When something’s right, it’s right. And you know it, if not immediately, then soon.
It was right for Chauncey Billups in Detroit, to be validated for historians one more time Wednesday night when his jersey takes its place in The Palace rafters next to those of the franchise’s greats, including Ben Wallace’s – the first of five deeply intertwined teammates so honored, just last month – and the guy who brought him to the Pistons, Joe Dumars.
He knew it was right when he and Joe D shook hands on a contract in free agency that summer of 2002. He knew it was right to have Rip Hamilton as his backcourt partner after a handful of preseason games just a couple of months later. And he knew it was right when the Pistons added Rasheed Wallace at the 2004 trade deadline.
“Man, that was a joyous day,” Mr. Big Shot grinned Tuesday, recalling the change when Rasheed Wallace was dropped into the middle of a lineup with Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince and the best young backcourt in the NBA, Billups and Hamilton.
“None of us really knew Sheed. All we knew was competing against him. And this guy’s running around, he’s getting techs – he’s crazy! But we knew he was a great player and he was somebody that we needed if he was of the right mindset. It took one practice. Literally, one practice. And before I even walked off the court, I said, ‘There’s no way anybody should be able to beat us.’ ”
After being traded four times in perhaps the most tumultuous first five seasons any high lottery pick has ever endured, Billups’ maturation as a player dovetailed with his entrance into free agency in 2002. There was no consensus, though, that he was the prize among the crop of free agent point guards that also included Travis Best and Jeff McInnis.
For the first time, he controlled the process. Miami wanted him. He would’ve been welcomed back wholeheartedly by Flip Saunders in Minnesota. But he liked everything about the Pistons.
“The whole outfit was tailor made for me, I thought,” he said. “Not only on the floor did I think I was ready, but I thought I was ready to be in a leadership position off the floor, as well, and this situation presented itself in an unbelievable way. The timing was perfect. The opportunity was perfect. I was ready. I thought what I brought to the table, the team needed. It was a perfect match at the perfect time.”
Perhaps less than perfect, or so Dumars concluded. Billups would have been playing alongside a ball-dominant shooting guard, Jerry Stackhouse, a year ahead of free agency and looking for a big season to secure a maximum contract. Just a few weeks before training camp was set to open, Dumars dealt Stackhouse to Washington for the guy who would become Robin to Billups’ Batman. Their connection formed before camp broke that October.
“You go through training camp and you’re just competing so hard and we’re all really trying to mark our territory,” Billups said. “Who are we going to be? What’s my role? What’s going to be his role? Not long thereafter, you start playing preseason games and I’m seeing how this dude is just in constant motion at all times and high energy, unbelievable motor – some of the things I’m not. And I said, ‘Man, this is going to be a perfect marriage.’ It didn’t long at all for him and I to build a terrific bond.”
That’s what made them unique among NBA champions. And if unique is an overused word – it is – it applies in its purest sense to the Goin’ to Work era Pistons. All of them but Prince had played elsewhere in the NBA before their paths merged in Detroit – some of them many other elsewheres – and to a man they describe their Pistons experience as wholly unique.
“It was rare. It was rare then and it’s rare now,” Billups said of their camaraderie. “I say it to this day: It’ll never happen how it happened for us. It was an anomaly. It really was. You’re talking about so many guys that had been thrown away in other situations. When you usually get guys like that together, they’re just so worried about making it themselves that they forget about what’s important – and that’s winning.
“We realized that the best thing we could do is win together and everybody’s brand would be elevated. Most of us, quite frankly – especially before we came here – weren’t superstars that could carry a franchise. We weren’t that guy. But collectively, we found out that pulling together and doing it the right way, we could all be stars.”
One by one, those stars are aligning themselves again in The Palace firmament. Sometimes, you just know it’s right.