NCAA Tournament Can Lead to NBA Riches

Watching from afar as the Knicks, Nuggets and, to a lesser extent, the Timberwolves conducted their recent NBA trade business, I couldn’t help but think of the day Chauncey Billups got paid.
I was there to see it.

Not on the first or 15th of any certain month. I mean March 13, 1997. That’s when Billups led his Colorado Buffaloes to an “upset” win over Bob Knight’s Indiana team in the NCAA East Regional in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He suddenly became a marketable commodity. A few months later, the guy whose UK teams I had covered for the past eight seasons – Rick Pitino – actually made Billups a rich man. But it was all because of what had happened during the NCAA tournament.

I happened to be in Winston-Salem on assignment with the NCAA Radio Network. Back then, we didn’t begin broadcasts until the second round, so I was able to simply sit and watch as Billups and the Buffs beat the Bully.

Some time later I heard Knight say that some of his more mediocre teams, by the time the season concluded, were just as sick of him as he was of them. That 1997 team was sick of Bob Knight.

The Hoosiers went through the motions while Billups worked his magic. A home-state hero coming out of Denver’s George Washington High School, he had chosen to stay close to home, matriculating in nearby Boulder, with a UC team that hadn’t so much as played in the NCAA tournament since before he was born (1969). And now he was helping the ninth-seeded Buffaloes take down the number eight Hoosiers.

Billups went for 24 points, five rebounds and three assists that night, showing the nation why he was named first-team all-conference in the Big 12 and first-team All-American by Basketball Times magazine. Coming into the tournament, there had been speculation that he would forego his last two seasons in school and leave for the NBA draft. That performance both solidified his plans and vaulted him into the NBA lottery.

The summer of ’97 is when Pitino left UK and took over the Boston Celtics, as coach, general manager, CEO and president. The first player he drafted was Billups – and promptly gave up on him.

Ironically, Pitino had had a checkered track record when it came to developing point guards. At Providence, he helped Billy Donovan transform himself from pudgy wannabe into three-point specialist who led the Friars to the 1987 Final Four. Then Pitino left to become head coach of the New York Knicks, where he coached both Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland, both of whom had long-term NBA careers as point guards.

But at Kentucky, he kept trying to transform shooting guards into point guards. Jeff Sheppard, Tony Delk, Allen Edwards, Carlos Toomer – none of them panned out at the position, although Sheppard, Delk and Edwards all played vital roles in winning NCAA championships at various times as shooting guards (Sheppard, Delk) or a swingman (Edwards). But Pitino unsuccessfully attempted to wedge them into the point guard role and eventually abandoned on the idea with each.

Midway through that first season in Boston, Pitino traded Billups to Toronto, for established point guard Kenny Anderson. After that, Billups bounced around the league, playing for Denver, Orlando and Minnestoa.

In 2002 he signed as a free agent with the Detroit Pistons, becoming their starting point guard. That’s where his NBA career took off. Billups led the Pistons, along with Tayshaun Prince, a second-year forward out of Kentucky, to the 2004 NBA championship. Billups was named the NBA Finals MVP for averaging 21 points per game in the series against the L.A. Lakers.

Billups has been lauded, and rightfully so, for making an NBA conference championship round seven times, under four different coaches. That’s a point guard who knows how to communicate, both with his teammates, and with the man in charge.

It was the arrival of Anthony making the headlines in New York, but the presence of Billups might be what ties it all together for the Knicks. Fans in Denver are bemoaning his departure as much as the loss of ‘Melo.

Billups’ second tour of duty in his hometown began in 2008, when he was part of a three-player package sent by the Pistons to the Nuggets for Allen Iverson. One of the players sent with Billups was Antonio McDyess. Coincidentally enough, I was covering the NCAA regional the night McDyess hit the jackpot as well.

UK fans might remember seeing him play for Alabama, under then-coach David Hobbs. McDyess was an imposing figure on the 1994-95 Crimson Tide ballclub. A 6-foot-9, 220 lb. power forward with a 42-inch vertical leap, McDyess helped the Tide to a 20-8 record, landing in the NCAA East Regional in Baltimore.

Again, that’s where the NCAA Radio Network had sent me, so I was there the night ‘Bama took on Ivy League champion Penn. The Quakers looked tiny compared to Alabama’s front line, and McDyess took full advantage. He exploded for 39 points and 19 rebounds in a 91-85 Tide victory.

‘Bama next took on Eddie Sutton’s Oklahoma State Cowboys. McDyess excelled again, going for 22 points and 17 rebounds in a loss to a much bigger, more physical OSU team, one that eventually would make the Final Four. It turned out to be his last collegiate game.

McDyess passed up his final year in Tuscaloosa and entered the ‘95 NBA Draft, where the Los Angeles Clippers made him the second player chosen, behind Maryland’s Joe Smith. Typically, the Clips botched the move by immediately trading McDyess to Denver for veteran Rodney Rogers and rookie Brent Barry, chosen that night by the Nuggets with the 15th pick in the draft.

You know the sad history of the Clippers, but the trade worked out well for McDyess. In Denver, he first played for head coach Dan Issel, the former UK All-American who himself had finished his playing career with the Nuggets. The following season Issel led McDyess and the Nuggets, featuring center Dikembe Mutombo, to a shocking first-round playoff upset of the powerful Seattle Supersonics.

Since then McDyess has played for Phoenix, New York, Detroit and, once again, Denver, before landing with his current team, San Antonio. He also was a member of the gold-medal winning 2000 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team.

Like Billups, McDyess had the skills, discipline and drive it takes to sustain a long NBA career. But not many people knew it, until they showed themselves with spectacular performances during the NCAA tournament.

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