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EVERY NIGHT is reunion night for Chauncey Billups, who spends a good portion of his pregame warmup time rapping with opponents. His Pistons coach, Flip Saunders, calls him a "walking address book," and teammates Rip Hamilton and Antonio McDyess shake their heads and ask, "Damn, Chaunce, do you know everybody in this league?" Just about. "What you have to understand," says Billups, "is that I played with half of them." If the 6'3" point guard goes on to become this season's Most Valuable Player--he's on a short list that includes Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, 2005 winner Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns and Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks--he will be the first to have carried the tag journeyman. Since Boston drafted Billups out of Colorado No. 3 in the 1997 draft, he has had six addresses ( Boston, Toronto, Denver, Orlando, Minnesota and Detroit) and the voices of eight different coaches booming down his auditory canals. In Boston he was told he wasn't as good as an aging Kenny Anderson; in Denver he was told he wasn't as good as a volatile Nick Van Exel; in Orlando he was told, well, nothing, and was allowed to pack his bags as a free agent after the 1999-2000 season; in Minnesota he was told he wasn't as good as an injured Terrell Brandon and was again told that he was free to move on.
"Can you imagine how I felt?" says Billups. "I came in as the third pick, and three years later I'm a player who was of no value to anybody. That was a dark time."
And now there is only light. As he tells his story of redemption, while sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, Billups marvels at the trajectory of his career. Rarely do journeymen find a happy home--that's why they're known as journeymen--and never do they become MVPs. Nash, drafted by Phoenix, traded to the Dallas Mavericks and re-signed by the Suns as a free agent, is an anomaly among the award's recipients, having won the honor with his third team. Since 1976 four others ( Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Lakers, Moses Malone of the Houston Rockets, Charles Barkley of the Suns and Shaquille O'Neal of the Lakers) were named MVP while with their second team, and, with the exception of Malone, they were there because they had wanted to be moved.
Even when he was named MVP of the Finals after Detroit's 2004 championship, Billups was considered a bit of a post-season fluke; during the regular-season MVP voting that year, he had received no votes. "It's been a crazy ride," says the 29-year-old Billups, "but it's made me grow up fast--and appreciate where I'm at now."
Where he's at now is in rarefied air. From the start of the season the Pistons, 41-9 through Sunday, have been so much better than the rest of the league that their main competition has been the history books. Even if they fall short of joining the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls as the only teams to win 70 games, Detroit has provided the NBA with something not seen since the 1985-86 Celtics: a starting five that is more often spoken of in collective terms rather than individual ones. (To wit: More than one Eastern Conference coach voted for all five Detroit starters to play in this weekend's All-Star Game.) "They're like five fingers of one hand doubled up in a fist," says Magic vice president Pat Williams. "They're perfect in age, experience, talent and attitude. We haven't seen that in a long time."
A major factor working against Billups's MVP candidacy is the balance of Detroit's starting unit, which includes Hamilton at shooting guard (nonstop energy and a team-high 21.7 points per game at week's end), Rasheed Wallace at power forward (post moves and three-point scoring), Tayshaun Prince at small forward (defense and ball handling) and Ben Wallace at center (shot blocking and rebounding). Billups serves as the quarterback, distributing the ball well (8.5 per game, third in the league) and wisely (a 3.73 assist-to-turnover ratio) while delivering clutch shots from the field (42.3%) and the free throw line (91.1%). All but Prince made this year's All-Star team, which ironically takes some of the shine off Billups's star. "Their team is so good," says Miami Heat point guard Gary Payton, "all five could be MVP." San Antonio Spurs guard Brent Barry concurs. "They play such a great team brand of basketball that their guys don't seem to stand out individually." Even Los Angeles Clippers point Sam Cassell, who bestows upon Billups the ultimate Sammy-love ("He reminds me of myself"), doubts Billups can win it. "An individual award for a guy on that team? I don't see it."
Others do, their viewpoint best expressed by another point guard having an All-Star season. " Steve Nash was MVP last year because he was the best player on the team that had the best record," says the Spurs' Tony Parker. "Well, the Pistons have the best record now. Obviously, it's the whole starting five playing well, but Chauncey is the mastermind behind all that and the one who takes the big shots in the fourth quarter."
MVP talk, however, makes winning teams nervous. The Nash-led Suns have been one of the NBA's most cohesive teams, but even they had rifts last year when the attention given Nash chafed at mainstays Amar� Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. Bring up MVP with these Pistons, and you'll get some variation of the stock answers supplied by Hamilton ("Man, we don't pay attention to any of that stuff") and Billups ("It's a team thing with us"). It remains for one of the old guard, erstwhile Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer, now a Pistons color analyst, to tell it like it is. "They all have their roles, they're all important and, really, Rasheed might be the best talent," says Laimbeer, "but Chauncey is the best player."
These Pistons have both an us-against-the-world attitude and a we-can-be-nasty toughness that recalls the Bad Boy teams that won back-to-back titles in 1989 and '90. They are distant, if not abrasive (well, 'Sheed can be), an insular group that resists deconstructing itself around outsiders. If there is an ambassador on the team, it is Billups, who plays a similar role to the one that guard Joe Dumars did for the Bad Boys: a player able to bare-knuckle it on the court yet come across as warm off it, a mixture of street cred and backroom diplomacy. "I'm part of hip-hop nation to the core, but I know how to treat people and I'm respectful," says Billups. "I know how to walk between those worlds."
In basketball parlance there's a word for that kind of talent: tweener, a label Billups has carried since his earliest hoops-playing days. Being a tweener wasn't a problem back in his native Denver, where labels like playground legend and high school star were also bestowed upon him. Bobby Wilkerson, who played on Indiana's undefeated 1976 NCAA-champion team and with the Denver Nuggets, gave Billups the nickname Smooth when he coached him as a grade school player at Skyland Recreation Center in the northeast section of town. A four-time state player of the year at George Washington High, Billups loved the moniker, in part because he never has been completely comfortable as a Chauncey ("It was a mother thing") and, on a few occasions, he says he was compelled to demonstrate that boys bearing the name of an English butler also know something about bare knuckles.