His red, white and blue No. 1 jersey was a fixture, home and away, waiting for him to finally put it on again. It was a show of respect from the team but a painful reminder to Billups of what he was missing as everyone around him changed into their uniform before games.
On Wednesday night, for the first time since he tore his left Achilles tendon against the Orlando Magic on Feb. 6, Billups was able to look at his uniform when he walked into the locker room and actually wear it.
“This is the first time I slipped my jersey back on and it felt good,” Billups said. “Just little moments, like walking into the locker room and seeing my name on the board and who I'm going to defend. It's weird. It's been so long. It was a weird feeling, I'll be honest with you.”
No one was happier to see Billups back on the court than Chris Paul. The night Billups went down in Orlando, Paul was nearly in tears in the locker room as he came to grips with losing the best backcourt teammate he has ever had and someone he considers a big brother off the court.
In the offseason, Paul was instrumental in getting Billups to return the Clippers. He kept talking to Billups about re-signing with the Clippers and talking to the Clippers about re-signing Billups until it happened. Paul kept in touch with Billups throughout his rehab, even while Paul was in London during the Olympics. Paul knew this day would come sooner or later and, when it did, he couldn’t help but smile when he heard Billups’ name called during player introductions and joined him on the court.
“After player intros, I went to Chauncey and I said, ‘I’ve been waiting a long time to get you back out here, so let’s go,’” Paul said. “I just felt much more comfortable. It’s a big difference talking to him with a uniform on than a suit. He got injured Feb. 6. It hasn’t even been a year and to see him back on the court doing what he does best, it's remarkable in and of itself.”
The Clippers’ goal early on against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday was to get Billups comfortable, as well. Billups hit his first attempt, a three-pointer on a pass from Blake Griffin less than a minute into the game. He followed that up by drawing a couple of fouls and hitting four free throws. Billups had 7 points in less than six minutes before Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro pulled him out for Jamal Crawford
Even though Del Negro and Billups had planned to monitor his minutes and keep him below 20 minutes for the game (he played 19:24), Billups and Paul still didn’t want to be separated.
“I wasn’t ready for him to go out,” Paul said. “We were talking about the play we were going to run and he said, ‘I’m about to go out.’ It was crazy because coach came up to me on the bench and he said, ‘CP, get (Eric Bledsoe).' And Chauncey was sitting next to me and I said, ‘We both need to go in.’ I keep forgetting that this was his first game back. I want him to play 30-something minutes. I’m just glad he’s not in a suit anymore.”
Billups had become an extension of the coaching staff during his time away. He would wear designer suits and yell instructions to the guards, but as is the case for most coaches his messages didn’t always carry over to the court. On Wednesday night, that wasn’t the case. When Billups was on the floor, he was finally able to carry out his message through his play rather than his words.
“You already have a Hall of Fame point guard out there with you and now you have two of them,” Caron Butler said. “That’s just special. They can direct traffic and get guys in position and take the pressure off a lot of people. That’s what he brings. You have two coaches on the floor, plus a coach on the sideline. That’s the type of comfort level you go out there with.”
As much as Billups appreciated hearing from his peers that he would make a great coach someday, he doesn’t want that someday to be anytime soon. When he talked to Paul the night he went down in Orlando, he vowed it wouldn’t be his last time on a basketball court.
“When I went down, I wasn’t going to hear the word, ‘No,’ or ‘He’s done,’” Billups said. “I wasn’t going to listen to any of you who said that, because a lot of you were saying that and I wasn’t going to give in to it. For me, just being out there, no matter how the game went, as long as we won, it was a success for me.”
Paul and Billups shared a laugh after the game when Paul said he was upset at Billups in the third quarter when Paul stole the ball from Josh Howard and Paul was running up the court, expecting to pass the ball to Billups for a layup ... until he looked up and saw he was alone.
“Think about that,” Billups said with a smile as he sat next to Paul. “He’s pushing the ball fast. How am I going to get into front of him? I can’t get in front of him if I’m healthy.”
The biggest difference Billups made on a team in the midst of a four-game losing streak was changing the way the Clippers closed out the game. The Clippers trailed by 3 points with less than eight minutes left in the game, which is certainly not a huge deficit but a predicament the Clippers haven’t been able to come back from in a while. Billups, however, was a calming presence as soon as he stepped onto the court. He helped turn the Clippers' deficit into a lead and put the game away with a picture-perfect lob dunk to DeAndre Jordan to cap off his return to Lob City.
“It’s huge,” Paul said of having Billups on the floor late in close games. “You can try to put two people on me if you want to, but if you noticed towards the end they tried to put Malcolm Lee on me and Luke [Ridnour] on Chauncey. We put Chauncey on the elbow, where I’m usually at. It just keeps everyone honest.”
It kept everyone honest and put the Clippers back in the win column on Wednesday night. And, suddenly, with Billups back in the lineup, the Clippers’ losing streak now seems like a distant memory.
“We’re undefeated right now with him,” Paul said. “We’re undefeated now.”