My name is Larry, and I grew up on the northwest side of Detroit. At this point of my life, I've been a Pistons fan longer than I haven't. My basketball obsession started with Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls, but the Pistons kept the obsession fed. I was born in Year 2 of the Jordan Dynasty, just missing the Bad Boys and Joe Dumars in his prime. My super-childhood Pistons teams had Grant Hill and Lindsey Hunter and Bison Dele and Jerry Stackhouse and ... I can't even remember anyone else. I guess that fits for that era of Pistons basketball. Not good, not bad. But always frustrating, and ultimately unmemorable.
I cannot remember the first time I'd heard about you, but I know it was while I was super young. I'd never heard a name like yours, and I thought it was so dope. Chauncey Billups. I rooted for you to be good because you have one of the greatest names ever. I was a simple kid.
But eventually you started getting chances to do your thing, and I strongly remember thinking during your last season in Minnesota that I'd like it if you were the point guard for my basketball team. It was some game on ESPN, and one of the commentators mentioned you were going to be a free agent come season's end. I could only hope the Pistons were as high on you as I was.
The year before you got here, we somehow won 50 games with Chucky Atkins and Jerry Stackhouse in our backcourt and the immortal Michael Curry playing major minutes on the wing. Actually, you got a year of Michael Curry, right? God bless Tayshaun. Anyways, once we got you and stole Richard Hamilton from Washington, I knew we'd be better. I didn't know if better would mean another 50-win season, but I knew you were better than Chucky, and Rip had to be at least as good as Stack. We were in the East, the best team in our conference was the New Jersey Nets (!), and things had largely been a crapshoot on our side of the playoff bracket since Jordan retired. We'd have a puncher's chance, at worst.
That first season was very, very fun. It could be a slog at times, but it was so much fun watching you guys essentially make other grown men submit. And even though Ben Wallace became the face of the organization, you were my favorite from day one. You played the game with so much calm and so much pace. Nothing seemed to rattle you; no moment got too big. The game winners were crazy, too. For as many points as Stack scored here, I cannot remember one buzzer-beater. Not since Grant Hill played for us did we have a guy as clutch as you, and that was comforting. You could go toe-to-toe with the Allen Iversons, the Paul Pierces, the Jason Kidds, and you'd hold your own. If the game was winnable, I just assumed we'd win. And even though we lost 32 times that season, I can't say I saw many of them coming.
But for all your late-game magic to go down, I know you needed a hell of a backcourt partner, and Richard Hamilton was made to play basketball with you. You'd keep that dribble going at the top of the key for 12 ... 13 ... 14 seconds just waiting for Rip to finally come off a screen clean. I know you wanted to prove you were a true point guard, not the hybrid you'd been pegged to be. Rip gave you that opportunity and then some. He ran that baseline so hard, man. And you'd get it to him more often than not, and more often than not, it was 2 points.
Even though the season was amazing to watch, that first Conference Finals sucked. Like, really really sucked. I'd grown to hate New Jersey fairly quickly, just because their ascension to the top of the Eastern Conference crap-heap really grinded my gears. Their best player was a point guard who couldn't shoot, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson were actively involved ... I mean, there was a LOT to hate there. I wanted my Pistons in the Finals by any means, yes, but to beat the Nets in 4 or 5 games to get there would've made it even sweeter. I was delusional, but I fully expected us to blow New Jersey out. We were the number-one seed in the East, so we were the gold standard in the conference now. The Nets would either have to get down or lay down, word to Beanie Sigel.
They killed us. I remember Game 4 was on a Saturday, and I wasn't even pressed to see it. I wasn't optimistic: I randomly took a nap right before tip-off, and conveniently woke up a half-hour after the game ended, only to hear we'd lost by 20. In hindsight, that's probably the best nap I've taken in my life. I couldn't watch us go out that way, and the writing was on the wall. I decided I’d just have to endure the San Antonio - New Jersey Finals snoozefest and expect better from you guys next year. Only this time, I could define better. It was Finals-or-bust.
Initially, the next season was more of the same, but Tayshaun in the starting lineup was so much better. I was so in on Tay that I wasn't tripping too hard on us not drafting Carmelo. I didn't know if Darko would ever be any good, but I'd started buying into the whole concept of chemistry, and I knew Tayshaun wouldn't start any problems. That wasn't a guarantee with Carmelo, which I totally understand, considering he'd just dominated college basketball for 6 solid months. Regardless, I figured the in-house upgrade at small forward and another year together was good enough for a Finals trip. And of course the hope is that you guys win, but I honestly just wanted to get there. I knew the city would be alive if you guys made it - alive in ways totally different from when the Red Wings get to their Finals. I just wanted to be around all the excitement, and anything else that came would be gravy.
But when Rasheed's name started getting thrown around as a trade possibility, expectations skyrocketed. I was at school making the boldest declarations. We were locks to get out of the East. Hell, we might sweep the conference. Fortunately, Rasheed made me look good. He got here and we started stomping teams. Folks couldn't score 70. People who didn't live here absolutely hated it, but it was some of the most exhilarating basketball I've watched in my life. I remember a game against New Jersey where we obliterated them, but they were concerned with breaking our streak of holding opponents under 70 points. They ended up scoring like 71 or 72, and Richard Jefferson was cheesing like his team had won the game. It was so weird watching the sorts of moral victories other teams would take after playing us.
