DENVER — The basketball courts were about a mile from the tidy brick house on Poplar Street, where Ray Billups, Chauncey’s father, was mowing the lawn on Friday afternoon.
The streets run in alphabetical order, two for every letter, and when Chauncey Billups was a boy he could be heard coming and going to Skyland Recreation Center on Holly Street. The bounce, bounce, bounce of his basketball was part of the Park Hill neighborhood’s daily rhythm section.
Between games, he would walk a few doors up to his grandparents’ house for refreshment. Or he would visit his other grandparents, a block over on Ivanhoe Street.
The trip to Billups’s basketball playground is longer now, but not by much. The Nuggets play in an arena a few miles farther west. And before a game starts, Billups is introduced as the Thrill from Park Hill.
On a map, the world of Billups, now 32, is a virtual straight line from Poplar Street to the Pepsi Center, from the past to the present. It is an arrow through the heart of a roundabout life, a hometown love affair that has come full circle.
“It’s a dream come true,” Billups said during a phone interview on Friday. “On all levels of my life, it’s just awesome.”
Long-suffering Nuggets fans are saying the same thing. Billups landed back in Denver in November, traded from the Detroit Pistons for Allen Iverson. Now Billups is widely credited, by everyone from on-the-street observers to Nuggets Coach George Karl, for lifting an unappealing and underachieving collection of basketball parts into a frenzy inducing championship contender.
The Nuggets were tied, 1-1, with the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals heading into Saturday night’s Game 3 at the Pepsi Center — probably the most anticipated Nuggets game in team history.
Billups was averaging 22.2 points in the playoffs, but his true contribution has been his cool. The Nuggets had not won a first-round series since 1994, but Billups eased the Nuggets into the postseason with 67 points and no turnovers in the first two games against New Orleans. Late in Thursday’s Game 2 victory over the Lakers in Los Angeles, he bounced an inbounds pass off Kobe Bryant’s back, caught the ball and laid it in.
For a franchise and a fan base practically hyperventilating with excitement, Billups is the personification of a deep breath.
The Nuggets had been winning the past few years, at least in the regular season. But their shoot-first mentality, general disregard for defense and habitual first-round playoff exits exasperated Karl and disappointed fans. It was a decent team, but not a likable one. Many called them the Thuggets.
But added to a nucleus of the All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony, J. R. Smith and Kenyon Martin, Billups quickly cured the Nuggets. Unlike Iverson, he elevated the play of those around him. His maturity was contagious, demonstrated in everything from Anthony’s on-court effort (on an injured ankle, he played valiant defense against Bryant in Game 2) to the team’s off-court makeover. Suits are the norm, not baggy pants and untucked shirts. Camaraderie, not individualism, is the cherished trait. Billups won the N.B.A.’s sportsmanship award this season. No more Thuggets.
“He’s perfect for our team,” said Doug Moe, the coach of the Nuggets during their 1980s run-and-shoot heyday and now a team consultant. “He has made our chemistry.”
The former Broncos quarterback John Elway introduced Billups before one playoff game. Wearing a Billups jersey, Elway said there is a new No. 7 in Denver. Excitement-inducing showmanship, sure, but it rang with truth. Billups probably is the most popular athlete in the state since Elway retired 10 years ago.
“He’s ours,” said Lonnie Porter, a longtime coach at Denver’s Regis University and friend of the Billups family. “He didn’t come from somewhere else. He’s ours. It’s a miracle story.”
The Nuggets are in the conference finals for the first time since 1985. Coached by Moe and led by Dan Issel, Alex English and Fat Lever, the Nuggets fell to the Lakers in five games.
When Billups was 8 a former Nugget, Bobby Wilkerson, gave him a nickname: Smooth. It stuck, so much so that it is tattooed on Billups, just below the shoulder of his right arm.
“Everyone around the league calls him Big Shot,” said Rodney Billups, Chauncey’s younger brother and best friend, sitting in the house on Holly that belonged to his grandparents before they died. “Everyone around here calls him Smooth.”
Billups, born in Denver, led George Washington High School to two state titles. High school is also where he met his future wife, Piper, now the mother of the couple’s three daughters.
Billups surprised nearly everyone when he eschewed offers from big-time basketball colleges to play at woebegone Colorado, an announcement he made at Skyland, now called Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center.
“That’s one of the pressures on me — being a hometown favorite,” Billups said. It was 1995.
In 1997, he led the Buffaloes to their first N.C.A.A. tournament berth in 28 years. His likeness adorns a wall of the arena, over the Chauncey’s Kids section for underprivileged children.
The Boston Celtics drafted Billups third over all in 1997, but traded him during his rookie season. Billups played for six teams his first five seasons, including the Nuggets, who were midway through an eight-year playoff drought. At 6 feet 3 inches, Billups was a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, or a point guard with a shooter’s psyche. Teams could not decide and passed him on.
But Billups found stability and a championship in Detroit. He was the most valuable player of the 2004 finals and brought the trophy to the recreation center in Denver. Holly Street was blocked off to make room for fans.
Billups always wanted to end his career with the Nuggets. He has three years left on his contract and wants to play a year or two beyond that. But when he was traded last fall, he was not sure what he was stepping into.
Then the team won seven of its first eight games with Billups at point guard.
“I was like, Man, we’ve got a chance to be really scary,” Billups said. “If we can lock in and pay attention to small things that win in the playoffs, we can be special. It took me two or three weeks to say: You know what, man? This could be it.”
Suddenly he is dreaming of becoming the man to deliver the first N.B.A. championship to Denver. So are countless others.
John Hodges, a coordinator at the recreation center, grew up on Poplar Street, too. He remembers Ray Billups doing a lot of yard work. And he remembers little Chauncey Billups constantly dribbling a basketball down the sidewalk. Bounce, bounce, bounce. No one ever knew just how far he would go.