To hear Chauncey Billups describe what goes down behind the scenes at ESPN’s NBA Countdown, when the crew’s watching games and busting balls, it makes you wonder why he’d ever want to do anything else.
“That’s what should be on TV,” says Billups in his typical smooth delivery. “That’s the fun part, being able to sit here in-between being on TV and watch games with the crew, making all kinds of bets, arguing this player, that player. It would be great theater.”
Five years after he played the last game of a 17-year career, Mr. Big Shot has carved out a post-playing career as a respected studio analyst for the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Delivering his educated and pointed opinions without much glitz—kind of like his days steering the Pistons, Nuggets, and four other NBA squads—Billups balances out the Countdown crew that works well because of its characters. But on a rainy afternoon in Los Angeles, an hour and a half before his shiny dome will appear in front of millions of basketball fans for a Wednesday night edition of Countdown, Billups is kicking it in street clothes in a plush conference room at the ESPN studios. He’d like to explain why you’re seeing less of him pre-game, post-game, and halftime while hearing a lot more of him during games.
Teaming with various play-by-play vets like Dave Pasch, Ryan Ruocco, and Mark Jones, Billups has been testing his broadcasting chops since his first game last March in Cleveland, adding color analyst to his ESPN duties. Giving the whole commentating on live games thing a try is a slightly surprising move given how coveted and comfortable a studio gig is—limited travel, a regular schedule, and plenty of pampering to keep a former player happy. But Billups has his reasons.
“It’s not like I don’t want to do studio anymore. That’s not the case,” he says. “I just want to be good enough at both to one day make a decision.”
"I’m chill, laid back. I’ve got this monotone voice, so you have to project and have energy, and that’s not who I am. That’s a tough thing to me. It brings me out of my box."
Having worked as a color analyst for less than a full season means Billups has a long way to go—by his own admission—before he ever gets to a point where he has to decide what he likes better. For starters, Billups isn’t exactly the most animated guy. With his monotone voice and deliberate delivery, he sometimes struggles to get his points across on broadcasts when the arena is loud. If you prefer a true character behind the mic, know that Billups will never go apeshit the way Jeff Van Gundy does every time the refs review an out of bounds play.
“I’m chill, laid back. I’ve got this monotone voice, so you have to project and have energy, and that’s not who I am,” he says. “That’s a tough thing to me. It brings me out of my box. But I like it. I like the challenge.”
With the color commentating role comes added responsibilities, and different preparation strategies, than he’d otherwise have with the studio gig. When he’s prepping for a night with Michelle Beadle, Jalen Rose, and Paul Pierce on Countdown, Billups functions like any NBA fanatic—watching games and keeping up with league news. When he’s getting ready to call a game, he’ll watch both teams’ previous two games, scour newspapers and websites for articles, text and talk to any players and assistant coaches he has a relationship with, and learn a bunch of storylines and backstories specific to each matchup. “It’s a lot of work,” says Billups.
It’s worth it for the rush of being in the arena, one of the things Billups loves most about calling games. He wasn’t entirely sure this would be his life after his playing career was over, but Billups thought TV was an option. He planted three seeds amongst various confidants during his final few seasons that would lead him down one of three paths: coaching, a front-office gig, or broadcasting.
He was leery of taking an assistant coaching job because he didn’t have the stomach to disappoint his daughters and miss more family time. Plus, he preferred a front office position with a team rather than coaching and he came close to taking a job with the Cavaliers in 2017. After his final season in the league in 2014, he turned down an assistant coaching job and gave TV a try without any kind of training. “I just hopped in cold. I’mma just do what I do. You teach me after,” he says.
After short stints with Fox Sports and NBATV, ESPN eventually brought him on board for the 2014-15 season. A man known for his cool, calm demeanor down the stretch of pressure-packed games, Billups admits he was shook when he first got in front of the camera.
“It was scary because that was the first time I had done anything like that,” he says. “Basketball, I was never nervous. I knew I would never have an issue with content, but there are so many things that are important for our show and I was just used to being interviewed. And there are no rules on that side of the mic.”
So feedback from friends, family, and colleagues has always been welcome. Even when it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
“I remember my mom called me one time and she was like, ‘Son, you did a good job but I noticed you’re stuttering up there,’” Billups says. “I was like, ‘Dang, really?’”
With more reps and an established chemistry with a regular play-by-play partner, Billups hopes to become a color analyst in the same vein as the ones he most admires: Mark Jackson, Jim Jackson, Greg Anthony, Reggie Miller, and Hubie Brown. Guys of that caliber get marquee games and Billups has a prominent assignment approaching—he’s calling Knicks-Bucks from Madison Square Garden on Christmas with Ruocco.
“He can teach the game while also utilizing his outstanding personality—and does so without taking himself too seriously,” says Ruocco. “He’s smart and likable, and it always comes across. For these reasons and more he’s got all the tools to be a great game analyst.”
You can take the man out of the studio, but you can’t take the studio out of the man. For the duration of the season, Billups will jockey between Countdown and calling games. And no matter what game he’s working and what city he’s in, the crew back in L.A. will always be on his mind. He loves that “Beads” serves as the show’s point guard because “she knows when to pass the ball and let us cook.” Rose is “like the judge, the referee” of the show, determining who’s take carries the most weight. And his pal Pierce, who Billups goes way back with, is the loose cannon who “will just say anything, which is awesome.” It ain’t hard to tell it’s all love even when it doesn’t sound like it.
As Dave Pasch, his partner on last week’s Warriors-Bucks broadcast, was promoting Countdown, Mr. Big Shot had a bone to pick with The Truth.
“He’s bringing down the property value of my seat every time he sits in it,” Billups joked.