FOREVER LINKED

Chauncey Billups and Kevin Garnett played two years together with the Timberwolves nearly a decade ago, but the future Hall of Famers are forever linked by a friendship that has blossomed through basketball and family.

The holidays are traditionally a time for family and close friends to appreciate one another. For Los Angeles Clippers guard Chauncey Billups and Boston Celtics superstar forward Kevin Garnett, those two categories are one in the same.

“We’ve been friends since high school,” Garnett said. “We played in ‘93-94 and we’ve been friends ever since. [Billups] and [Celtics assistant coach] Tyronn Lue are like brothers. These are guys who have keys to my homes, security codes, keys to some cars. Brothers.”

The two have been close friends throughout their NBA careers; 16 years for Billups while Garnett is in his 18th season. They played together with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2000 through 2002 and against each other at the highest level when they met in the Eastern Conference Finals in Garnett’s first season with the Celtics while Billups was a member of the Pistons. But the bond that holds these two friends together goes beyond the game of basketball.

Garnett is the godfather to Billups’ second daughter Ciara, who is now 12 years old. The decision to ask a then 25-year-old Garnett to take on such a responsibility caught the future Hall-of-Fame power forward off guard at first.

“I was shocked,” Garnett said. “At that point I had been no one’s father. I didn’t think I was worthy, to be honest. Obviously he saw something in me and I’ve just embraced it and I’ve been the godfather ever since.”

It’s a decision that brought the two that much closer.

“He was honored that we thought of him in that way,” Billups said. “This is before he even had kids so he looked at it like; ‘Wow I’m going to have a little responsibility,’ which you really don’t as a godparent but I really think he was just honored to be linked forever together.”

Ciara has also benefitted greatly from her parents’ decision, particularly this holiday season.

“(He got her) everything she wanted for Christmas,” Billups said with a smile across his face. “He’s the best god-dad in the world, man. She’s a shy girl but she knows that her godfather will do anything in the world for her.”

Billups and Garnett’s relationship started in the mid-90s when the two played together in various high-school all-star games, culminating with the 1995 McDonald’s All-American Game their senior seasons.

Billups starred at George Washington High School in Denver while Garnett helped lead Farragut Academy to a dominant season in Chicago. He received the Mr. Basketball award in Illinois after averaging 25.2 points, 17.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 6.5 blocks to go along with a 66.8% shooting percentage. Those numbers also earned him a national player of the year award.

Billups made the trip to the game but was unable to participate due to a shoulder injury. Garnett, on the other hand, was completely healthy and showed it with an exemplary performance, scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds to go along with four assists and three blocks. He was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.

The two had debated attending the same college for the next step in their careers, but those plans never came to fruition as Garnett declared for the 1995 NBA Draft and became the first high school player selected since 1975, taken by the Timberwolves with the fifth pick.

It was in Minnesota where the two friends would reunite in 2000 when Garnett recruited Billups to join the Timberwolves. Garnett went so far as to rename the cellar in his Minneapolis home, “The Billups Suite.”

Billups went on to sign a two-year deal in Minnesota, backing up both guard positions and learning the game from Terrell Brandon. But injury troubles would continually force Brandon into street clothes and Billups into the starting lineup where his game began to flourish playing alongside Garnett.

“I was young and my game was young,” Billups recalled. “We were the same age. He was an unbelievable teammate. He plays the right way at all times, he’s very unselfish, very intense and he holds everybody accountable to play the right way when he’s out there because he’s doing it at such a high level that if you’re not, you stick out like a sore thumb.”

In his first season in Minnesota, Billups played 77 games, starting 33 of them. The then fourth-year guard was a solid contributor averaging 9.3 points and 3.4 assists in 23.2 minutes per game. He also shot 42.2% from the field and 37.2% on his 3-pointers, both career highs at the time.

His game only improved in his second season with the Timberwolves as he started 54 games and played in all 82. His scoring average went up to 12.5 points a game and he averaged 5.5 assists a game, a new career high. The team won 50 games that year and, despite getting swept by the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, Billups shined, averaging 22 points per game in the series.

The performance helped the 6-foot-3 guard score a six-year deal with the Detroit Pistons that offseason. He would go on to lead the team to an NBA title in 2004, the same season Garnett earned his only NBA Most Valuable Player award.

