Chauncey Billups in End Times City

One of the NBA's most interesting stars comes home to the place where everything ends.
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Find Keith Closs in this illustration.

Illustration by Nick Thorburn. Photo by Kate Perkins.

Coming from New York, one of the most noticeable features of Los Angeles after your eyes adjust to the presence of actual sunshine is the ubiquity of prehistoric-looking plant life. Creeping up from over walls that barely stave off the surrounding hills, countless primal-looking species flaunt absurdly wide, shredded, splayed, or coiled leaves and their obscenely thick or impossibly long trunks. 

There is a palpable competition amongst the innumerable varieties of these strange, gesturing forms as they encroach from all angles on the streets, houses, power lines, even the slick downtown buildings—and not just a base biological competition for life, but an aesthetic rivalry, too—to be larger than life, to be undisputed and always on display, a veritable mimesis of Hollywood culture. It’s a relentless, agonal performance, and it goes on not just amongst these weird botanicals but between them and the city as a whole. The antithetical mingling of pine and palm is odd and disturbing not because neither is native but because their apparently easy cohabitation makes the city itself seem surreal, a place that defies not only seasons but ages. It’s an unnatural habitat: a hothouse of kitschy decay, cloying celebrity, and traffic cultivated under a smog ceiling. LA is End Times City because everything that makes it what it is would seem to thrive in decline.

I was there to ring in 2012, though, so it’s possible that I was just entertaining an end-of-the-empire state of mind. But on the first day of the new year, watching the Clippers deliver another win for Lob City over the Blazers, it was hard to think of Los Angeles basketball—or, really, the state of the NBA—any other way. The league, in all its corrupt self-delusion, survives after a largely pointless lockout in an atmosphere of toxic distrust and resentment. LA basketball will, thanks to the rise of the Clippers, survive the Lakers’ long fall from grace. But that the upsurge of a team as long downtrodden as the Clippers coincides so closely with the decline of the Lakers—a team whose star-studded, golden-clad franchise embodied the undefeatable charm and sway of Hollywood success for years—is in perfect dissonant harmony with the coincidence of growth and decay that runs and overruns LA.

It’s not the end of the world, but it’s far from the beginning of a new one, either, and while the triple towers of Clippers basketball—Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan—are as awe-inspiring and entertaining as any pro-basketball fan could want them to be, anyone who mistakes the fireworks as heralding a new dynasty (let alone promising one championship season) hasn’t taken the hard lesson of false dynamism, so perfectly epitomized last season by Miami, to heart. Towering larger than life over the city, the burgeoning power of the Clippers is every inch the awesome, inorganic spectacle of transience that LA breeds.

For all its Technicolor sunshine, though, LA has the look of perpetual twilight about it. There’s a certain unease in the adjustment from gray-scale New York, an unease detectable—and understandable—in the brief turbulence that marked Chauncey Billups’ unceremonious transition from the Knicks to the Clippers. Waived by the Knicks in order to acquire Tyson Chandler from Dallas, Billups openly displayed the kind of self-pity and resentment of a player well aware of his own waning light. There’s no great promise, in any case, in the dismissal “Go west, old man!” Dusk is lowering over Chauncey Billups’ career. But that, he surely knows, makes it all the more urgent for him to shine.

The offensive fearlessness and defensive power that defined Billups at the peak of his career flourished on teams that had been turned over to him to lead: his injury-delayed arrival as a major player finally came to fruition under the patience and faith he was shown in Detroit, and his homecoming to Denver cemented his reputation as one of the league’s premier guards. What one talked about when one talked about Chauncey Billups was a certain kind of self-assurance, a boldness backed by some essential stability (if not absolute consistency) that seemed, at least in part, to emanate from the kind of security that comes from a sense of belonging, a sense of being at home. 

Chauncey Billups is a family man, married to his high school sweetheart and father to three girls; one of those daughters has Kevin Garnett as her godfather. Within the league, particularly in recent years, Billups’ reputation as a leader on the court has expanded into a popularity with new and younger players in the NBA, amongst whom he’s widely known as one of the league’s most likable and welcoming veterans. Given that rep for leadership, maturity and wisdom, his outburst over being waived by the Knicks might seem out of character, but Billups is on his own clock; it’s getting late, and by all measures except official rules of the trade and limitations of the aging body, he has earned the right not to spend his last good years as a player in disuse. Certainly, no one’s asked as much of Jason Kidd.

But trades aren’t necessarily made on principle, or even—if the Chris Paul debacle is any indicator—according to any acknowledged or understood precedent. So the Clippers’ LA, where advent and decline exist side by side, and nothing (and therefore everything) is intrinsically at home, might just be the best place for Billups in—and at—the end.


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Comments

Thank you for writing this article. And thank you, website, for existing and paradoxically being filled with writing about sports from living human beings, rather than the typical sportswriter odious cliche reactionary grosss emptiness

End of times, end of empire? yes perhaps for the elder statesmen of the NBA and the traditional power centers. It's also (happily) the rebirth of the NBA in other ways. Once the dust settles from the lockout and Mr stern's trade tampering (not his finest moment) fans new and old may just rediscover how interesting basketball can be when played by the new crop of budding stars and reinvigorated management. Witness what's happening in Philadelphia; a franchise suffering from a seemingly never-ending Iversonion hangover. An old school coach, Doug Collins mixing youth, enthusiasm and the propaganda of the possible with (gulp) defense, hustle and team play...no, really. It's happening. Mr Collins and Mr Billups share something important here; it's probably the last stop on the NBA train for both, but they have the rare chance to be the agents of change for the good by infusing the best of the old into the new within their current franchises.
One that is seeking a return to glory and one that still hopes to write a single chapter worth rereading. Let's wish them both success.