Somehow, we ended up getting New Jersey before the Conference Finals. That bravado I had about us earlier started to fade a little bit, especially after you hit that immortal buzzer-beater only for us to still lose the game because of Brian Scalabrine. I thought we'd wasted one of your greatest games, and when your best player plays that well and you still lose, you're likely doomed in the playoffs. But you all buckled down and won two of the biggest games in franchise history. I remember Rip hitting this huge dagger in Game 6, and I knew we'd escaped one. I’ve never liked getting into who's supposed to win or lose, but we stole that series. And, I mean, that's just fine with me.
Indiana was a whole different monster. I didn't know Ron Artest was good. I mean, I knew he had basketball talent. But homie had work. I had no clue. And yeah, those games were slugfests too, but at least they had true bucketgetters. Jermaine O'Neal made Ben and Rasheed work. Reggie made Rip chase him for 20 seconds every possession. Ron Artest, again, was a really good basketball player. Al Harrington and Austin Croshere did stuff. But, as always, God bless Tayshaun Prince. Now that I think about it, we might've stolen that series, too. But, hey, these things happen. You need a dash of luck to win a title. The history books won't put 'lucky' next to your name.
And then, Voltron. My mom bought me the NBA Champions DVD they did for you guys, and included on the DVD was some panel 'analyzing' the series before it started, in which some clown - in his finest poetic moment, I'm sure - quipped, "Lakers in 4; Pistons can't score!" Mind you, I'm watching this 3 months removed from us winning the championship, and I got pissed off all over again. Everyone from Detroit to Auburn Hills had the biggest chip on their shoulder, man. I know you know. Nobody expected us to come close to winning one game. ONE GAME. We'd been making professional basketball players look really bad at scoring the basketball for 4 solid months, but the Lakers were supposed to steamroll us? Come on. You, at that point of your career, were one-hundred-times better than Gary Payton, but for some reason the media was treating him like it was 1997 and he was still capable of playing at your level. Even if Kobe outplayed Rip, I knew what Tayshaun was capable of defensively, so it wouldn't be easy for Bean. Rasheed was probably always winning his matchup, and Ben's career had been leading up to this battle with Shaq: the scrappy undrafted, undersized center against a behemoth who would retire as one of the fifteen-best players of all-time. Ben was getting up for this one. We all knew it.
Game 1 might've been the most gratifying. That was a statement to everyone predicting we’d get swept. And yeah, Philadelphia had gone into Staples and done the same thing just a few years prior, but that was mostly a case of Allen Iverson being Allen Iverson. Our win didn't have the same element of surprise to it. I remember watching that game and thinking, "Wow, we just look better than them." We passed the eye test, and I didn't know if it was sustainable, but we left Los Angeles without the questions of whether or not we belonged, even after how Game 2 ended.
We took our three games at home without too much struggle, and you won that series' Most Valuable Player award, because of course you did. You were consistently the best player on the floor in basketball games with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone and Gary Payton on the floor with you. You led this franchise to heights none of us expected, and your basketball team gave me one of the three or four happiest moments of my life. We got to the mountaintop in Year 2, and nobody important was going anywhere. I figured we'd reign forever.
Four years, four Conference Finals, two Finals, and one championship later, you got traded. You were going to Denver, and we’d be getting Allen Iverson - all-timer in his own right - in return. This was in the days before everyone had smartphones and 24/7 internet access; I very literally found out via text message from my best friend to my Motorola Razr. I was so shocked that I took the chance I'd get in trouble with my parents and went online on my phone to see if it was true. For selfish reasons, I hated to see you go, sure. But it didn't make much sense logically, either. You held the team together after Ben left; you kept Rip and Rasheed in check emotionally; you kept Tayshaun engaged. We couldn't replicate the intangibles you brought to the table, especially with Allen Iverson as your replacement, God bless him.
You were awesome your first year back in Denver, and I really hoped you and Carmelo would take down Kobe and the Evil Empire. It just felt strange not watching you until you were on TNT or ESPN and having to keep up with you via box scores and SportsCenter highlights. We sucked, the Iverson experiment flopped, Rip became this one-on-one guy that he'd never been before ... I just wanted the season to be over. You alone kept me engaged throughout most of that year. So that's another tribute to you. Even 1,300 miles away, Chauncey Billups was the primary reason I wanted to watch the NBA.
I've met you twice, actually - once where I got to actually introduce myself, and you dapped me up like I was your little nephew. That moment cemented you in my head as the coolest person I'd ever meet. And beyond that, I can unequivocally say that watching you play the game of basketball has been an absolute privilege. You weren't the flashiest, but you had a flair for the dramatic. You rarely let me down, and even if you failed, I never regretted you having the basketball in your hands. I loudly celebrated the day you resigned here a couple summers ago, just because I knew it guaranteed you'd at least get your number retired. Not many NBA teams have championships. You're responsible for bringing Detroit one and nearly another. We were on the cusp six times. Do I think we left a few on the table? Of course. But it was a hell of a run. I knew I'd have a winning basketball team every year for the majority of my adolescence, and there was an odd comfort in that, too. Just like in 2004, I was aware that being at the door could easily turn into hoisting that trophy if you get a few breaks here and there. And we were always at the door. Just couldn't totally break through. Even still, I’ll take the one ring we got over never seeing my team win it all.
By the way, I got to your retirement ceremony last week. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. You saw an opportunity to do something great here, and you crushed it.
Thank you for crushing it, Chaunce. Thank you.