feel like we took a step back last season, just with our mental preparation,” Billups says. “We’ve got to get George (Karl) back. We’ve got to get our leader back. It makes a difference.”
When Karl, who has been in recovery from intense throat cancer treatments, learned of Billups’ golf lessons, an impish grin flashed across the coach’s face—a grin one might flash while having thoughts of winning a few skins off his starting point guard. “Chauncey’s learning to play golf? Karl said during a summer fundraiser. “Oh boy.”
Billups believes more is needed besides Karl’s return in order for the Nuggets to contend for an NBA championship. Success, he said, must begin with attitude.
“One thing I feel like we can control that we didn’t do a good job of this year is how we focus every night,” he says. “It showed up really big in the playoff series (against the Utah Jazz), but that stuff went on all year.
“Coming into the season we said we wanted home-court advantage and wanted to win 55-60 games—yet we lose to teams we shouldn’t have lost to. We still won 53 games and kicked away (10) games to sub-.500 teams.
“That’s just focus, you know what I’m saying? Championship teams never let those (sub-.500) teams win those games. I know that.”
With that, Billups turns toward the parking lot. He walks towards his sleek silver Bentley, but not before offering a hint about his future—in golf.
“I haven’t been bad at something in so long, man,” Billups says. “I’m like, I can’t have this. I’ve got to get better. My goal is to be somewhere in the teens with my handicap by 2011. If I get to play enough I know I can do it. It’s a lofty goal. I know I can do it, but I just don’t get to play enough.”
Maybe not in 2010 or 2011. But before he knows it, he’ll have a lot of time to practice