Sports

Blazers’ Billups: Incident in 1997 ‘shaped my life’

The Portland Trail Blazers formally introduced Chauncey Billups as the team’s new head coach on Tuesday. Almost all 30 minutes of his news conference focused around the controversial background and details of his hiring, his relationship with star point guard Damian Lillard and his vision to elevate the Blazers into a title contender.

Billups won the job over other finalists Becky Hammon and Mike D’Antoni, but after details of a 1997 rape allegation resurfaced last week, the Blazers were met with instant backlash. General manager Neil Olshey said Tuesday that an independent investigation gave the organization confidence in moving forward with Billups as coach.

“We commissioned our own independent investigation into the incident in question [in] 1997,” Olshey said. “The findings of that [investigation] corroborated Chauncey’s recollection of the events, that nothing non-consensual happened. We stand by Chauncey, everyone in the organization, and believe he’s the right person to be our head coach and the right choice to be an ambassador in the Portland community everyone is accustomed to.”

No criminal charges were brought in the 1997 case, but Billups settled a civil lawsuit filed by the woman.

“We’re really excited about Chauncey,” Olshey said. “We know he’s the right choice for our franchise. We did everything in our power to vet that incident and not rely on what others had vetted prior to it. The results of that corroborated everything Chauncey had told us multiple times through multiple interviews that nothing non-consensual happened and nothing would disqualify him from employment.”

When asked for details about the investigation — who was commissioned, what kind of details were found, etc. — Olshey declined to answer, calling it “proprietary.”

“With all sincerity, and you have my word,” Olshey said. “Along with everybody in the organization, we were aware of and understand the concerns expressed by people regarding some serious allegations Chauncey faced in 1997. We took the allegations very seriously, and we took them with the gravity that they deserved.”

Billups, in his opening comments as the Blazers coach, first took time to address the controversy surrounding his hiring.

“Before I even talk about my role with the team and me being the head coach, I first want to talk about … the incident that happened in 1997,” he said. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about how every decision we make could have a profound impact on a person’s life. I learned at a very young age as a player, but not only [as] a player but [as] a young man, a young adult, that every decision has consequences. And that’s led to some really, really healthy but tough conversations that I’ve had to have with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time in 1997, and my daughters about what actually happened and what they may have to read about me in the news and the media.

“But this experience has shaped my life in so many different ways. My decision-making, obviously. Who I allow to be in my life, the friendships and relationships I have and how I go about them. It’s impacted every decision that I make and it’s shaped me in some unbelievable ways. I know how important it is to have the right support system around you, particularly in tough, difficult times.”

Later, when a follow-up question was asked to gain more understanding about how the incident shaped Billups, a moderator for the news conference interjected and said it had already been addressed, and moved on to the next question.

Olshey’s relationship with Billups extends back to their time with the LA Clippers, when Olshey was the general manager and Billups was a player. Olshey has long considered Billups to be one of the best leaders he’s ever been around in the game, and said his background as a point guard will be a benefit to the Blazers, whose two best players play in the backcourt.

“We were looking for somebody I know who has natural gravitas, leadership skills,” Olshey said. “Someone with a history on the defensive end of the floor, and we were willing to bet on the upside.”

A big part of Billups’ job will center on repairing some suspected tension within the Blazers, specifically with Lillard as the team tries to shake off the disappointment of last season. Lillard was said to be involved in the hiring process with the finalists, participating via Zoom interviews at the ownership level.

“I have a really good relationship with Dame, and it has nothing to do with this opportunity,” Billups said. “Our relationship goes years back … [and I have] always been a big fan of his. We’ve developed a really good friendship over the years. Nothing changes now. Obviously me having to coach him, we’ll get to know each other a lot more, me having to hold him accountable to being the great player he is, but it doesn’t change who he is, who I am, what we’re both about. Nothing changes to me.”

In the wake of the coaching backlash, Lillard tweeted last week about his involvement in the coaching search, saying he was unaware of any of the past allegations. Lillard’s future with the organization has come into question recently, with a disappointing first-round exit and his desire to compete for a championship potentially driving whispers about a possible trade demand. But Olshey attempted to squash any of the ideas that Lillard wants out, saying his franchise player is committed to becoming a winner with the Blazers.

“Dame’s happiness always revolves around winning, and having a chance to win at the highest level,” Olshey said. “Chauncey is going to inherit that now, but the ultimate responsibility for that falls on me and my staff. To put a team together that can walk into the beginning of the season thinking [they have] a chance to compete for a championship.

“It’s one, making sure Dame is confident in that. Look, he loves Portland. Every conversation is he doesn’t want to leave Portland, he wants to retire a Trail Blazer. He’s expressed that to me and the stakeholders in the company.”

On the floor, Billups said his primary focus will be on the defensive end, where the Blazers ranked 29th in defensive rating last season. But he also sees potential in elevating the Blazer offense around stars Lillard and CJ McCollum.

“I think we can be even better offensively with more ball movement, different schemes, different plays, executing a little bit better,” Billups said. “Playing on both sides of the floor a little bit more and not having Dame and CJ bail you out with those shots they can make all the time.”

Billups, who played 18 seasons in the NBA, signed a five-year deal with the Blazers (fifth year is a team option), taking over the team after spending this season as an assistant coach with the Clippers on Ty Lue’s staff.

“Today — today is a great day for me and my family,” Billups said. “It really is. This is my dream job. We knew we would have to address [the allegation], but this is my dream job. This is one of the best days of my entire life.”

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