While Billups continued to experience success in Detroit, Garnett’s career hit a rough patch as the Timberwolves failed to take the next step after that superb 2004 season. They had just one winning season in his final three years in Minnesota before Garnett came to a crossroads in his professional career.

The Boston Celtics were pushing hard to land the 14-time All Star but first Garnett had to give his consent to be traded.

Billups played a vital role in helping Garnett reach a decision.

“When I had to make my decision on my move in 2007, (Billups and Lue) are the two I pulled in and actually had them come to my house and spend some time with me and kind of talk me through this,” Garnett said. “I value those guys a lot. Whenever I’m dealing with something in life; I have my own personal friends as they do but when we’re speaking on this level and things that go on in this league, in our world, I always lean on those two for; not just for confidence or support but more of insight. It’s almost like we’re building. Those guys are very important to me so they are like true brothers.”

Garnett consented to a trade and was shipped to Boston in a deal that sent five players and two first-round picks back to Minnesota. The 7-for-1 deal still constitutes the most number of assets traded for a single player in league history. With Ray Allen also getting shipped to the Celtics from Seattle and Paul Pierce waiting for them both, Garnett and his new team were instant title favorites. But to get to his first NBA Finals, Garnett once again crossed paths with his dear friend Billups, this time on opposing sides.

“It was a tough series,” Billups said. “I was a little banged up which I hated. I would have loved to be at full strength in that series but I wasn’t. It was good competing against him every single night.”

After needing the full seven games to dispose of their opponents in the first two playoff series, the Celtics were able to knock off Billups’ Pistons in six grueling contests. There was no room for softness or camaraderie during that series for either of the two friends.

“As close as we are I mean we never spoke before games,” Billups remembered. “We’d give each other a (hand) pound before the game and keep it moving and get out there and compete. After the series it was all love again, but that was fun. We always like playing against the best and competing at a high level and that’s what that was.”

Garnett’s Celtics, just like Billups’ Pistons in 2004, went on to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals to give the “Big Ticket” his first title.

With both players each getting a title under their belt, the years and mileage of playing long, grueling NBA season began to catch up to them. Following his championship season, Garnett was putting up MVP numbers 57 games into the 2008-09 season before suffering a debilitating right knee injury that sidelined him for much of the second half of the season. He came back for the playoffs but the injury continued to nag him throughout the following season Once again, Billups was there to offer his friend some encouragement.

“I just always know he’s a warrior man and he plays so much and he only knows one way to play,” Billups said. “I just always try to encourage him to just take some kind of time off even though he hates to. You see the way he played in those playoffs last year; that time off helped him.”

Before Garnett was able to put on that outstanding performance in last year’s playoffs though, Billups suffered a potentially career-ending Achilles injury on Feb. 6 when the Clippers were in Orlando. Many felt it could be the end of Mr. Big Shot’s excellent career, but there was one person who knew better.

“Initially, he just felt bad for what happened,” Billups said of Garnett’s reaction to the injury. “But other than that he was just like; ‘Man, I know you’re going to be back. I’m going to stay out of your way but if you need me holler at me but do what you do like I know you do.’”

Billups and Garnett have been through a lot during their friendship, now approaching two decades. Located on opposite coasts, they still speak constantly on the phone but it is a lot harder now for the two friends to meet face-to-face as they would like. Billups was unable to visit Garnett at his home during the Celtics brief stay in Los Angeles this week.

“We thought about going over to the house but he doesn’t get much time at home,” Billups said.

Garnett’s job as godfather has also been a lot more difficult to maintain with the distance barrier.

“I’ll be honest, it’s been hard because I don’t get to see them as much as I want,” Garnett lamented. “Every time I see them they look brand new, different, older and growing and now I have my own little family it’s a little more personable. When [Ciara] needs me I try to be there, not just for her but her other two sisters also and it’s beautiful and she’s turning into a gorgeous young lady.”

Having overcome so many obstacles to succeed in their careers, there is little either Billups or Garnett have left to prove on the court. But with Ciara nearing her teen years and reaching an age when boys will start to take notice, perhaps the two longtime friends can join forces once more to box out those future would-be suitors.

“He’s (Garnett) not going to like that at all,” Billups said, laughingly. “She’s not there yet but will be soon.”